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speakeasies was one of the first instances of social equality among men and women, and it lasted until Prohibition was repealed in 1933.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.
- The Great Depression in America: A Cultural Encyclopedia; William H. Young and Nancy K. Young; 2007
- Victoria and Albert Museum: Role & Status of Women 1900-1939 – Young Woman Smoking
- The American Medical Women's Association; Women's History - of Addiction and Death; Dr. Clarita Herrera; March 1999
- Legends of America: Speakeasies of the Prohibition Era
- U.S. Army; Women Should Buck History's Trend When It Comes to Smoking; Cynthia Hawthorne; May 2010
- George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images