Sorority of Smoke on Wheels

With women’s suffrage came an unexpected development: women smokers.

In the 1920s, as the Medical University of South Carolina’s Hollings Cancer Center explains, “Passage of the 19th Amendment ushered in new freedoms and smoking in public became symbolic of women’s new role in society.” About 6% of women smoked cigarettes in 1924, but that more than doubled to 16% by 1929.

This 1922 New York Times Magazine article by Marguerite E. Harrison described the change viscerally:

The air in the ladies’ dressing room of the Limited was blue with cigarette smoke. Every time the door was opened, small curls of smoke drifted out into the corridor.

Ten years ago, such a state of affairs would not have been possible. The only passport to acquaintance among women on the “cars” [trains] was helping to mind refractory babies or lending smelling salts to a car-sick fellow passengers. Otherwise women traveled together for days and nights in stony silence. The enforced intimacy of the dressing room only brought maneuvering for place at the mirror accompanied by black looks. A properly brought-up woman regarded every other member of the species encountered under the cicumstances as her natural enemy.

Now all these barriers are broken down in the freemasonry of the cigarette. The women smokers are bringing about a new democracy of the road.

As of 2015, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 13.6% of U.S. women smoke cigarettes — lower than the percentage who did so by the end of the 1920s.

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