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Cigarettes and the Seduction of Women

Jane has an interest in style, architecture, art, fashion, film, and all things vintage. She also fancies curiosities in the animal world.

Is she smoking that or making love to it? An image of glamour and sophistication went hand in hand with cigarette smoking in the first half of the 20th century.

Is she smoking that or making love to it? An image of glamour and sophistication went hand in hand with cigarette smoking in the first half of the 20th century.

Convincing Women That Smoking Was Chic

Although smoking is now socially akin to having two heads and a contagious disease, when it was at its fashionable peak in the 20th century, many people were persuaded to believe it was the smart, sophisticated thing to do. Film stars did it, and so did politicians, singers, sports stars, the intelligentsia, dentists and even doctors.

However, in the very early part of the last century, half the population didn't smoke. This bothered the US cigarette manufacturers. After all, they were losing out on fifty percent of the market. The general thinking out there among the seething masses was that a smoking woman was very unladylike and well, just not nice and as a result, most women eschewed the practice. The tobacco heads knew they had to break this powerful social taboo, so they passed the problem on to the marketing men, who formed a brainstorming huddle. What to do..? Somehow they had to change the social mindset and get those feminine lips sucking on a Lucky Strike.

Now around this time, a certain faction of women were getting a bit toey about not having the vote and various other discriminatory irritations. The women were making loud noises about 'freedom' and 'rights' and 'we want what men have.' This was an interesting turn of events, and by the time the 1920s rolled around, one of the sharper ad men saw a promising chink in the conservative social armour of the demographic the tobacco industry was trying to crack open.

Ads like these are now toast

Ads like these are now toast

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Thank You, Mr. Freud!

Since the turn of the century, the great mover and shaker Sigmund Freud had been revolutionalising thinking. A new way of looking at the human mind had emerged, and there was a shift away from ideas of the soul toward a mechanistic approach. Freud came up with some compelling theories about the irrational, unconscious motives that drive human behaviour.

Enter Freud's nephew (by marriage), Edward Bernays - Bernays invented the term public relations and although not widely known, was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Setting himself up as a PR expert in an office in New York, he was the first to take Freud's ideas and use them to manipulate the masses. Bernays showed corporations that they could persuade people to want things they didn't need by linking mass-produced goods to unconscious desires. One of his most famous campaigns was the marketing of cigarettes to women.

To a certain extent, WWI had wrought enough social change to see some women take up smoking; mainly college co-eds and women who had been overseas or taken up factory jobs previously held by men -but it wasn't enough. Although the number of female smokers doubled between 1923 and 1928, it was still only 12%. Bernays began working for the American Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Lucky Strikes, in 1928 and the president of the company, George Hill, wanted Bernays to squash the social taboo around women smoking. Fascinated by his Uncle Sigmund's theory of psychoanalysis, Bernays contacted A.A. Brill, one of the first psychoanalysts in the US, who informed Bernays(for a very large fee) that cigarettes were a symbol of the penis.

Slick and smooth.. .Edward Bernays, the man credited with seducing women into smoking

Slick and smooth.. .Edward Bernays, the man credited with seducing women into smoking

Suck on That

"If you can use propaganda for war, you can certainly use it for peace. Propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans use of it, so what I did was to try to find some other word. We found the term 'Council for Public Relations'." - Bernays

Psychoanalysis changed the 'pubic relations' industry forever... politically and commercially. The idea was that through the satisfaction of inner selfish desires, the masses could be made happy and compliant. "It was the start of the all-consuming self that has come to dominate today," (Steven Pinker).

Back in the 1920s, Bernays reasoned that if cigarettes were a symbol of male phallic empowerment/sexual power, then they could also be a way for women to challenge that power. A smoking woman was laying down the gauntlet to conservative, sexist social mores and in effect, taking the penis into her own hands. Or as Brill had said, "They would have their own penises."

It was a shift from selling by way of the intellect to persuasion via unconscious desire. This was about what you buy making you *feel good*, rather than about what you may need and it's an idea that still drives the wheels of consumerism today, perhaps even more persuasively than ever.

You might get cancer but... uh,  you'll stay slim.

You might get cancer but... uh, you'll stay slim.

Torches of Freedom

The Easter Sunday Parade of 1929 was a popular New York event attended by thousands, and in an act of contrived deception, Bernays convinced a group of rich debutantes to join the parade and at a given signal by him, take out cigarettes which they had hidden under their clothes and light them up with a dramatic, eye-catching flourish.

Bernays had informed the press that a group of suffragettes were going to protest by lighting up what he called "torches of freedom"..(a term coined by Brill). The event became big news not just in the American press, but internationally. One woman, a Miss Hunt, dispatched the following remarks to her local newspaper:

“I hope that we have started something and that these torches of freedom, with no particular brand favored, will smash the discriminatory taboo on cigarettes for women and that our sex will go on breaking down all discriminations.”

Thus an association was formed between the fight for female equality and smoking. Trendsetters and forward thinkers began lighting up, as to smoke now meant to be socially progressive - a symbol of liberation and before too long, the general public followed suit. That single symbolic act at the Easter Parade had signified a breaking down of the social barriers for women smokers and sales began to rise and rise.

Bernays found other ways too, of persuading women to smoke and one of these was through body image and the new fashion for slimness. He plied fashion editors with a steady stream of photos featuring slender Parisian models in haute couture dresses and convinced women that smoking could satisfy their hunger without hurting their figures. Even on the homefront, he emphasised the importance of cigarettes, pointing out that the good housewife should never let stocks run low.

In 1928 the president of American tobacco, George Hill, had said of breaking the female market; “It will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard.” and he was right. So was Bernays.

Cool, stylish...and a smoker. The modern woman.

Cool, stylish...and a smoker. The modern woman.


Molly Bales, The Harvard Brain

Steve Pinker, The Staff of Thought (documentary)

Larry Tye, Father of Spin


Lynn Mobley from USA on October 14, 2017:

I actually smoked for 19 years, and even though I know it's terrible for me, there is still this mystique. Aside from the addiction issue, the "cool" factor that was put into my mind growing up, eating candy cigarettes, watching celebrities smoke on TV, that still sticks with me

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on July 19, 2012:

Thanks vox - I really appreciate that nice comment

Jasmine on July 18, 2012:

Who would say that Dr.Freud had anything to do with the tobacco industry and women smoking cigarettes? I haven't heard of Edward Bernays so thank you for pointing out the inventor of the term "public relations" - I'll check him out (he must have written books, too). Great hub, voted up!

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on June 23, 2011:

Hi dahoglund...I know what you mean. That's the power of social persuasion.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on June 23, 2011:

As a former smoker I find it amazing that smoking has become somewhat invisible.I find it odd anymore when I see someone smoking.

CompuManic on April 10, 2011:

Great tips. Good read!

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on March 30, 2011:

Hi Cagsil...thanks for reading and commenting! So many things about life are absurd eh?

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on March 30, 2011:

Janell,yes, it all makes sense when you think about it. It was a very clever, if devious, campaign. Thanks for your comment.

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on March 30, 2011:

Truckstop Sally...that must have been one aggressive flick you had! lol. Thanks for the comment.

Thanks drbj!

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on March 30, 2011:

Rod, yes, just about all those old films stars smoked on was definitely the 'smart' thing to do back then.

Going back even further, I love that line in "The Importance of Being Earnest" when Lady Bracknell asks Algernon Moncrieff if he smokes. When he says "yes", she replies:

"Good! I do like a man to have an occupation."

I read that Freud believed smoking helped him work. Yes, he paid the price.

Raymond D Choiniere from USA on March 30, 2011:

That was one seriously disturbing hub. And it's accuracy is right on target. The manipulation used on people is absurd. Thumbs up! :) Excellent said. :)

Janell Rhiannon from CA, USA on March 29, 2011:

wow. I am not surprised that smoking and women's liberation and progressivism went hand in hand. Quitting smoking still scares women because it will make them...fat...enjoyed this history lesson.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on March 29, 2011:

Well-written, well-researched and an absolute delight to read, Jane. Thank you for this history of women and cigarettes. Fascinating and voted up.

Truckstop Sally on March 29, 2011:

Interesting hub! I thought I would look cool if I smoked in high school, so I tried it a few times. Everytime I went to "flick" my ashes, I broke the cigarette in half. Oh well.

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on March 29, 2011:

Jane, interesting...My youngest sister bought into the argument pushed forward by the Lucky Strike poster. She wanted to slim down so she took to smoking. She quit after she got married and before she had children.

Me? I don't smoke but I can see the lure in the old movies. Betty Davis was virtually the poster woman for smoking. She could make lighting up look sexy.

The 'cigareets' (cigarettes) the trail hands smoked or the tobacco they chewed had a romantic feel. Be a tough guy, get the girl, light up.

Mind you, chewing tobacco makes your breath smell bad (or maybe that is the rotting gums from the chew) and your teeth fall out. Kind of like Betel nuts chewed by mostly women in Bali.

Well, we know the sorts of things tobacco in general gives you including holes in the lungs.

The Vamps in the 1920s helped to popularize smoking at least among European women.

It should be remembered that Freud paid for his cigar addiction when it ruined his health. Cigars led to the death of one ex-American President, Grant.

As for women and smoking I much prefer to be in the company of a woman who doesn't smoke. Since I don't smoke I think that is fair enough.

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on March 28, 2011:

marcoujor..what a great comment. Thanks.

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on March 28, 2011:

Thanks very much dichter!

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on March 28, 2011:

Secs, lol..yes it is a very suggestive picture isn't it?

I guess smoking is still fashionable in certain quarters, not in the mainstream though. It seems to mainly the young and impressionable. I know quite a few teenagers who smoke. Some kind of rebellion I guess. Or is it just self-destructive tendencies? "I'm too cool to worry about cancer".

Thanks for dropping in!

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on March 28, 2011:

Terry, they worked on a lot of people! Thanks very much for the rating.

Thank you too, Katrinasul.

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on March 28, 2011:

jeffduff, thanks very much for your comment. I'm sure my credibility could always do with improvement so I might take you up on those tips! It is very shoddy not to credit the artist, but the problem here is they are all advertisements and I don't who the artist is. They are all over the net, so I'm not sure who they belong to.

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on March 28, 2011:

A.A Zavala...sometimes I think sex drives everything! Thanks for reading.

dichter1993 on March 28, 2011:

You're a very well informed writer. A pleasure to read!

secularist10 from New York City on March 28, 2011:

Very interesting, Jane. When I was in college, I like to say that my Economics department knew that consumers were rational; my Marketing department knew that they weren't.

It's fascinating to see how so much of the modern culture has been influenced or manufactured by marketing and PR. Another example is makeup; in the 19th century, makeup was only used by prostitutes, but today it is essential to almost every woman.

Smoking is still fashionable in many circles. I still see plenty of in-shape, good-looking or well-dressed people smoking all the time.

Regarding that top picture, I didn't realize inhalation could cause that kind of an... ahem... "effect" in a woman.

katrinasui on March 28, 2011:

A very well researched article. Well done:)

Terry Phlip hirneisen from Shenandoah Valley on March 28, 2011:

So this was the beginning of manipulating masses to do things against their own self interest. It worked on me for about 40 years. Very well researched HUB and informative. The GOP has learned the tactic well. LSMFT


Jeff Duff from Southwest Wisconsin on March 28, 2011:

You write well and your hub is well-designed, too! Enjoyed the content and learned something, too, so it is very good in every way.

Just one suggestion: I'm going to assume that you did not design and produce the advertising artwork on your hub. If you did, my compliments on your artistic talent. If you did not, you really should cite your image sources. It will add to your credibility and help prevent any complaints from source artists, photographers and/or their agents.

If you want a couple of tips for providing quick and easy 'source references' under your hub images, just send me an e-mail and I'll pass them along to you (or anyone else who is interested, for that matter)!

Maria Jordan from Jeffersonville PA on March 28, 2011:

The seductiveness of these gorgeous advertisements about something so deadly is so ironic/ yet so compelling. I really enjoyed the history in this HUB~~ voted UP & AWESOME~~ thank you!

Augustine A Zavala from Texas on March 28, 2011:

Fascinating history regarding cigarrettes and women. Sexs can sell anything! Thanks again for sharing.

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on March 27, 2011:

haha Davito...don't let your brain be manipulated! And thanks.

DavitosanX on March 27, 2011:

Great hub, Jane, really interesting! Too bad I just quit smoking. Reading this has unleashed major cravings!

(start rant)Gotta... fight.. the URGE!!!!(end rant)

Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on March 27, 2011:

It's true dan...things haven't changed much! Thanks.

danthehandyman from Maryland on March 27, 2011:

Great article, well researched. Love the old Lucky Strike ads. Marketing hasn't changed much in 90 years, has it?