Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Ashes to Ashes

‘No woman should marry a teetotaller, or a man who does not smoke.’
R. L. Stevenson Virginibus Puerisque

There once was a time when there were people who objected to smoking. As august a figure as King James I of England (and VI of Scotland) published a pamphlet in 1604 called A Counterblaste to Tobacco, in which he concluded that smoking is: -

A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.

King James' other works included his condemnation of witchcraft in his 1597 book Daemonologie. King James is known as 'the wisest fool in Christendom.'

I’m pleased to say that in the intervening centuries a more reasonable attitude has prevailed. In 1954 A H Dunhill published his splendid The Gentle Art of Smoking (here is a scan of the cover from my copy). Mine is a tatty, ex-library copy, but copies in good condition, with the dust-jacket, sell for silly money these days.

In it he describes how tobacco first came from the Americas to Europe, how the habit of smoking the dried and cured leaves at first became popular and then declined as the use of snuff increased, and how a revival occurred during the Napoleonic Wars. He goes on to examine the increase in the smoking of the cigarette, starting during the Crimean War, and how about one-eighth of all tobacco used was made into cigarettes in 1908, which, by 1954, had risen to four-fifths. He writes: -

Today most of the conventional bans on smoking have been relaxed, but there are still a few places and occasions in which pipe-smoking is discouraged although cigars and cigarettes are allowed. Anomalies such as these, which usually have their explanation linked to the Victorian past, still survive.

The best book on the subject however is, in my opinion, G Cabrera Infante’s Holy Smoke, from 1985. Cabrera writes wonderfully and wittily about the history of the cigar (he was a Cuban exile), scattering puns, jokes and allusions through his prose like so many discarded butts. Even his dedication – To my father who at the age of 84 doesn’t smoke yet – is marvellous.

A more workmanlike volume is the Cigar Handbook, by Marvin R Shanken. He is the editor of Cigar Aficionado magazine, which from humble beginnings went on to gain a circulation of 400,000. It contains information on smoking, choosing and storing cigars, but the majority of the book is given over to descriptions of the main brands available.

Here are pictures of some of my tobacciana.  This is a Swan brand rolling-tobacco tin. The lid is both printed and embossed. If I remember correctly, you had to send in a certain number of empty Swan cigarette paper packets and you received one of these in return. I used to use it daily, but decided it was too nice to risk, so stopped.

An older tin is this King’s Head tobacco brand, again with an embossed lid. As with all these tins, I’ve picked them up over the years, but can’t remember where or when. Tobacco tins were (are) brilliant. When they are empty they are just the job for keeping other things in. A whole nation of garden sheds are packed with tobacco tins full of nails, screws, seeds and heaven knows what else.

This oval tin is for W O Larsen's pipe tobacco. I like the maritime theme on the lid, but then again, I would.

Here is a combined matchbox holder and ashtray. It’s Indian brass, probably Edwardian.

Portable matchholders were called Vesta cases, Vesta was the Roman goddess of the hearth. You put your matches in them, hung them on one end of your watch chain, popped them in your waistcoat pocket, and struck the match on the serrated base when you wanted a light. This one is Victorian / Edwardian in base metal.

The matchbook case is another covering, slimmer than a Vesta case, easily slipped in the pocket. This one is pressed metal, probably from the 50s, and matches this

A cigarette case, likely from the 50s too. It’s engraved DH, because it belonged to my father, Derek. I can remember him rolling his cigarettes with a machine and filling this case in the evenings – and if I was a good boy, I was allowed to do it for him. Happy days.

Similarly, a leather cigar case, used to carry loose cigars in your pocket without breaking them. I went through a phase of cigar smoking, and still enjoy one now and then, and this was my daily case. As Kipling said, “A woman is just a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.”

Lastly, a pair of matching Art Deco snuff boxes. The lids are engraved with a sun-burst motif. I’ve never been an enthusiastic snuff taker, although I’ve tried it off and on, but I used to carry one of these as a portable ashtray.

I have smoked Gauloises Original caporal tobacco for many years, with Swan Liquorice papers, hand-rolled.  And, just because I like it, here is a picture of some nuns having a fag.

Holy smoke.

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