Start Smoking at Thirteen–How Does This Happen?

Super Constellation,1955

We are still focusing on the late 1940s and early 1950s when I was a toddler. Marie and Paul were young parents of four children. Like many in their generation, both of my parents were enthusiastic smokers. These were the same years the TWA hostesses were wearing the cutout uniforms. Smoking had long been permitted on most flights–some even referred to the hazy cabins full of smoke as the “fog of fear” since people believed that smoking soothed nervous flyers. It was not until the 1950s that the airlines added liquor to the menus. Look carefully at the above cross-section of the Super Constellation–notice the passengers with cocktail glasses or cigarettes in their hands.

Allowing intoxicating beverages on board airliners created an additional burden to the job for flight attendants in the 1950s. In the TWA training film from the late 1940s and early 1950s which I mentioned last week, there is even a incident on the simulated flight where the hostess trainee was told to confiscate a flask brought on board by a unruly passenger.

One source explained the shift in cultural attitudes, “By the 1950s mainstream cultural attitudes toward drinking had liberalized considerably, and cocktails had become an integral part of leisure. For postwar “organizational men” and VIPs, airlines’ primary customer base, drinking carried little of its previous social stigma.”1

All the women who worked for TWA as hostesses from 1944 to 1955 wore the unique uniform with the cut-out logo design. She could transform her uniform to civilian wear by covering the TWA logo with the clever design of her jacket. Smoking, drinking, and chewing gum while in uniform were not permitted. We don’t know the percentage of women who smoked at that time. We do know that every woman who wore those uniforms encountered numerous messages about the desirability of becoming a smoker.

TWA cut-out hostess uniforms 1944-1955

How do a society’s cultural attitudes change? The acceptance of smoking and drinking was not fueled by a “grassroots movement” of people seeking betterment of the human condition. Both of these attitude changes in the mainstream culture have been initiated and fueled by movies, television, advertisements and business/corporate interests. Every woman in the U.S. has been exposed to these sophisticated propaganda campaigners.

My cherished mother, Marie, smoked Chesterfield cigarettes throughout her multiple pregnancies. During my entire childhood, my brother and two sisters and I were continually exposed to the second hand smoke of both parents. Mother claimed she started smoking at age thirteen—I wish we had asked her why she started smoking. Smoking was a social activity that infiltrated their daily lives. Dad’s sister, our Aunt Rosemary, was a heavy smoker too. All of them died before their time of smoking related illnesses!

Quick Background on Tobacco Products
Originally tobacco was produced mainly for pipe-smoking, chewing, and snuff. Cigars didn’t become popular until the early 1800s. Cigarettes didn’t become widely popular in the United States until after the Civil War ended in 1865. In the late 1800s, the invention of a practical cigarette-making machine made mass production of cigarettes possible. Smoking boomed in the first half of the twentieth century, thanks to heavy advertising and the inclusion of cigarettes as part of soldiers’ rations during the two world wars.

Women Learn to Smoke

Clearly, attempting to link smoking to emancipation was an effort to manipulate women! The “torches of freedom” term was not an invention of women, but a term introduced by psychoanalyst A. A. Brill when describing “the natural [sic] desire for women to smoke.” Please note, Brill was the first psychoanalyst to practice in the United States and the first translator of Sigmund Freud into English.5 Freudians have never been friends to the best interests of women.

Using that same phrase to further his own career, Edward Bernays, the Austrian-American pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, planned a public hoax. Bernays was hired in the 1920s by the American Tobacco Company to expand the market of the Lucky Strike brand of cigarettes to women. He was instructed by the company president, to “crack that market, it will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard.”6

To challenge the social taboo against women smoking in public, Bernays hired women to do just that in a very public setting at the annual Easter Parade in New York City. By the late 1800s, this Easter parade of wealthy New Yorkers, both women and men, attired in the latest fashions strolling Fifth Avenue, had “became a permanent fixture on New York’s calendar of civic and social events. With the turn of the new century, Easter in New York had assumed the mantle of a major retail event, ranking alongside Christmas in this significance.” Of course Bernays alerted the press before the carefully staged event he was planning, and had handbills to pass out at the parade.7

The New York Times recently reconsidered that 1929 event. “The march of the Torches of Liberty Brigade is considered one of the most successful publicity stunts ever. In the 1920’s, George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, decided to start a campaign to get women to smoke Lucky Strikes. At the time, of course, smoking was considered beyond the pale for any respectable lady. So Mr. Hill recruited a man who was to become a legend of public relations, Edward Bernays.

Health claims for smoking in 1940s ads

Bernays saw an opportunity in the Easter Parade, where women (and men) sashayed up Fifth Avenue in the latest spring fashion. On Easter morning 1929, a dozen female models hired by Bernays paraded up the avenue puffing on Lucky Strikes. It was the first time many spectators had seen any women other than prostitutes smoking in public. The women carried placards that trumpeted their cigarettes as torches of liberty.

Pictures of the models appeared in newspapers around the world, and the ploy tripled the sale of Lucky Strikes….” As Bernays reflected later on this event, “Age old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal, disseminated by the network of the media.”8

Did some women believed that smoking cigarettes was a way for women to challenge social norms and fight for equal rights? Perhaps. Some sources assert that the cigarette came to symbolize “rebellious independence, glamour, seduction and sexual allure for both feminists and flappers.”10

Tobacco companies continue the relentless marketing of cigarettes to appeal to women during this period.

“The American Tobacco Company began targeting women with its ads for Lucky Strike. Lucky Strike sought to give women the reasons they should be smoking Luckies. They employed ads featuring prominent women, such as Amelia Earhart, and appealed to the vanity [sic] of women by promising slimming effects.

Most of the ads also conveyed a carefree and confident image of women that would appeal to the modern woman of the 1920s. The ads grew more extravagant with paid celebrity testimonials and far-reaching claims of how Lucky Strikes could improve your life. Their most aggressive campaign directly challenged the candy industry by urging women to “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”

These aggressive campaigns paid off making Lucky Strike the most smoked brand within a decade.”11

How did smoking become socially acceptable and even socially desirable? In comparison with traditional smoking methods, cigarettes were clean, easy to use, modern, and increasingly cheap. Tobacco companies were successful in the aggressive marketing of cigarettes to women. I’ve learned that, “smoking rates among female teenagers soon triple during the years between 1925-1935!”12 This statistic would have included my mother, Marie! In 1932 she would have been thirteen—the age she told us she began smoking.

In our thinking about who smoked, and about why young women attracted to flying might be tempted to try smoking, I found this: “In a content analysis of North American and British editions of Vogue, Cheryl Krasnick Warsh and Penny Tinkler trace representations of women smokers from the 1920s through the 1960s, concluding that the magazine ‘located the cigarette within the culture of the feminine elite,’ associating it with the constellation of behaviours and appearances presented as desirable characteristics of elitism, through the themes of lifestyle, ‘the look’, and feminine confidence.”13

Early Warnings: 1944

As early as 1944, “the American Cancer Society began to warn about possible ill effects of smoking, although it admitted that ‘no definite evidence exists’ linking smoking and lung cancer. A statistical correlation between smoking and cancer had been demonstrated; but no causal relationship had been shown. More importantly, the general public knew little of the growing body of statistics.

That changed in 1952, when Reader’s Digest published “Cancer by the Carton,” an article detailing the dangers of smoking. The effect of the article was enormous: Similar reports began appearing in other periodicals, and the smoking public began to take notice. The following year, cigarette sales declined for the first time in over two decades.

The tobacco industry responded swiftly. By 1954 the major U.S. tobacco companies had formed the Tobacco Industry Research Council (TIRC) to counter the growing health concerns. With counsel from TIRC, tobacco companies began mass-marketing filtered cigarettes and low-tar formulations that promised a “healthier” smoke. The public responded, and soon sales were booming again.”14

Earlier I asked, “How do a society’s cultural attitudes change?” Of course, this is a complex question. By studying the decades of aggressive marketing by the tobacco companies, “the evidence shows that advertising and promotion by the tobacco industry are effective in raising awareness of smoking, increasing brand recognition, and creating favorable beliefs regarding tobacco use.”15 In other words, those billions of dollars spent by tobacco companies touch all our lives.

“As with all advertising, tobacco advertising frequently relies on imagery to appeal to an individual’s aspirations and conveys very little, if any, factual information about the characteristics of the product. Advertising fulfills many of the aspirations of adolescents and children by effectively using themes of independence, liberation, attractiveness, adventurousness, sophistication, glamour, athleticism, social acceptability and inclusion, sexual attractiveness, thinness, popularity, rebelliousness, and being “cool”.16

Yes, smoking by women has been the “gold mine” for tobacco companies. Not for us. Today, more women die from lung cancer than breast cancer.17 “…the growth of the tobacco industry was dependent on economic and cultural trends, the cigarette marks the convergence of corporate capitalism, technology, mass marketing, and advertising. If the 19th century was the era of the pipe and cigar, the 1950s were the heyday of the cigarette.”18

“Women face more difficulty when trying to quit” explained Dr. Sherry McKee, Director of the Yale Specialized Center of Research (SCOR). Dr. Mckee, and SCOR are developing sex-sensitive treatments for tobacco dependence. “While men might smoke to satisfy a craving for nicotine, women smoke more to manage their moods,” McKee said. “But for women, just treating nicotine withdrawal does not help reduce negative moods, enhance positive moods, or manage stress, appetite, and weight. And the relationship between stress and smoking appears to be stronger in women than men, leaving women less able to quit or more likely to restart smoking after stressful events such as a financial setback.”19

I believe that by identifying and analyzing the conditions we women live through, we can resist the false images used against women and girls. We can claim independence, liberation, attractiveness, adventurousness, and community for ourselves. I’m hoping there will be no more thirteen year old girls reaching for a cigarette.

One: “In 1971, television ads for cigarettes were finally taken off the air in the U.S. Cigarettes, however, are still the most heavily advertised product second to automobiles!”20

Two: TWA and other carriers created non-smoking sections in 1977. The airlines resisted banning smoking given “an environment where tobacco companies exerted immense influence on a public debate that highly valued the concept of “smoker’s rights.” In 1988, smoking was finally banned from U.S. domestic flights of two hours or less. As a result “a spokesman for the “Smokers Rights Alliance” threatened airport protests and legal action.”21 In early 1990 federal law banned smoking on nearly every domestic flight.

Three: “Flight attendants, led by activist Patty Young, an American Airlines flight attendant since 1966, began fighting for the right to work in a tobacco-free environment in the summer of 1966. The flight attendants (and their unions) sought and obtained assistance from health advocates to promote their fight to breathe clean air in airline cabins. Their efforts were crucial in building sufficient momentum for smoke-free flights throughout the advocacy process.”22

Four: “Despite negative advertising promoted in the 1960’s and 1970’s, as well as the current lawsuits filed against tobacco companies, the industry continues to flourish. Tobacco products are widely marketed outside the United States, allowing tobacco its place as a valuable commodity for export in the American economy.”23 Today U.S. tobacco companies are targeting women and girls around the world with all the tactics mentioned here.

TWA hostess uniforms 1944-1955 cut-out style. both winter & summer


1 Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, Kathleen M. Barry p.43 FF

18 A Global History of Smoking edited by Sander L. Gilman, Zhou Xun, p.328

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