Exploring the history of Phoenix, Arizona, just for fun. Advertising-free, supported by my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!

Smoking in old-time Phoenix



As a non-smoker myself, I often cringe at the thought of going back in time and the amount of tobacco use that I would see. I'm old enough myself to remember a time when people were allowed to smoke in airplanes, and most restaurants were divided into "smoking" and "non-smoking" areas. I saw the transition from just about everyone smoking, to less and less and now it's actually rare to see someone who smokes.

Of course, like so many things "back in the day", our first thought is "how could they have been doing something that was so bad for them, so dangerous, that caused cancer?" and they answer is that they didn't know. Evidence linking tobacco with lung cancer really wasn't considered definitive until the United States Surgeon General's Report in 1964, and even then, as now, government reports were often things that people were skeptical of. But in my lifetime, which includes that era, when I was a little kid, public opinion is for the most part accepting of the severe dangers of tobacco use.

So let's time-travel back to old-time Phoenix, even if we're just going back to pre-1964. Smoking is so common that you'd hardly notice it. People would be smoking walking down the street, while shopping, in restaurants, in elevators. Tobacco use was considered a mark of maturity for boys as teens, and sophistication for young women. Stopping on a street corner and lighting a cigarette was the height of "looking cool", like the movie stars did. And it was a rebellious thing that showed everyone around you that no one could tell you what to do. Yes, there were "no-smoking" areas, usually around flammable chemicals, but it was considered very cool to ignore those signs. Mechanics regularly leaned over internal combustion engines with a cigarette dangling from their lips.

To the picture of old-time Phoenix that you conjure up in your mind, you have to add cigarette butts just about everywhere, on the streets, on the floor. A stub of a cigarette really isn't a terrible thing to leave on the ground outside, it's simply a tiny amount of paper and tobacco leaves, but in my post-1964 mind it conjures up an image of not only litter, but filth. Unfair to tobacco, I know! And before the modern era it was common to see people throw cigarettes out of the window of their cars. Cars always had ash trays, but they weren't always used.

Image at the top of this post: the lobby of the Adams Hotel in the 1920s, Central and Adams, Phoenix, Arizona. Note the ash trays, and the spittoons (for spitting chewing tobacco). The air would have been blue in those days.

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