Tobacco: The Past, The Future; An Old Friend Made New

It’s a decade and a half into the 21st century, and the future ain’t what it used to be. Think of this: it’s now a full year after Doc and Marty landed their flying DeLorean in Hill Valley, but where we’re going, we still need roads. 21st century or not, there’s no jet packs or Jetsons cars for us here. Even the cutting edge tech we *did* get turned out to be not as great as promised. Sure, we got our Dick Tracy computer watches – and they ended up being little more than overpriced toys for pretentious hipsters. For most of us, our Star Trek future mostly involves sitting in a cubicle for hours on end reading through emails; sorting the useful ones from get-rich-quick chain letters sent by Nigerian princes and snake-oil offers for herbal male enhancement pills. That’s not the future I grew up imagining, and frankly, it’s a state of affairs that’s enough to turn a man into a downright pessimist. My own favorite glimpse of the future when I was a kid back in the 70s was a Woody Allen movie called Sleeper. In it, Woody played a normal guy from the late 20th century who was defrosted after two hundred years in a cryogenic deep freeze. As the scientists who woke him up tried to adjust him to the world of the future, they gave him a cigar and told him that he could smoke it to help calm himself down from the shock of it all. When he protested that back in the 20th century, he had been a health nut (proprietor of the “Happy Carrot Health Food Store”, to be exact), they told him that the medical science of his time had gotten everything wrong, and smoking was the best thing in the world for him. A witty punchline. But what if, out of all the predictions about the future that we remember from when we were kids, that one turned out to not be very far from the truth? What if 21st century science had found a way to smoke that really wasn’t bad for you? Well, then it would be time to fall in love with smoking all over again. It would be time to remind ourselves of why smoking was our forefathers’ favorite way to relax. It would be tine to get reacquainted with a faithful old friend with which we share a long history. Men of the West, let me ask you: would you be surprised to learn that the history of tobacco is deeply ingrained in the history of modern Western civilization? Some might even say you can’t really understand one without the other. You see, there were three historical events during the late 15th century that ended the medieval period and set the modern era into motion. The first was the fall of Constantinople, that last outpost of the old Roman Empire, to the armies of the Muslim Sultan. The second was the invention of the printing press, which, for better or worse, would enable ideas that were once confined only to the aristocratic elite to be transmitted to the common man. But it was the last that was the most momentous. As the old song once taught to generations of American schoolchildren teaches: “in fourteen-hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” – and this was the beginning of Western man as the great explorer; the beginning of a chain of voyages of discovery that would run through Magellan, Captain Cook, Lewis and Clark, Armstrong and Aldrin, and on to… well… only time will tell. Columbus did indeed bring great treasures back to show Ferdinand and Isabella. Yes, eventually there would be gold – great galleons laden down with it, so heavy and slow as they sailed from the New World to Spain that the irresistible urge to raid them touched off the great age of Caribbean piracy. But that was not the first bounty that the great explorer presented to his king and queen, nor even would it prove to be the most enduringly valuable. Columbus brought back with him crops that had been cultivated by the Aztecs and the Mayans for centuries, but that no one in Europe had ever before laid eyes upon. Over time, these would become so important that it is nearly impossible to think of what life would be like without them. Just try to imagine Italian cooking without tomatoes! Or to imagine Switzerland without chocolate! Spain without chili peppers! Ireland, Poland, or Russia without potatoes! Yet all of these friends to Europeans arrived with Columbus as strangers. Columbus brought one more friend to mankind with him from the New World as well – tobacco. Long used by the indigenous peoples of the Americas for medicinal and spiritual purposes, the plant that would come to be called “the jovial weed” soon became a part of the lives of people all throughout Europe. The love affair of the Western man with tobacco had begun, and though there have been since been many who have tried to extinguish it (literally, in fact!) they have never quite succeeded. There is, of course, much more to say about the history of tobacco, starting with the role that it played in building the Old Dominion of Virginia and in making Shakespearean England a happier, more relaxed, and more poetic place to be. There is also much to say about the endless stream of pearl-clutchers, spoilfuns, nanny-staters, “for-your-own-good” finger-wagging scolds, literal Puritans, and even literal Nazis who have tried to take our tobacco away from us. And, too, there is news about how modern technology has made it safe for us to rekindle our friendship with tobacco and completely unnecessary for us to give up on our old friend ever again. Those are all stories for another day, and I hope that you will join me once again when it’s time to tell them.


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