TOBACCO by Iain Gately


A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization
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From ancient, South American, meter-long cigars (and you thought Cheech and Chong rolled big) to modern Chinese teenagers lighting up because it “looks cool,” a fast-paced, comprehensive look at tobacco and its consumers.

Gately (The Assessor, not reviewed) begins in the Peruvian/Ecuadorian jungle where genetic research says Nicotiana Tabacum was first cultivated. Mayans and Aztecs sniffed, chewed, ate, drank, smoked, smeared, and absorbed tobacco through eyedrops and enemas for health and pleasure. The plant spread over the continent as an insecticide and a stimulant for warriors; mythical cleansing and fertility properties developed later. Columbus’s crew received a gift of tobacco in their first meeting with Natives, but threw the strange weed overboard. Spanish priests called tobacco Satanic, but when John Nicot demonstrated its health benefits in 1560s Lisbon, biblical references favoring it were found. Jamestown, Virginia, became the first English colony to survive because John Rolfe’s product, developed from Jamaican seeds, was irresistible to the home market. Gately discusses the changing methods of ingestion. Pipes became valuable, personal, totemic items in many cultures. Snuffing, i.e., taking tobacco powder directly into the nose and sneezing it out, was a fashionable pleasure in mid–18th-century England. Chewing tobacco, popular in America, disgusted tourist Charles Darwin. Spanish smokers replaced a maize wrapper with paper in the 1770s, creating the “papelotte,” the modern cigarette. Tobacco's “macho” image developed from Spanish bandoleros who fought the French and smuggled cigarettes; and Merimee's Carmen, a young, cigarette-rolling, Sevillian beauty gave tobacco its first sexual associations. In 1827, John Walker's friction match made consumption easier; James Bonsack’s 1884 machine produced 12,000 cigarettes per hour, dramatically increasing supply. Gately wraps up with health concerns, “power cigars,” and a seven-page guide to home production, from generation to curing.

A smart, engaging history of the uses of, attitudes toward, and wars over the world's most mysterious plant. (Illustrations throughout)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-8021-1705-8
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2001