A Journal of the Plague Year 2023–chapter 281

The filthy habit.

March 10

Many of the developments that have had a major impact on modern life are an outgrowth of war and the military. For example, Napoleon’s vast armed forces at first were dependent upon plunder of the European countryside to get food. That unsustainable and unreliable situation prompted the invention of canned grub, which allowed the Grande Armée much greater range and mobility.

The need for rapid production of a vast number of U.S. ships during World War II facilitated advances in prefab construction. Using these, between 1941 and 1945, Kaiser Industries’ two West Coast yards were able to turn out out 1,490 ships, including fifty aircraft carriers. Later on, similar methods would allow manufacture of thousands of affordable Levittown-style houses aimed at veterans eager to return to civilian life.

But not every military-related development represented an advance for civilization. Cigarette smoking, for example, took over Britain only as a result of the Crimean War.

During that 1850s conflict—which pitted an alliance of Britain, France, and Turkey against Russia—a Scott named Robert Gloag witnessed Turks and Russians smoking—and upon his return to Britain, he began selling gaspers that were no more than straw-paper cylinders equipped with a cane tip. Four other cigarette makers followed his example. Steady expansion of a market for the addictive “little scorchers” allowed Gloag to scale up from one production room to a large factory.

Such was demand that, in the 1880s, a rival firm imported from America a cigarette-making machine that would turn out 200 fags per minute. “Between 1860 and 1900, Britain became a smoking nation,” writes popular historian A.N. Wilson, “its consumption of tobacco rising 2.4% in 1862, 4.7% in 1863 and an average of around 5% per annum for the rest of the century.”

Initially, cigarette smoking was regarded as uncouth. Not until the 1880s was smoking allowed in gentlemen’s clubs. That same decade saw a cigarette price war and the emergence of “penny cigarettes.” Profits for one large ciggy maker soared from £6.5 million in 1884 to £127 million in 1891. “Gloag’s legacy of the cigarette habit could be said to be the most lasting and notable consequence of the Crimean War,” writes Wilson in his celebrated and very readable historical survey The Victorians.

Some days back I decided that I needed to know more about that period of history—one that featured a peculiar, not to say bizarre, cast of characters that included the likes of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, and opera wizards William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. I turned to Wilson’s book after reading Emily Bronte’s dizzying, death-obsessed Wuthering Heights. What an odd, contradictory, mystifying, deranged volume. 

I wasn’t always sure just what the author was getting at, but there is certainly lots of passion: “ ‘And you conspire with him against me, do you viper?’…He shook me till my teeth rattled.”  That Heathcliff—what a laid-back dude.