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1930's smoking etiquette for women

Updated April 17, 2017

The etiquette and perception of smoking has changed dramatically through the years, especially when it comes to women. Long seen as an immoral or masculine habit, it was viewed as improper for a woman to smoke up until the end of the 1920s. For a few decades after, it was fashionable and acceptable for women to smoke. The 1930s marked the beginning of the heyday of women's smoking.

A Prohibited Vice

Few women smoked at the beginning of the 20th century. It was perceived to be a man's habit that was not meant for women. Not only was it improper for a woman to smoke, but many considered it immoral. In an era when women had few rights and were perceived as second-class citizens, some acts that were perfectly acceptable for a man were completely inappropriate for a woman, be it smoking, working or voting.

Smoking in Speakeasies

During the 1910s and '20s, the role of women in American society began to change, albeit slowly. In 1920, women were granted the right to vote, and celebration ensued. This occurred during Prohibition, when speakeasies and illegal jazz clubs operated secretly. Although women did not patronise pre-Prohibition era saloons (unless they were working there), the speakeasies were full of young women drinking, dancing and even smoking. The flapper culture of speakeasies was one of the first instances of social equality among men and women, and it lasted until Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

Smoking Etiquette Evolves

The decade of the 1930s saw a transition regarding where and how women smoked. Etiquette books from the time instructed women not to smoke at a dinner party in front of men, but said that a good hostess should provide abundant ashtrays and matches for her guests. Gentlemen were instructed not to smoke at the dinner table until the ladies had left, presumably to smoke themselves in another room. Classes on "ladies' smoking etiquette" were taught at garden parties and included tips on properly stubbing out a cigarette and emptying an ashtray. By 1934, Eleanor Roosevelt was referred to as "the first lady to smoke in public." From then on, public smoking became more and more prevalent among women.

Smoking Becomes Glamorous

With the rise of women's rights, the newly born advertising industry decided the time was right to reach out to females, the great untapped market of cigarette smokers. Tobacco companies specifically targeted women with campaigns that portrayed smoking as glamorous and a way to lose weight. Lucky Strikes famously advertised, "Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet." The campaigns worked, and women began smoking in record numbers. Another new phenomenon in the 1930s was the appearance of movie stars. Actresses such as Greta Garbo and Bette Davis became household names, in a way that wasn't possible before the invention of movies. These actresses embraced the trend of women smokers and often were depicted with cigarettes in photos and on film. Smoking became associated with sexiness and glamour, helping its popularity grow with women and men alike.

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About the Author

Sara Gates has been a freelance writer since 2009. Her work has been featured at numerous online outposts, primarily in the areas of travel and finer living. After years of working in the hospitality industry, she loves to share her expertise and enthusiasm regarding travel, food and hotels through her writing.