Light stuff

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on May 03, 2019

On equal terms: The consorting of smoking with the women’s movement became a staple of visual culture.

Ninety years ago, a PR experiment in the US established smoking as a defining attribute of a modern woman’s identity

In a way, Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s American nephew, crowned his practice as counsel on public relations in 1929 with a seed fund of $125. All of it was handed over as fees to the pioneering New York psychoanalyst AA Brill, to get him to answer the question: What do cigarettes mean to women?

In the early 20th century, the cigarette, for women, had been a stigmatised product, configured as a threat to womanly virtue. The smoking woman signalled the hussy label: Someone who had turned her back on domesticity and the time-honoured economy of womanhood. Tobacco companies hadn’t ever taken the risk of explicitly pitching the cigarette to women. They appeared in tobacco advertisements only as glittering accoutrements to the smoking male.

In 1929, George Hill, president of the American Tobacco Association, was seized of the problem of attracting women to the cigarette market. The man he picked for the job was Bernays, who, in the run-up to those days, had been on the US Committee on Public Information, and had distinguished himself by using his uncle Freud’s theories for building a massive support for the American entry into the war and, amongst other things, for prevailing on the American people that bacon-and-eggs was the quintessential all-American breakfast. He was the first person to have demonstrated to American politicians and corporations that they could make people want things they didn’t need by pulling the wires on their unconscious desires.

Brill’s theory on women and cigarettes was particularly instructive. Most women, he said, regard cigarettes as symbols of freedom and power. “It’s also a sublimation of oral eroticism. Holding the cigarette in the mouth excites the oral zones. It’s perfectly normal for women to want to smoke cigarettes.” Bernays had no use for the oral bit. But he knew he was on to something if he could find a way of hitching cigarettes to the idea of defying male power.

In early 1929, a bunch of New York upper-class débutantes received a telegram from a Miss Bertha Hunt: “In the interest of equality of the sexes... I and other young women will light a torch of freedom by smoking cigarettes while strolling on Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday.” The débutantes who agreed to participate met in advance in the office where Hunt worked as a secretary. Nobody had any idea that Hunt had been secretly recruited by Bernays for a public experiment.

Just before the appointed day, Bernays got someone to inform the newsreels and the press associations that a group of young suffragettes was planning to protest in front of Saint Thomas’s church by puffing on cigarettes. They were going to light up what they were calling torches of freedom.

On Easter Sunday 1929, as churchgoers spilled onto Fifth Avenue after the morning service for the annual Easter Parade, they saw a small group of fashionable young women, walking from the 34th to the 57th street and back, flagrantly puffing on their torches of freedom. It was sensational — at once spectacular and loathsome to the spectator’s eye.

The next day, there wasn’t a newspaper in the US that didn’t have on its front page photographs of Miss Hunt and her colleagues striking another blow on behalf of liberty of women. The New York Times quoted Hunt as saying, “I hope that we’ve started something and that these torches of freedom will smash the discriminatory taboo on cigarettes for women and that our sex will go on breaking all discriminations.”

Within three days, the newspapers, without any intervention from Bernays, published accounts that women were smoking publicly in Union Square San Francisco, Union Square Denver and on the Boston Commons. Within six weeks, on their own, the League of Theatres reversed their ban on women smoking in their smoking rooms.

And that is how Bernays made smoking a defining attribute of women’s modernity; and added a new market for profits for his client Lucky Strike cigarettes. Quite suddenly, the meaning of the cigarette was determined by the hand that held it and not the other way around. A seemingly irrelevant consumable became a powerful signifier of how a woman wanted to be seen by others. The fag became a protean symbol — for feminists and flappers. The consorting of smoking with the women’s movement became, from that point on, a staple of visual culture. So, it mattered who Bernays thought the early adopters should be, with his idealised construction of femininity and independence and sexual allure. Those newspaper images were an early prefiguration of that famous feminist activist smoking as she raised her placard that said: Women are beautiful. Radical women are more beautiful. Liberated women are the most beautiful of all.

Essayist Nassim Taleb and ad-man Rory Sutherland have tried to investigate how we put a man on moon before putting wheels on suitcases. In the case of wheeled luggage, Sutherland writes, the barrier may have been social acceptance. Robert Plath, who patented the two-wheeled Rollaboard in 1991, was a Boeing 747 pilot with Northwest Airlines and started selling his invention to other pilots and crew. When passengers saw these, were impressed and wanted to buy them, he started the TravelPro company. “Was Plath lucky in selling to flight professionals first? After all, had its earliest users not been dashing pilots, but elderly tourists, the wheeled case might have become stigmatised as something only for oldies — like those tartan shopping wheelers in the 1970s.”

Perhaps the gasper also caught on because the essential deadly power of the cigarette is not in the nicotine it supplies, but in the effect it has on the observer. The dramaturgy of the smoking act is a form of proselytism. The lighting of the cigarette, the mandatory languor and insouciance, the felicity of the inhalations and exhalations, the triumphal strain and regalia that the face briefly acquires, the affectations, the interlude with the exposed wrist, fingers curled in poise, ipsilateral thumb fondling the ring finger or the little one, the tipping of the ash, the stubbing of the stub. The act is a species of rhetoric. The act is the drug. I’ve always wondered if the mannerisms of the tobacco-chewing woman would’ve had the same effect?

Also, might I dare suggest that no matter how deliciously she exhales, the e-cigarette isn’t quite the same prop?

Ambarish Satwik   -  BUSINESS LINE


Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer; Email:

Published on May 03, 2019

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