Fag End Patriotism – Commercial Road (Whitechapel)

Linguist Luis de Torres accompanied Columbus on his first voyage to America as an interpreter. A Jew at the time of the Inquisition, he was forced to convert to Catholicism before setting sail in August 1492. The voyage coincided with the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. Legend has it that he settled in Cuba, learned the use of tobacco, and brought the weed to Europe. Since then, Jews have been associated with the tobacco trade.

The early market was a virtual Spanish monopoly. That changed in 1612 when colonist John Rolfe in Virginia successfully planted some seeds of Nicotiana tabacum which he had obtained from Trinidad. The Anglo-American tobacco industry was born, but planting and cultivation proved to be labour intensive activities and the settlers required more manpower. Jamestown’s trading problems were solved when a Dutch trading ship dropped anchor in the estuary of Chesapeake Bay in 1619. The colonists were offered twenty ‘negars’ (the term used by Rolfe for African slaves) who were set to work in the tobacco fields. Slavery became essential to the colony’s tobacco-based economy. European cravings for a good smoke created the slave trade.

The ambivalent attitude towards the new social phenomenon of smoking is summarised by the actions of James I. He attacked the habit as a ‘barbarous custom’ in his Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604), but was the first to put taxes on a weed he despised. Mixed feelings were expressed by Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). He enthusiastically praised the medicinal qualities of the weed: ‘Tobacco, divine, rare, super-excellent tobacco … a sovereign remedy to all diseases’; but in the same paragraph he expresses disgust with the common ‘plague’ of smoking for pleasure: ‘hellish devilish and damnd tobacco, the ruine and overthrow of body and soule’. Panacea or pest – this contrasting view was manifest in all nations where the tobacco craze took hold.

Whilst tobacco was widely consumed and praised for its curative powers across Europe, it was banned in Russia under strict legislation imposed by the Romanov’s. Although the ban did not exclude tobacco entirely from the country – foreigners (Dutch and English merchants in particular) imported it for their own use and rampant smuggling of American tobacco was sponsored by the English authorities – it did restrict the product’s circulation. Those who transgressed the law were punished with beatings, the slitting of nostrils, or threats of death. Peter the Great reversed the ban in 1698, allowing the import of Virginia tobacco from England, thus creating a lucrative Royal monopoly at the same time. Smoking was legalised by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Opposition from religious and medical critics remained strong. The use of tobacco was condemned as sinful, as a cause of impotence, or as an impetus to criminal behaviour (murder according to Leo Tolstoy in his 1890 essay ‘Why Do People Stupefy Themselves?’).

The Russian ban on tobacco opened up a niche for Jewish entrepreneurs who were exluded from most other domains of commercial enterprise. They stepped in to supply the underground demand for tobacco, exploring new territories for the plant’s cultivation, and developing their own variations. They benefitted from the fact that smoking in Jewish law was treated with tolerance (but not without ambiguity). Many rabbis hailed tobacco’s benefits to health, as it was a means of aiding blood circulation, helping digestion, and being a curative for many afflictions. Some questioned whether a blessing ought to be recited upon smoking, since the pleasure derived from it resembled that of eating or drinking. Others opposed the habit.

In the course of the nineteenth century, Russians and Ukrainians changed from the use of snuff or cigars to the inhalation of cigarette smoke. Compared to other European nations, they consumed tobacco of high nicotine content. Russia became a major tobacco producer and Jews were involved in its production, distribution, and consumption. Elderly Jewish women used snuff; younger women joined the men smoking cigarettes. So prevalent was the habit that efforts were made to prohibit smoking and snuffing in places of worship. In 1861, merchant Leyba Shereshevsky founded a tobacco factory in Grodno, Belarus. It became one of the biggest enterprises in the Russian Empire and a major artery in the city’s industrial production. Modern, mechanised, and efficient, the company was in Jewish hands and employed a pre-dominantly Jewish work force. Russia became (and remains) a heavy smoker.

Once the pogroms were set into murderous motion, production was taken out of Jewish hand (the ransacking of tobacco stores was a frequently reported occurrence in the explosion of anti-semitic violence). Some of those connected with the industry escaped to London where they build new cigarette empires. Julius Wix, Abraham Melinsky, Jacob Millhoff, and Major Drapkin, all arrived in the capital during the 1880s and established themselves in the Commercial Road area. These entrepreneurs ran their firms in close proximity to each other and at times in partnership, producing exotic oriental brands such as Kensitas, De Reszke, Mahalla, Pera, Mek-Bul, Yenidje, and others. They also introduced various legendary tobacco card series (originally used in America since the mid-1870s as ‘stiffeners’ to firm up the package) which were widely collected by cartophiles and are still on offer as popular items on eBay. With increasing commercial success the factory owners settled away from Whitechapel in the (then) leafy suburbs of West Hampstead, Kilburn, or Cricklewood.

The most successful of Jewish refugee cigarette manufacturers was Louis Rothman who was born in Kiev in 1869, then a part of the Russian Empire. As a youngster, he gained experience of the trade whilst apprenticed to his uncle who was in control of the largest cigarette manufacturer in South Russia. He moved to London in 1887 where he earned a living as a cigarette maker in Whitechapel and then used his savings to set up his own business, selling hand-rolled cigarettes from a small kiosk in Fleet Street (reputed to have been the smallest shop in the City of London). Around the same time he married Jane Weiner, who was also a Russian immigrant. Rothman became a naturalised British subject in 1896. From 1900 he relocated to 5a Pall Mall. His leading brand became Pall Mall cigarettes, containing a blend of South Carolina tobacco and Virginia leaf. In 1913, he merged interest with the company controlled by Marcus Weinberg, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, creating the Yenidje Tobacco Company. The partners clashed and in 1917 Rothman bought out full control of the venture. Sydney Rothman entered into partnership with his father from the early 1920s and helped to push the firm’s success to new levels. In 1922, they started to sell cigarettes by mail order through the Rothman’s Direct-to-Smoker service. Rothman & Co became a public company in 1929 and was the largest mail-order cigarette manufacturer in Britain by 1932. The business was acquired by British American Tobacco in 1999 and to this day Rothmans remains one of its leading brands. Ironically, Louis Rothman died of lung cancer in 1926 at his home at no. 225 Walm Lane, Cricklewood.

Under the Bolsheviks, the crusade against the weed was renewed. Lenin’s first real campaign was an attempt to introduce anti-tobacco legislation. The Commissar of Public Health, Nikolai Alexandrovich Semashko, established an ambitious ‘kick the habit’ program that may have failed at the time, but was a precursor – both in content and presentation – to later battles in the war on smoking. For the time being, the march of the smoker could not be halted. New to the First World War was the fact that governments classified the industry as essential to the war effort and authorised the inclusion of tobacco and rolling papers in the troops’s rations. The state acted as supplier. Members of the public were encouraged to help out. Supplying a soldier with ciggies (although known as ‘coffin nails’) was promoted as an act of patriotism. There were no smoke-free zone in the lines of battle. Enveloped in fumes, all life in the trenches was extinguished. Dead bodies and fag ends – just that. The Second World War further boosted business. Over one billion Rothmans cigarettes were supplied to the British armed forces during the conflict. After two world wars, the tobacco industry emerged as the sole victor.