Torches of Freedom

It is easy to find a list of things that history has deemed inappropriate for women at one point or another. Unsurprisingly, up until the twentieth century, one of those things was smoking.

On January 21, 1908, New York City’s board of aldermen passed the Sullivan Ordinance, a law prohibiting women from smoking in public places.[1] Although the mayor soon vetoed the law, it was still seen as inappropriate and immoral for women to be seen smoking.[2]

In the early 1920s, cigarette companies realized that they could open a more significant market if they advertised to women. George Washington Hill, the president of American Tobacco Company, said, “It will be like opening a gold mine right in our front yard.”[3] It did have the possibility of being a gold mine. However, marketing to them correctly would not be easy.

Although it was seen as inappropriate for women to smoke cigarettes, that did not mean that no woman had ever smoked. They did, and they were often ridiculed for it. One hotel manager once said that women “Don’t really know what to do with the smoke. Neither do they know how to hold their cigarettes properly. Actually they make a mess of the whole performance.”[4] No matter what they did or how they marketed, the tobacco companies had to ensure that they made the situation better for their pockets and not embarrass women into never smoking again. They needed repeat customers.

Therefore, these companies started to market to women. Companies like Philip Morris even sponsored lecture series that taught women the art of smoking.[5] American Tobacco Companies President Hill went so far as to hire Edward Bernays to help him recruit female smokers. In turn, Bernays attempted to eliminate the social taboo against women smoking in public. In 1929, he paid women to smoke their “torches of freedom” in the Easter Sunday parade in New York.[6] Although it was unintended, the resulting footage of the women’s walk with seen as a protest for equality and sparked discussion throughout America. Cigarettes became symbols of emancipation and equality with men. Feminist Ruth Hale even called for women to join the march and said, “Women! Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex Taboo!”[7]

In 1923, women accounted for five percent of the population that cigarettes were sold to. In 1929, the percentage rose to twelve percent, and in 1935, it rose again to eighteen point one percent.[8] Although the percentage of women who bought cigarettes did not increase by leaps and bounds, cigarettes did become a symbol of freedom.

[1] “NO PUBLIC SMOKING BY WOMEN NOW”. The New York Times. 1908-01-21. p. 1.
[2] Michael Sims, The Smoldering Fire (Nashville, TN: City Press, 1997).
[3] Amanda Amos and Margaretha Haglund, “From Social Taboo to ‘Torch of Freedom’: The Marketing of Cigarettes to Women,” Tobacco Control 9, no. 1 (2000): 3–8.
[4]Amanda Amos and Margaretha Haglund, “From Social Taboo to ‘Torch of Freedom’: The Marketing of Cigarettes to Women,”: 3–8.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2007), 84-85.
[7] Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century, 84-85.
[8] Anne Marie O’Keefe and Richard W. Pollay, “Deadly Targeting of Women in Promoting Cigarettes,” Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association 51, no. 1–2 (1996): 67–69.


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