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The Early Popularity of Tobacco in Europe

Aug 17, 2007
Much of the early popularity of tobacco in Europe rested on its supposed medicinal properties, rather than on its pleasurable smoking qualities. The tobacco leaf was introduced as a universal remedy for all ailments by a Frenchman, Jean Nicot, from whom both the tobacco plant Nicotiana and the term nicotine derive their name.

Nicot, appointed ambassador to Portugal by the French Queen, Catherine de Medici, first saw the plant growing in the royal gardens in Lisbon. Learning that the Indians believed the plant to have healing powers, the ambassador decided to experiment. As Nicot's chef happened to have sliced his thumb with a kitchen knife, Nicot bandaged the cut with fresh green tobacco leaves. Surprisingly, the wound healed. A young lady acquaintance of Nicot's had a severe rash on her face, and a gentleman friend had sharp pains in his foot. In both cases, after the application of tobacco leaves, the maladies disappeared.

Nicot pursued his experiments, and not long afterward returned to France where he informed the Queen of the marvelous cures which the plant had effected. One day, when the Queen was suffering from a severe headache. Nicot suggested that she sniff some powder he had crushed from dried tobacco leaves. The Queen agreeably took a pinch of the brown powder, and sneezed. After a few more sneezes, the Queen remembered her headache only to find it considerably improved.

From that moment on, the Queen of France became an ardent snuff enthusiast. The French Court followed her example, and the popularity of tobacco spread throughout the country. For many years the plant was called "The Queen's Herb" or "The Medici's Herb." Even those not suffering from a headache thought they could avoid the risk of getting one by an occasional sniff or two; snuff-taking rapidly became very fashionable.

But snuff was not as yet taken purely for pleasure; it was still considered strictly a medicinal preparation, to be purchased at the local apothecary's. Physicians gave it the somewhat repugnant Latin name of clysterium nasi which, liberally translated, means "nasal purge." An encyclopedia published at the time by Nicot himself provides the following listing:

"Nicotiane. An herb with miraculous healing powers against all complaints such as boils, open sores, and rashes, etc. It was introduced to France by the envoy to the King of Portugal, Mr. Jean Nicot, after whom it derived its name."

The name Nicotiana was given to the tobacco plant not by Nicot himself but by the famed Swedish botanist, Linnaeus, to acknowledge Nicot's efforts in encouraging the plant's general use. Nicot did not live to see his medical observations discredited as having little scientific value; nor did he see snuff abused and vulgarized by being taken merely for its pleasurable sensations.

In popularizing snuff, Nicot inadvertently also helped to introduce smoking. A pinch of snuff or a pipe of tobacco both produced a stimulating effect; whether one smoked or took snuff was just a matter of taste. When Frenchmen were first taking snuff, Englishmen were smoking pipes; but later on, when snuff became fashionable in England, pipe smoking had already spread throughout the rest of Europe. After Europe had had sufficient time to try both ways, the taste for smoking triumphed.
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