Home Page




A history of smoking in Boston, chapter and verse


By John Pike, Globe Correspondent, 10/04/98


The restaurant smoking ban that took effect in Boston last week is not the toughest such law enacted in the city's history. Indeed, it is mild compared with laws enacted years ago. The city's lawmakers, it seems, have been trying to curb smoking for centuries.

According to historical records, smoking tobacco in public was prohibited by the General Court in Boston in 1632, when the town was only two years old. The fine for chewing tobacco was one penny.

In 1634, the smoking ban was extended to inns. In that year, an effort was made to prohibit the sale of tobacco altogether, but exporting it was permitted. The Massachusetts Company prohibited its cultivation in the colony, but it was an important crop near Plymouth. Eastham and Brewster were considered the best areas to grow tobacco.

The General Court also ordered that no person could smoke privately in his own house, or in the house of another, before strangers, and that two or more could not smoke together anywhere.

In Plymouth in 1638, smoking within a mile of a house or in a field was prohibited.

The Puritans associated tobacco smoking with idleness, which was anathema to their beliefs. They did not believe people should work and smoke at the same time.

Europeans here learned of smoking tobacco from the people they called the Indians. Christopher Columbus got dried leaves as a gift from native people in Cuba in 1492.

Today, it seems clear that smoking causes lung cancer, but in the 17th century, some people believed tobacco cured several diseases and was healthy. It was also seen as a means to inhibit hunger. Chewing tobacco leaves with lime was thought to alleviate hunger and thirst. Green, wet tobacco leaves, usually warmed, were sometimes prescribed for pain, but also for sores, cuts, and wounds.

King James I of England opposed smoking a tobacco pipe, thinking it vile and barbarous. The king was also concerned that people sometimes smoked tobacco because other people were doing it, and it was the latest fashion. He tried to convince his subjects that it was unnecessary to offer guests tobacco. The sharing of tobacco was a common custom between New England Indians and settlers as a way to exhibit friendship.

In 1638, the Bay Colony smoking ordinance was changed to prohibit smoking inside a person's home unless it was done in a private room. Half the fines collected for disobeying this ordinance were distributed to the person who informed authorities of the misdeed; the rest went to the poor.

By the 19th century, the strong Puritan influence in Boston had waned, and the use of tobacco was permitted. In 1817, however, smoking again was restricted, this time due to a fear of fire, not an aversion to laziness. People were not permitted to smoke outdoors on any street or wharf, or indoors in any barn or stable. A hefty fine of $2 was imposed on those caught smoking on the street. (The law was repealed in 1880, ironically only eight years after the great fire of 1872, which destroyed most of Boston's commercial real estate.)

A correspondent for one of Boston's newspapers in 1848, The Daily Evening Transcript, equated freedom with the right to light one's pipe or cigar when out walking. Today, as well, some people are equating freedom with the right to smoke in bars and restaurants.


This story ran on page 04 of the Boston Globe's City Weekly on 10/04/98.

Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.