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Cigars Vs. Snuff: When One Form Of Tobacco Beat Out Another

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By : Ann Knapp    99 or more times read
Submitted 0000-00-00 00:00:00
The history of technology is littered with those ideas that didn't quite make it. HD-DVD got beaten out by Blu-Ray last year, just as DVD has, with time, supplanted VHS tapes like a better-equipped predator hunting another species to extinction. VHS once did the same for Beta, laserdisc, and those record-shaped visual disks of the early 1980s. Flip phones got picked over brick phones (in other countries, the reverse has been true). And the mini-disc failed to beat out the CD, despite its smallness and recordability.

Whether because one idea has better connections, a greater advertising budget, or friendly regulators on its side, taps into some buried wish in the culture's subconscious, or triumphs because it offers genuine advantages over the other possibility, no new "toy" or gadget becomes widespread without these sorts of battles taking place. In some cases, they go on for so long that they end up becoming the history of the technology itself - as the history of contemporary computers is, to a large degree, the history of PCs and Macs fighting for supremacy. TV users still haven't decisively opted for satellite dishes or cable.

Most cigar lovers don't know it, but the history of their pet indulgence is littered with similar battles. Cigars, of course, were considered a moribund industry as recently as 1992. Cigarettes, which became easy to mass-produce in the nineteenth century, nearly supplanted cigars during the twentieth. Only in the early 1990s did declining cigar sales suddenly reverse themselves. So until fairly recently, it was possible to imagine a world almost free of cigars and pipes, in which smokers took their nicotine exclusively in the form of cigarettes.

But before cigars and cigarettes began their century-long battle, cigars themselves had to achieve a victory over snuff - the most popular form of tobacco in the eighteenth century.

Still available, but not widely used, today, snuff is a form of fine-ground smokeless tobacco (also sometimes referred to as "dip" or "chew") that was all the rage in Europe during the 1700s. Such cultural luminaries as Napoleon and Pope Benedict XIII were regular users - the excitable French dictator used as much as seven pounds a month, and the Pope found it so congenial that he not only repealed previously-existing papal sanctions against smoking among clerics, but also opened, in 1779, his own tobacco factory. King George III - the one the American colonists rebelled against - had a wife who was so in love with the stuff that people called her "Snuffy Charlotte." A snuff mill was erected in Virginia as early as 1730, over forty-five years before American independence.

Speaking of American independence, tobacco was among the factors leading to that war - and it was the wave of pro-democratic sentiment that swept Europe and America during the late part of the eighteenth century that, in part, led to the decline in snuff's popularity and the explosion of interest in cigars. It was British interference with the American tobacco economy, in the form of the wildly unpopular Two Penny Act of 1758, that inflamed lawyer and patriot Patrick Henry to give speeches decrying the tyranny of the colonial masters. These speeches helped inflame public sentiment in favor of revolution. Tensions between American growers and British merchants were also at issue, so much so that in some parts of early America, the Revolutionary War was known as the "Tobacco War."

A popular pre-revolutionary figure, General Israel Putnam, had already introduced cigars to Americans, who took up the habit in large numbers. But in France, snuff remained the choice of the aristocracy. It was for this very reason, though, that French masses during the 1790s took up smoking cigars. Revolution seemed to be in the air - first the American, and then the French, which began in 1789 and was influenced by some of the same notions that had inspired the successful American revolt. The same angered crowds calling for Revolution in France decided they needed a form of tobacco that was as unlike what the rich used as possible: hence, they took up cigars. In America, perhaps for similar reasons, tax laws passed in 1794 made snuff prohibitively expensive, while tobacco in its smokeable forms was left alone. Voila! The cigar wins, thanks to the French - and finis.
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