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Ladies and Cigars

Aficionadas: Women and Their Cigars
Gwen Martin, Evan J. Elkin
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

(continued from page 5)

In fact, our notion that women in the United States and Europe didn't consume tobacco until the twentieth century arrived and "modernized" us couldn't be more false. In J.C. Roberts' book, The Story of Tobacco in America (New York: Knopf, 1952), an English traveler to the colonies noted in 1686 that religious services in one backwoods settlement involved an unusual ritual: "The minister and all the others smoke before going in. The preaching over they do the same...everybody smokes, men, women, girls and boys from the age of seven."

It wasn't just that it was acceptable for women to smoke; doctors believed that there was a special link between feminine health and tobacco and often prescribed hand-rolled tobacco "cigars" and pipes for their women patients. "How many women have I seen almost lifeless from headache or toothache or catarrh restored to their former health by the use of this plant?" Paul de Reneaulme wondered rhetorically in his Botanic Compendium, published in Paris in the early 1600s.

This link between women and the healing power of cigars, it seems, goes back hundreds of years and may have its earliest roots in pre-Columbian societies. In fourteenth-century Aztec culture, for example, tobacco gourds and pouches were the insignia of women doctors and midwives. And it wasn't only in Aztec society that women smoked. John Cockburn, an English traveler to Costa Rica, wrote in 1735, "These gentlemen gave us some seegars...these are leaves of tobacco rolled up in such a manner that they serve both for a pipe and for tobacco itself. These the ladies, as well as gentlemen, are very fond of smoking."

The situation was similar in America and Europe. By all accounts, men and women smoked cigars in equal numbers during the eighteenth century. But by the nineteenth century, change was under way, and by the early twentieth century, the relationship between women and tobacco was undergoing radical alterations. From the 1920s onward, the American tobacco industry increasingly aimed at encouraging female cigarette smokers.

A 1926 Chesterfield ad, for example, shows a flapper looking longingly at her cigarette-smoking date and asking him coyly to "Blow some my way." A slogan used by American Tobacco in an ad campaign in the late 1920s, "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet," had a double-pronged message directed at women. It linked the "elegant" size of the cigarette to the elegance of a waspish waist.

Cigarettes were represented as modern and simple. The cigar and pipe were comparatively cumbersome, not to mention time-consuming, and so were gradually relegated to special occasions. Cigars, within this scheme of things, were more suitable to the drawing room, and to men.

From the turn of the century until recent decades, cigar smoking by American and European women continued to be a covert affair. Latin American women, on the other hand, fared better. Women's cigar smoking may have its common ancestry in Aztec society, but it developed along decidedly different lines in the United States than it did in modern-day Latin America.

"I realize that seeing a woman with a cigar is not an entirely 'natural' thing for some Americans," Isabel Sirgado concedes. "But for many Cuban women, it's common." Because of Sirgado's Cuban heritage, cigars for her are a family affair and smoking is part of her personal legacy. In Latin culture there is an important and extremely time-honored link between women and cigars.

Cynthia Fuente-Suarez, president of the Arturo Fuente Cigar Factory, and Sublimado president Marty are proof that cigar production and consumption have nothing to do with gender. "In my country, and also in other places I've been like the Dominican Republic, cigars aren't the property of men," says the French-born Marty, who travels extensively in Latin America for business. In France, for example, "cigars are part of a whole cultural appreciation of good food, good wine and leisurely dining." Marty has helped foster such appreciation in the United States as well. This past April, she donated Sublimados to a women-only cigar dinner at Bella Luna in New Orleans.

The young CEO was impressed by the savvy cigar-smoking damas mayores (older ladies) she saw in the Dominican RepubIic. "These women had lived through a time when everyone in the Dominican Republic was given rights to a small plot of land on which to grow tobacco for profit," notes Marty. "Many of them smoked cigars to check the tobacco. For men and women of this generation, smoking cigars is about a democratic right to grow and sell. Younger Dominican women don't do it. I realized that it was generational and political."

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