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Book Reviews / Comptes rendus

Rudy, Jarrett. The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco Consumption and Identity. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005. 232 pp.

  • Daniel J. Robinson

…more information

  • Daniel J. Robinson
    University of Western Ontario

Article body

For the past forty years, public health and medical science have framed popular understandings of smoking. Addiction, cancer, quitting methods, heart disease, second-hand smoke, and “denormalization” of the tobacco industry have driven research agendas and shaped public policies concerning cigarette smoking, which annually claims 40,000 lives in Canada. While advancing public health interests, the smoking-as-pathology paradigm largely neglects smoking’s cultural dimensions, its role in constructing pleasure, power, self-identity, and social ritual.

Jarrett Rudy’s history of smoking in Montreal from the 1880s to the 1940s is guided by cultural questions, namely how “liberal ideas structured the ritual of smoking.” Cigarette smoking and female smoking acquired increasing respectability during this period, notably so after the Great War, a cultural transformation occurring in response to economic, social, and political changes. The first chapter, the book’s strongest, examines the homosocial context of late 19th-century pipe and cigar smoking. Respectable, bourgeois men refrained from smoking when women were present, while labels like prostitute and moral degenerate were affixed to the small numbers of women smokers. Here masculinity, the public sphere, and respectable smoking co-mingled in ways that reinforced the social power of each concept.

The following chapter examines cultural hierarchy and taste, focusing on cigar connoisseurship and the denigration of le tabac canadien and its francophone, just-off-the-farm smokers. Cuban cigars represented the apex of wealth, masculinity, and cultural distinction, while the strong-tasting, Quebec-grown pipe tobacco symbolized hayseed interloper and social inferior. (Henri Bourassa, though, employed the clay pipe as a symbol of French Canadian nationalism.) While Rudy uses terms like “ideology of connoisseurship” and “cultural class formation,” he does not draw upon germane theoretical works, like those of Pierre Bourdieu on the interplay of cultural taste and political/social power, that would have heightened this chapter’s explanatory power.

The final two chapters discuss the rising popularity of cigarette smoking and the increasing participation of women. This is in part a business story and Rudy provides interesting material on industry leader American Tobacco Company of Canada (Imperial Tobacco after 1912) and its restraint-of-trade distribution practices which provided retailers with much higher profits if they carried only ATCC brands. World War One brought new meanings for the cigarette, as it served as creature comfort for troops in the trenches; charity-run cigarette drives were common and cigarettes soon became a staple of soldier ration kits, such that one veteran later quipped that it was the “bagpipe and the cigarette”—not U.S. intervention—that had won the war. By war’s end, cigarette smoking had shed its formerly effete image, transformed now into a masculine, even patriotic, pastime for advancing numbers of men. Women also took up the habit, gradually effacing the half-century moral stigma attached to female smoking. This was part of a broad social transformation, Rudy argues, a “new language of mass consumption” which ultimately undermined “manly etiquette.” The Suffrage-era quest for greater female participation in civic life coupled with the availability of affordable, mass produced cigarettes meant that women took up smoking in large numbers, in keeping with their burgeoning roles in the bi-gendered public sphere.

There is much to like in this well-researched and highly readable account, which is the best historical account of the topic in Canada. The analytical framework centered on liberalism, however, seemed porous at times. Le tabac canadien represented communal values and social conservatism, representing much more than a counterpoint to urban liberalism. Rudy notes that Quebec women smoked at high rates, but, given his argument, it would seem incongruous that these women were among the last in Canada to acquire the provincial franchise, trailing most of their compatriots by some twenty years. Class, race, and gender are given serious treatment in this volume. Less so are the cultural processes and forms of meaning-making characterizing smoking’s transformation over the years, the sources for which reside more in cultural anthropology or cultural studies than in social history. With the exception of soldier diary entries, we learn little about the pleasures of cigarette smoking; instead, we learn much more about attempts to suppress the activity by social reformers and the occasional politician. While physiologically addictive, we know now, the rapid growth of cigarette smoking suggests a bevy of individual pleasures and social functions, whose past characteristics and manifestations remain largely untraced.