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Tobacco
Nature Bulletin No. 291-A   January 27, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook 
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F, Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

TOBACCO
When Columbus landed in the West Indies, he was amazed to see the natives "drinking smoke" from firebrands which were rolls of the leaves of a strange new plant. Others placed the forked end of a hollow stick in their nostrils and inhaled the smoke from leaves smoldering in the embers of a fire. They called this stick a "tabaco". In Mexico, after a banquet or before a siesta, the Aztecs smoked tobacco, mixed with some aromatic substances, in pipes or as cigars inserted in tubes of tortoise-shell or silver. They pulverized the dried leaf and used it as snuff. In Peru, the Incans used tobacco only as snuff for medicinal purposes.

In North America, the Indians greatly prized tobacco. Where they could not grow it or get it in trade, they substituted such mixtures as kinnikinnick -- sumac leaves and the bark of dogwood shrubs. To offer a lighted pipe was a sign of peace and their long-stemmed calumets were used in many sacred rituals. The bowls of such pipes, of baked clay or carved in strange symbolic forms out of stone, are found in many prehistoric mounds.

It was not until 1558 that the tobacco plant was introduced from Mexico into Spain and thence to Portugal and France. Later, it was brought to England from Virginia by Sir Walter Raleigh, first as a medicine and then as a fashionable luxury. In 1603, when James I became king, he issued a proclamation condemning smoking as "a custom loathsome to the eye, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless". Soon, however, inns and coffee houses throughout Europe were providing patrons with long-stemmed pipes of tobacco. Courtiers carried snuff in little boxes exquisitely ornamented and studded with gems, and placed pinches of it in their nostrils.

Tobacco chewing is a peculiarly American habit that the pioneers may have learned from Indians. In those days, too, many elderly women smoked a clay or corncob pipe and others "dipped snuff" -- a moist fine-ground mixture of tobacco flavored with sugar, spices, or alcohol, and salt -- which was placed inside the upper or lower lip. Sixty years ago, cigars were handmade and a luxury. There were few "tailor-made" cigarettes. In the West it was customary to roll your own but, elsewhere, few men and no decent woman dared smoke a "coffin nail" in public. Since World War I, cigarette smoking has become universal.

Of the many plants which originated in the Americas, none has become more widely grown and used, or of more social importance, than tobacco. It was the chief crop in several of the 13 colonies and also served as currency. Although various regions are specially adapted for growing certain types, it will grow in climates from the tropics to the north temperate zone. Today it is an important crop in 15 states from Florida to Connecticut and from Louisiana to Wisconsin. Nineteen foreign countries grow large quantities for various uses but the United States produces, imports, exports and consumes more than any other.

As a member of the Nightshade Family, the tobacco plant is a relative of the potato, tomato, belladonna, jimson weed, and petunia. All the commercial varieties come from two or three native American species, although they differ much in size, thickness, color and other qualities of the leaf, according to where and how they are grown. As the early planters in Virginia discovered, it soon exhausts the soil unless it is alternated with other crops, and fertilizers are used. Its habit-forming narcotic powers are due to the drug nicotine, a deadly poison.

We smokers provide many radio and TV programs: some funny, some unfunny.


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