This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

The use of tobacco in old-time Phoenix


As a time-traveler, and non-smoker, I often think about how much tobacco was in use in old-time Phoenix.

If you look at the interior of an old building in Phoenix, and really want to see what it looked like "back in the day", you have to include the use of tobacco. To our modern eyes, it would be a world of smoggy, hazy, rooms, the smell of burning cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. And there would also be the smell of tobacco that had been recently (and not so recently) spit out, into a "spittoon".

It's difficult for me to imagine, but the use of tobacco was very common up until the 1970s, when I was coming of age. Up to that time, aside from people who considered it "a nasty habit", it hadn't been conclusively linked to lung cancer, and even doctors smoked. My parents gave up smoking in the late 1960s, but I had often been told that the doctor told my mother to to "continue with her regular habits", which included smoking, when she was pregnant with me.

As a non-smoker, my working experience has been very lucky. I started my corporate career in Los Angeles in the 1980s, when smoking was just being banned from workplaces (and I worked for Blue Cross, and they were very insistent on it!), and Valley Center (now Chase Tower) had just banned smoking in the building when I got there in the early '90s. So I sometimes look at old buildings and imagine that I would be coughing and choking amidst the all the smoke, and smell. But probably not.

Time-travel with me. Let's walk into the lobby of the Adams Hotel in the 1920s, which is the picture at top of this post. That's where the Marriott Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel is nowadays. Of course, you can't smoke in the lobby now, but back in the 1920s, you would have been weird if you didn't. The old-timers may have still insisted on chewing tobacco, and would have been disgusted at the lack of spittoons. Wealthy businessmen would display their wealth with expensive cigars that sent up plumes of smoke like smokestacks. Even the ladies were smoking cigarettes, as a way of showing how modern and liberated they were. Kids would be smoking in Adam's Alley (formerly Melinda's Alley).

And so, even if we're non-smokers now, back then we probably would have been smokers. And we wouldn't have noticed the use of tobacco then any more than people notice the smell of internal combustion engines now.

Image at the top of this post: the lobby of the Adams Hotel in the 1920s. How many ash trays can you count in the photo? Hey! Is that a spittoon?


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