In August 2010 Britain’s oldest smoker died at the grand old age of 102. It was estimated that retired launderette worker Winnie Langley had smoked somewhere around 170,000 cigarettes in her long life.
Winnie started smoking at the outbreak of the First World War in June 1914. She was just seven-years-old when she smoked her first cigarette and, in old age, explained that she had got hooked on cigarettes because they helped her childhood nerves during the anxious war years. Once she became an habitual smoker she smoked five cigarettes a day until 2009. She gave up aged 101 because she could no longer see well enough to light up. The previous year she’d celebrated her 100th birthday by lighting up a cigarette using one of the candles on her birthday cake.
Winnie, who was born in Croydon, England in 1907, was not put off smoking by a battle with cancer during her nineties either.
One of the things that interested me about Winnie’s story is her explanation that smoking helped calm her nerves. This is something that many smokers say motivates them to keep buying and smoking cigarettes. Others simply say they’re addicted. The first cigarette of the day, in the early morning, is irresistible. Or else it’s the cigarette with coffee after lunch. Or smoking in the evening in a bar or at dinner, at home or with friends.
I thought about the reasons why people smoke this weekend as I browsed old advertising posters at the 2010 Isle sur la Sorgue antiques fair near my home in Provence. Leafing through old publicity posters for pipes and cigarettes I also thought about the messages the tobacco industry has produced historically. Looking at all the different brand ads it was easy to see the pattern used to advertise cigarettes before their dangers were known or acknowledged.
The posters typically showed strong-jawed men and elegant women, or a stylishly depicted cigarette and artistic curls of smoke alongside text extolling the pleasures or benefits of smoking. Smoking would make you look chic or relax you or, as Winnie felt, calm your nerves. One brand even claimed cigarettes would help meetings go smoothly. Other posters focused on the pleasure of the taste and smell of burning tobacco. There were plenty of hints too that the opposite sex would find you sexier if you smoked. The overall message was that smoking was smart, fashionable and pleasurable, and cigarettes or cigars would make the smoker look strong or graceful, exquisite or refined.
The adverts are a fascinating part of advertising history. Comparing those adverts with the promotion of cigarettes today you have to wonder whether any other product has undergone such change in image and presentation because of increased understanding of the health risks. The messages today are a world away from the pretty posters of the 20th century: Smoking kills. Smoking may reduce the blood flow and cause impotence. Causes aging of the skin. Harms you and others around you. Causes heart attacks and strokes. Harms your unborn baby.
I’m by no means a fundamentalist about people smoking. As long as people are aware of the risks it’s surely their choice to smoke or not to smoke. I can see that many people get pleasure from smoking and I can also see there’s a certain glamour in smoking and all the paraphernalia that goes with it. We’ve all seen gritty war films with manly heroes clenching cigarettes between their teeth. Or films like Casino where the tough guys, the powerful guys, smoke fat cigars. I see the appeal that cigarettes and cigars have for lots of their customers. My father and his many brothers (Irish family) smoked cigarettes and later cigars and pipes and there was something very attractive about seeing them all deep in light-hearted discussion, glasses of whisky in one hand, cigars in the other and delicious blue smoke curling away into a sunlit room as they chatted and laughed.
One poster in particular though struck me and made me object inwardly. It was for Kaywoodies’ briar pipes and it was very specifically targetted with a very specific message. The ad was a colourful drawing of a pleasant rural scene in which a youngish chap lay contentedly on a little hillside. He was relaxed and smiling to himself and was, naturally, smoking a Kaywoodie briar pipe. In the background was a lovely little village, a nice house, a green field, healthy-looking trees, some kids, horses and a dog. The pets and kids were clearly happy. The scene was tranquil. The sky was blue and life was evidently good.
The text was longer than on most of the other smoking adverts.
Dated 1944, it bore the heading Home and said something like this: Home is the place you return to. Where life is the way you want it to be. Among the things that make this place home is the memory of the flavour of your Kaywoodie pipe. It takes time to make a place your home. Just as we take time to make your Kaywoodie pipe. Your Kaywoodie pipe will always be your good companion and steadfast friend.
It was clear that the ad was targetted at men coming home from the war in an attempt to get them smoking the Kaywoodie way. Smoking would go companionably and steadfastly alongside their efforts to build their homes and raise their families. How many of those men, I wonder, found their smoking companion turned out to be lung cancer and died before they had time to raise their families? There must have been many still unaware in the postwar period of the dangers and risks of smoking who fell for the advertising message and fell victim to tobacco and cancer.
I put the Kaywoodie poster back in its box at the antiques fair, but remained fascinated by its seductive sell of the pleasures of smoking. Many of those men who returned from war, on both sides of the Atlantic, men who beat the nazis and came home hoping to have untroubled futures, would not beat tobacco and cancer. Some years later, my generous, funny, loving, beloved father was one of them.