Smoking throughout history


Smoking can be dated to as early as 5000 BC, and has been recorded in many different cultures across the world. Many ancient civilizations, such as the Babylonians, Indians and Chinese, burnt incense as a part of religious rituals. The Israelites and the later Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches also practiced this as part of religious worship.

Early smoking evolved in association with religious ceremonies- as offerings to deities, in cleansing rituals or to allow shamans and priests to alter their minds for purposes of divination or spiritual enlightenment. After the European exploration and conquest of the Americas, the practice of smoking tobacco quickly spread to the rest of the world. In regions like India and Sub-Saharan Africa, it merged with existing practices of smoking (mostly of cannabis).

The use of substances such as Cannabis, clarified butter (ghee), fish offal, dried snake skins and various pastes molded around incense sticks dates back at least 2000 years. Cannabis smoking was common in the Middle East before the arrival of tobacco, and was a common social activity that centered around the type of water pipe called a hookah.16708397_413975642277857_3442120174489405639_n

In 1612, six years after the settlement of Jamestown, John Rolfe was credited as the first settler to successfully raise tobacco as a cash crop. The demand quickly grew as tobacco, referred to as “golden weed”, revived the Virginia joint stock company from its failed gold expeditions. In the 19th century, the practice of smoking opium became common. Previously it had only been eaten, and then primarily for its medical properties.

Beginning in the late 1870s, cigarette companies were able to advertise their brands through the invention of color printing. This brought about a new era for both advertising and packaging – including the placement of trading cards in individual boxes. As far back as the early 1950s, cigarette advertising began to attract controversy, yet tobacco companies continued to pour money into their marketing efforts. When people began to express uncertainty about the health effects of smoking in the early 20th century, tobacco companies responded with a campaign to reassure the public about their products.

US Surgeon General Luther Terry’s 1964 Advisory Committee report on Smoking and Health brought about significant changes for the tobacco industry, leading to far tighter restrictions on advertising as well as the addition of warning labels on packaging.


What to Expect When You’re Expecting in the Past

1365 Damilano's The Birth of the Virgin
1365 Damilano’s The Birth of the Virgin

So we have discussed sexual mores from the past, but those of us who have had the birds and the bees discussion know what happens from all these bedroom doings. Many times, there is small person on the way. So how did ladies of old handle the joys of pregnancy?

Pregnancy was joyful, but it was also a very serious and dangerous business. Mortality rates for both mother and child were not good. One in three women died during their childbearing years, and being rich or young did not spare a woman from complications after labor which could kill her. The Diseases of Women, a widely used medical treatise from the medical school of Salerno, discussed how there was little release the trauma of childbirth except poultices and prayer.

Prenatal care was all but unheard of as well. Most women did not know for sure they were pregnant until the baby began to move, usually about the fifth month. This was called the “quickening”, which while it sounds like something from the Highlander was an extremely important milestone. A woman might suspect she was pregnant from a missing period, but there was no way to know for sure as that could be due to breast feeding, illness or poor nutrition. During the Tudor time period, a doctor would study the color of a woman’s urine or see if a needle left in the urine rusted. Once the woman determined she was indeed pregnant, there was no way to monitor the baby’s health in utero. Women were advised to look at something beautiful while pregnant or giving birth to ensure a beautiful baby. Wives tales abounded that women who were startled by something while pregnant would “mark” the baby, with a birthmark or some other deformity. Husbands were forbidden to lie with their wives once it was known they were pregnant, or until well after the baby was born and the woman was “churched”.

Noble ladies would begin their “lying in” starting at about the third trimester. They would sequester themselves in a purely female world, and no men were allowed as servants. Not even the woman’s husband would be allowed in. Before a lady would “take to her chamber” as it was sometimes called, there was an elaborate mass where all present would pray to “give the lady a good hour” and for her safety and blessing during labor. The chamber the lady withdrew to was closed off with tapestries of calming images to keep out sunlight in order to protect her eyes and the baby from the sun. Only one window was allowed to be open to let in fresh air. Religious relics and crucifixes were allowed to give the mother-to-be spiritual comfort. The lady would stay in her lying in chamber until after the birth. Common women sometimes also took to their chamber, but not with the same elaborate rituals of the nobility, usually with a simple blessing from the priest. Women of the lower classes usually had to work right up until their time as there was no one to cover their daily responsibilities.

Once labor began, it was the realm of the midwives. Male doctors rarely attended births unless it was an emergency or an extremely important woman, such as the Queen. Midwives would administer herbal poultices and folk remedies for pain and to speed labor. Some of these included included rubbing the sides of the expectant mother with rose oil, giving her vinegar and sugar to drink, or applying poultices of ivory or eagle’s dung. Ick. Women also called upon Saint Margaret, who in legend was swallowed by a dragon and spat back out. Women would pray the baby would be delivered as easily as St. Margaret had come out of the dragon. Magnets and coral were both used to dull the pain as described by Hildegard Von Bingen. She also discussed the healing properties of a stone called sard. “If a pregnant woman is beset by pain but is unable to give birth, rub sard around both of her thighs and say “Just as you, stone, by the order of God, shone on the first angel, so you, child, come forth a shining person, who dwells with God.” Immediately, hold the stone at the exit for the child, that is, the female member, and say, “Open you roads and door, in that epiphany by which Christ appeared both human and God, and opened the gates of Hell. Just so, child, may you also come out of this door without dying, and without the death of your mother.” Then tie the same stone to a belt and cinch it around her, and she will be cured.”

Despite these clumsy efforts for pain control, many midwives were very experienced having seen so many births. They were generally women of good character and because of their delicate position were very trusted. There was a real fear of witchcraft, and midwives had to take an oath that nothing from the birth, such as an umbilical cord or placenta, would be taken. Midwives often positioned women on a birthing stool instead of lying in bed. They also had methods for turning breech births. Hildegard Von Bingen also wrote for a breech birth, “with her small and gentle hand moistened with a decoction of flaxseed and chickpeas, put the child back in it’s place and proper position.” If a birth for a noble lady was quite difficult, she might be given a holy girdle to help with the pains. There were several of these relics used by noble ladies.

Once a child was born, the umbilical cord was burned in the fireplace. The women attending the birth would wash the child. If the child was sickly, a priest was rushed in to baptize the baby so it would not be eternally damned. If there was no time for a priest, the midwife was allowed to baptize, but only in the extreme circumstances of a child’s imminent death. Cesarean sections were almost unheard of, and only used when the mother had already died and it was the only hope of delivering a healthy baby.

Even after the safe delivery of a healthy child, the danger for the woman was not over. Many women died of puerperal infections, or childbed fever. Since there was no thought of germ theory or washing hands, the risk of bacterial infection was high. It affected women with in the first three days after childbirth and progressed rapidly causing severe abdominal pain and fever. If the woman lived, she would not be allowed to attend church until she was churched. Noble women were not allowed to feed their children, and so they were given to a wet nurse. The baby was wrapped tightly in swaddling bands to encourage the baby’s limbs to grow straight. For noble women, this must have been a lonely time as their child was whisked away and they were left alone to fight for their lives. However, this was considered to the purpose of women at this time. “Be fruitful and multiply” was the main commandment, so large families were not uncommon and women went into this danger again and again.


Sources available on request

Hair care for the Medieval Woman

Scene from the Lutrell Psalter showing a 14th century English woman dressing her hair Photo Credit- Google Images

The Bible says a woman’s hair is her crowning glory.  Because of this, it was considered a very private thing.  It was fine for young girls to have unbound hair, and a maiden wore her hair completely unbound on her wedding day as a symbol of her virginity.  Once a lady was married however, it was a different story.  A married woman was to only show her unbound hair to her husband.  Any other time, ladies of quality made sure to cover it with veils, nets, hoods or hats.  Some women in warmer climates abandoned veils for comfort sake, but still adorned their hair with elaborate braids, beads and ribbon.  Even peasant women, attempted to make sure their hair was neat and tidy.  Only a woman of poor breeding or a prostitute did nothing with her hair and left it unconcealed.  

Necessity gave way to fashion and hair coverings became very elaborate, with many braids, jewels and ribbons.  They style of hoods changed as quickly as dress styles.  One thing people noticed about the younger, more fashionable Anne Boleyn was she wore a smaller, lighter French hood.  Catherine of Aragon wore the heavier, older style gable hood, which while considered modest was also dowdy.  Earlier, ladies wore hennins, which look very much like the traditional picture of a princess.  These were a tall conical hat with a veil attached to the peak.  The higher the better.  Ladies also wore a cornette of wire or wicker framing with a wimple, a veil worn around the neck and chin and covering the hair, over it.  In Italy, the fashion was to wear a translucent wimple to show off the elaborate braids underneath.  All of this was condemned by the Church as vanity, but did not stop the parade of fashion.

Because such emphasis was put on covering the hair, the medieval ideal was of a high, round forehead.  Women who were not blessed with this, aided nature by plucking their hairline towards the crown of the head.  To make the forehead even more prominent, eyebrows were plucked to a barely there line.  Again, this was condemned as vanity by the Church.  Instructions to clergymen told them to tell ladies in confession:

If she has plucked hair from her neck, or brows or beard for lavisciousness or to please men… This is a mortal sin unless she does so to remedy severe disfigurement or so as not to be looked down on by her husband.”

This did not stop the fashion, and ladies still plucked their hairlines to astonishing heights.  Tweezers made from copper alloy or silver were a common part of a medieval toiletry set.

Despite the fact hair was hidden, there was still an emphasis on color.  Blonde hair was the most desirable and preferred, and for those not naturally blessed there were ways to aid Dame Nature.  Olive oil, white wine, alum and sitting in the sun were proscribed for blonding.  Another recipe called for saffron, stale sheep’s urine and onion skins.  The “Roman de la Rose,” a 13th-century French poem, advises: “If (a lady) sees that her beautiful blonde hair is falling out (a most mournful sight)… she should have the hair of some dead woman brought to her, or pads of light coloured silk, and stuff it all into false hairpieces.”  As distasteful as that sounds, hairpieces and wigs were both worn by medieval women.  A hair piece made of silk was found in London dating to the 14th century.  Better than the hair of a corpse.

How did women take care of all this beautifully colored hair?  There were no hair brushes, but there were combs of ivory, bone and boxwood.  Some of these found are beautifully carved and elaborate.  For tangled hair, a conditioner of bacon fat and lizards was recommended.  To take out the scent of bacon, which would be insanely popular now, ladies were instructed to dip a comb in rose water, cloves and nutmeg.

A gravor was a long, slender instrument used for parting the hair and for partitioning the hair for braids.  Gravors were a must for the lady who wanted elaborate plaits.  Despite all this care, washing was not recommended.  The upper classes did wash their hair by stripping to the waist and leaning over a basin, but no shampoo was used.  Hair was cleaned with a mixture of ashes, vine stalks and egg whites.  Tonics and balms out of broom and vinegar were made to relieve “itch mites”.  Recipes for popular tonics of the day are found in “De Ornatu Mulierum / On Women’s Cosmetics” in The Trotula : A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. edited and translated by Monica H. Green.

“For itch-mites eating away at the hair. Take myrtleberry , broom, [and] clary , and cook them in vinegar until the vinegar has been consumed, and with this rub the ends of the hair vigorously. This same thing removes fissures of the head if the head is washed well with it.

Medieval pins Photo Credit- Google Images

Likewise, pulverize bitter lupins and you should boil them in vinegar, and then rub the hair between the hands. This expels itch-mites and kills them.”

Ladies also carried a long pin made of bone or metal between their cleavage.  These pins were very thin and had pointed tips so that an itchy scalp could be relieved though wigs and headdresses.  Also good for stabbing anyone who got fresh, I imagine.

So, dear readers, stay away from itch mites and get some bacon fat for your tangles!


 Sources available on request

Surviving Life in The Workhouse Part 2

Portrait of Sir Edward Knatchbull, 7th Baronet (1704-1789)
Portrait of Sir Edward Knatchbull, 7th Baronet (1704-1789)

In part one, we discussed the development of Poor laws and rates and so on to meet the rising need of the destitute in the community and the provision for children, the elderly and others who were unable to provide for themselves.

We had reached the point where Elizabeth I had passed the 1601 Poor Laws, now known as the Old Poor Law, which had passed on the responsibility for collecting the poor rates from parishes and converting it to basic foods, clothing and fuel etc for those in need. Rent allowances and other monies from the rates were also introduced to be given to those in need, enabling them to remain in their homes. Failure to collect rates resulted in hefty fines of up to one pound, seizure of property or even a prison sentence for the overseers responsible.

At the same time as these measures were passed, provision was ordered for a place for the Poor to reside. Whether this be a purpose-built home in the community for vagrants of the parish, for those unable to work and unable to remain in their homes, or the newly introduced “House of Correction” where able-bodied “shirkers” were taken to live and put to work unpicking hemp or breaking stones and so on to earn their keep. These community facilities formed the basis of what became the more recognised workhouses of later years. These measures remained in place for around the next sixty years without significant change.

In 1662, however a fairly important change was introduced, as the Poor laws were amended in the form of the Settlement Act. This piece of legislation was to detail how a person’s settlement was designated. In short, which Parish should be the one from which they claimed should the

need arise. In the past a person’s parish of birth or recent residence was considered the appropriate one to return vagrants to, however there was always a question. How the question was to be answered wasn’t in itself explained, but in practice a settlement was designated by birth, from the settlement of one’s father until times of marriage in which case a wife would then be settled on the Parish of her husband.

Fatherless children paid the price for the grey areas in practice whereby parish overseers would often transport the unfortunate expectant mother into an alternative parish in the days before she was due to give birth, preventing her from returning until she had the child, which was now the responsibility of the new Parish.
As a result, the mother would mostly be compelled to remain also. It wasn’t unheard of for the Parish to pay someone from another parish to marry these unfortunate women, thereby removing their own future financial responsibility, only for the man to abandon his wife and her child as soon as it was born. As his agreed obligation was absolved, his duty was done; He would move on, and the woman and her child were now the responsibility of a new parish.

In 1691 a further amendment was made to define further the settlement of those who worked in a different parish to their home. Apprentices (from the age of seven) could have their settlement transferred to the parish of their employer, likewise anybody who worked away from home for a full year. This move of course came with a loophole, whereby contracts were handed out for 364 days to prevent the worker from qualifying; alternatively, unpaid holidays would be given which also discounted settlement. Labourers in turn had the option of quitting their positions before the year’s tenure was up, thereby avoiding being stuck in a parish they didn’t care for.

Portrait of Sir Edward Knatchbull, 7th Baronet (1704-1789)

In 1697, the scope was once again enlarged to allow for those newcomers with a certificate of protection issued by their own parish to apply for assistance in a different parish until they were financially solvent enough to pay their own poor rates. It was increased in 1795 to cover all except the unfortunate single mums who were still considered too big a drain on poor relief. In an effort to distinguish them, the 1697 Amendment also required that those receiving assistance be identified by a cloth badge worn on their clothing, blue with a red P and the initial letter of their Parish. Not all parishes however enforced this condition and it was eventually abolished in 1810. The question of settlement would continue to be confusing despite several further amendments until 1865 when powers of settlement were placed within the control of the Poor Law Union and its Board of Guardians. The Act of Settlement was finally abolished completely in 1948.

In the 1730s to 1740s a series of rules were instigated known as the Bastardy Laws, again aimed at the unfortunate unwed mothers, forcing them to declare illegitimate children, and name the fathers, who would then be forced to support their child or face jail. Once imprisoned, his illegitimate child and the mother would qualify for support, until such times as the father agreed to support, and then he would further be expected to reimburse the parish. Finally, an illegitimate child born to a vagrant mother would automatically be settled in the parish of his or her mother, who would be in turn publicly whipped.

In 1714, in the South of England, starting with Buckinghamshire, Matthew Marryott opened a string of workhouses. In these facilities, he offered work for the destitute in return for food, shelter and relief. His model arguably became the format for the 1722-3 Knatchbull Act (The Workhouse Test Act) passed by Sir Edward Knatchbull. By the passing of this act, Parishes were now able to buy or rent accommodation and facilities either on their own or jointly with other parishes, to provide shelter and board to able bodied destitute in return for their gainful occupation in work. Should they refuse, the Parishes had the right to remove these paupers from their poor rates allowance. In practice however, several of these early facilities were already in operation some years before the Act was passed, notably dating back to the dying years of the 17thC.

Incorporating a system whereby these establishments were either run by parishes or passed on to the maintenance of a third party contractor, awarded by successful bids, meant that provision for various cross-sections of the poorest members of society, for example the elderly, orphans or lunatics, was passed on to others for a set price per annum. Accounts were rarely requested to prove expenditure. The model was designed to be a deterrent rather than a solution, in Knatchbull’s mind; his hope was that the notion of entering a workhouse was so abhorrent that it would force the neediest members of society to try harder to support themselves rather than become an inmate of such places.

By 1732, there were more than 700 Workhouses in England and Wales. By 1767, that number had increased to almost 2000. The workhouse as we know it, was born.

In Part three we shall look at the rise in workhouses, what the conditions were really like and how they worked. I shall explain how they were modelled and who they benefitted, and I will include a few stories and anecdotes.


Surviving life in – The Workhouse (Part One)

Depiction of beggars living in the vicinity of Church in order to collect alms Credit: Fordham Edu
Depiction of beggars living in the vicinity of Church in order to collect alms
Credit: Fordham Edu

Most of us have heard tales of the infamous workhouses of the Victorian era. Dark abodes of desolation where the most pitifully destitute of humanity went, never to see the outside world again. Conditions were harsh and mortality rates were high. But is this an accurate view of these institutes? Let’s delve into the past and find out.

The common idea of the Workhouse goes back much further than most people would think, although in varying guises. As a result of the Great Plague epidemic of 1348/9, a vast number of the peasant population of England and Wales had been wiped out. The loss of life particularly impacted agricultural areas, causing a shortage in the supply of labourers. Those who had survived felt their man-power was now at a premium and they were in a position whereby they could pick and choose who they worked for, and where, and hold out for better wages and conditions. Many labourers, previously tied to one area or Lord, were now able to travel around offering their services to the highest bidder.

This situation was hastily brought under control by the passing of acts aimed at forcing all able-bodied men into work, and to cap wages at pre-plague levels. Many workers resorted to pretending to be ill or infirm, and passing themselves off as beggars. In 1349, the Ordinance of Labourers was passed preventing private persons from giving money to beggars. The acts proved difficult to enforce however. By 1381, the situation had become strained and the result was the Peasants’ Revolt, led by Wat Tyler, John Ball and Jack Straw, in response to a Poll-tax imposed on all, regardless of financial means. The revolt marched on London, with a view to ending serfdom, allowing labourers their own choice of employer, and the right to negotiate for a fair wage. The revolt was eventually put down by Richard II’s forces, and despite his assurances that concessions would be made to the demands, in return for the quiet dispersal of the revolt, Wat Tyler was killed during a skirmish with the King’s men, and the agreed terms reneged on by the young King who ordered the participants found and executed.

In 1388, however, the situation had snowballed somewhat and further acts most notably the Statute of Cambridge, were drawn up, restricting the movement of labourers, tying them to their own parishes unless they procured a letter from ‘the good man of the Hundred’ (justice of the peace) allowing them to migrate for work. Responsibility for the ‘impotent poor’ – those who were unable to work or provide for themselves due to age or infirmity – also fell to the Hundreds by way of a tax on the more affluent members of the Parish, to levy poor relief for these unfortunates. Beggars and invalids were prohibited from wandering, under vagrancy acts. Due to the restrictions of labourers to travel, beggars could no longer pretend to be migrant workers. Breaking these laws often resulted in punishment, such as being placed in stocks. These laws in effect constitute the first English Poor Law.

Many of the destitute were able to find relief in the form of food, shelter and care in local priories which often acted as early hospitals. The provisions were basic, broths and porridges, plain in formula, to strengthen the constitution. The medical treatment was simple, and involved those simple nutrients, prayer and basic medicine performed by monks and lay brothers, and the conditions included a requirement that the needy actively participate in repentance for their transgressions, (which surely led to their downfall) and worship for as long as they remained within these Holy precincts. These early hospitals formed a vital service as the backbone for Poor relief in many areas. As the inmates recovered, they were obligated to “pay” for their stay and treatment, with labour in return for continued assistance. Those who perished as a result of their exposure, were afforded a simple burial, with religious rites. It could be argued that these initiatives were an early fore-runner of the later Workhouse. The Acts and laws themselves imposed by Richard II were again difficult to enforce.

Rembrandt sketch of Beggars
Rembrandt sketch of Beggars

In 1494, Henry VII, added his weight to the issue, with his less than sympathetic order “the Vagabonds and Beggars Act” which ordered the rounding up and placing in stocks of anybody found wandering, for three days and nights with nothing other than bread and water. They would then be returned to their Hundred, place of birth or place of residence best known. Following his son, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries from around 1536, the situation became bleaker than ever for the poor and destitute. The one remaining place of sanctuary where they could be assured of a warm blanket and a meal was removed. Not only were the buildings pulled down and robbed out, the land and any assets taken, but the brothers themselves were turned out also with nowhere to go. The strain increased. An Act the same year allowed parishes to collect and hand out voluntary alms for the poor, but again conditions were imposed whereby if those poor were considered able-bodied, they must work in return.

In 1547, Edward VI ordered further harsh restrictions on the neediest of society with the Act of Legal Settlement. Those vagrants considered to be able-bodied enough to work, and caught drifting would be returned to their Hundred or place of residence and BRANDED, or being signed up as a slave for 2 years. If they absconded, this period was increased to life. ‘Foolish pity’ for vagrants and the poor was actively discouraged. On the upside however, cottages were built to provide shelter for the impotent poor, with relief offered. Over the following 25 years, positive changes were introduced the majority of them under Elizabeth I. Following successful initiatives in major cities including York, Ipswich, London Cambridge, Colchester and Norwich, where poor-tax was introduced, a property tax was introduced in 1572, the ‘Poor Rate’ across the nation, to be handled by Parish Justices, and overseen by local representatives for distribution to the destitute invalids, aged and infirm.

A previous act of 1564 had allowed for parish officials to arrange ‘convenient places for the habitations of’ vagrants and beggars. The earliest workhouses were born. In 1576, this was followed by the ‘Act For Setting the Poor on Work’ which ordered that premises and materials, hemp, wool and flax in particular, would be gained and opened with the task of setting the able-bodied poor into employment. This was followed in 1597 by ‘Act For the Relief of the Poor’ which charged an overseer of the poor in every parish to engage any physically able-bodied unemployed person into work. Parish Houses would be provided for their residence. By 1601, Elizabeth had set up the basics of the Poor Laws, and expanded it to include residence and apprenticeships for all unaccompanied children. Financial responsibility for any out of work persons would be placed on parents, and other relatives where possible. Those able but unwilling to work were removed to prison, those who refused to pay their allotted poor-rate followed them and assets were seized. Poorhouses and almshouses were built for the residence of the impotent poor. The Workhouse was born.

In Part two, I will be continuing the journey of the destitute towards the grim institutes of the 18th and 19th Centuries that we are more familiar with.