IDAHO HISTORY: Tobacco has played its part in Idaho's past

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANMay 25, 2014 

Tobacco in all its forms has been widely used throughout Idaho's history. Wherever men congregated, especially in saloons and pool halls, a wide variety of cigars and chewing tobacco were available, and machine-made and "roll your own" cigarettes came into popularity.

The first suggestion in the pages of the Idaho Statesman that tobacco smoking was injurious to health appeared in the paper on Sept. 10, 1889. "Cigarette smoking has killed Jay Gould's nephew, Carlton Harris. His body reached New York on August 27."

On Oct. 2, 1890, the Statesman reported this bit of local news: "The proprietor of the cigar factory has found his business increasing so rapidly that he has sent east for four more expert cigar makers."

Whether cigar smoking was unhealthy or not was addressed in an 1893 story that treated the subject facetiously, beginning with what is today a startling quote: "The coroner of St. Louis has 'knocked out' one superstition of the doctors. This is the belief that inveterate smoking causes heart disease. Out of a total of 480 deaths due to heart trouble that have come under my observation during this last two years only two of the victims were regular smokers. Drink caused the largest portion of those diseases. Fifteen years ago, a doctor told me that I would be a dead man within two years unless I quit smoking." The coroner claimed that when he chanced to meet that doctor six years later the man was a physical wreck. He, on the other hand, smoked an average of 25 cigars a day and was in perfect health. He persuaded the doctor to start smoking cigars, and he recovered his health almost immediately.

The Moscow Mirror reported on June 9, 1893, "The law forbidding the sale of cigarettes in the State of Washington went into force today, after which time parties selling them are liable to a fine of $500. The law goes on to say that no one can even smoke them." Washington was the first state to ban cigarettes, but by 1922, 15 states had made it illegal to sell, manufacture, possess or use them. The most famous person arrested under the Washington law was well known in Idaho. He was William D. "Big Bill" Haywood, who had been tried in Boise in 1907 for conspiracy in the murder of former Gov. Frank Steunenberg. He was arrested twice in one day just as he was rolling a cigarette.

Like the prohibition of alcohol, adopted by Idaho in 1916 and the nation in 1920, the ban on cigarettes proved to be almost impossible to enforce.

"RAISING FINE TOBACCO" proclaimed a Statesman headline on Sept. 27, 1893. "Splendid Specimens of the Weed Grown in Boise." Former Gov. Edward A. Stevenson, who had held the office from 1885 until 1889, had grown his own tobacco on a small plot of ground at his home on Warm Springs Avenue. "It has been demonstrated beyond a doubt that tobacco can be successfully grown in this part of Idaho," said the paper. Stevenson had grown tobacco for his own use for several years and that year had produced over 500 pounds. "Ex-Gov. Stevenson was for years engaged in tobacco culture in California and he pronounces the soil and climate of this section much better adapted to the production of tobacco than in the Golden State. He says he intends to have several hundred cigars made from his tobacco for presentation to his friends."

Next week: More Idaho tobacco history.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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