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Smoking Rooms of the Gilded Age

Gilded Rooms Smoking Parlors Set a Style of Their Own in America's Great Age of Palaces
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

Grandeur was not the standard in American homes when Ruggles Sylvester Morse planned his Portland, Maine, show house in the late 1850s. Still Morse, a successful hotelier in New Orleans, was quite familiar with the closest things to palaces that the country had: the grand hotels of the day. From this model he cribbed the notions that his house should be filled with public spaces, utilize central heating, running water and toilets, and include a smoking room to which gentleman could repair to enjoy cigars.

That room, an exotic Turkish-style retreat with Moorish arabesques and strapwork fresco painted in vivid red and green, is considered the country's earliest existing domestic smoking parlor. Morse built his home, now called Victoria Mansion, on the cusp of an era that would produce scores of the world's most princely residences, nearly all of them embracing the newfound conceit of a separate enclave for smoking, drinking, leisure pursuits and man talk. Through the efforts of preservation groups across the country, many of these American castles are being maintained and may be visited by aficionados eager to vicariously experience almost incomprehensible luxury.

This era of conspicuous spending that spanned from the 1870s until just before the First World War was called the Gilded Age, after the title of a contemporary novel co-authored by Mark Twain. Great wealth was consolidated among a fortunate few, who thought of themselves as "nature's noblemen." Outside the fold they would be referred to as "robber barons." Whatever the spin, aristocratic metaphor was not unfounded, as these men built temples to themselves that would rival the palaces of Europe and be compared to Kubla Khan's Xanadu. Writers such as Henry James and Edith Wharton developed a love/hate fascination for these playgrounds that the author Louis Auchincloss would later describe as "crudely crammed with gold."

While Morse's Italianate mansion hardly approached that scale of building, he and a few others were popularizing lavishly ornate interior decor and the idea of the male smoking retreat for private residences. Located in a second-floor tower (fashion would later place the typical smoking parlor on the ground level), the room was small (10 feet by 10 feet) but dazzling. A divan and two ottomans made of cherry wood were upholstered in the same silk-and-wool Islamic weave that was used for the curtains and valances. Imported from England, a five-light gasolier, which was suspended by a system of weights and pulleys that allowed it to be easily raised and lowered, might have been used for lighting cigars as well as illumination.

The room would have easily performed the social function of separating the genders--it was, after all, a time when smoking in the presence of a lady was considered extremely impolite. But Morse's intent was probably much greater. "My sense of how he wanted the whole house to be was an advertisement for the way he made his money," says Donna Ridewood, director of Victoria Mansion. Contemporary newspaper reports indicate that the self-made man was also heralding his triumphal return to the state of his birth.

Helping Morse advance the cause of the smoking parlor was Gustave Herter. The German-born Herter was one of the first professional interior designers in America and highly renowned in the world of luxury hotels, where he more than likely met Morse. He would go on, in partnership with his brother, Christian, to form Herter Brothers, a name synonymous with the opulent style of the Gilded Age. It was Herter who directed the ornamentation of Victoria Mansion and constructed the smoking room's furniture. He probably chose the motif because of the fine tobaccos (and possibly more exotic smoking materials) that came from Turkey, and the style (also called Islamic or Moorish because of other Near Eastern influences) epitomized the first smoking rooms in the United States. One practical design consideration was the use of pocket doors, which in the absence of good ventilation, were meant to trap the smoke within the room. In later homes, improved air circulation would be the strategy for dealing with tobacco fumes.

The Civil War would prevent Morse from making regular use of the mansion, which was completed in 1860, until 1866, as he was a slave owner and Southern sympathizer. When peace came he returned to Portland to escape New Orleans' heat and yellow fever.

Because Morse left few personal documents, nothing is known of the cigars that were smoked at Victoria Mansion. This is true of most of the old smoking dens. Apparently, cigars were such an accepted part of life that few bothered to make note of them.

After Morse died in 1893, his wife, Olive, sold the house to J.R. Libby, a local department store owner, who used it as a winter residence. Since his family was connected with the temperance movement, says Ridewood, they didn't use the smoking room nor Morse's wine cellar for their intended purposes.

Styles would change and smoking parlors would enlarge as they took on dual functions as billiards rooms, libraries or hunting rooms, but Herter had helped to describe a new direction in which interior designers could make a statement. When the Gilded Age began in earnest, the male den was one of the few roomss where highly proscribed rules for decoration did not exist, according to Paul Miller, curator of the Preservation Society of Newport County.

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