Cincinnati Women Who Smoked Endured Disdain, Harassment, And Even Divorce

At one time, lighting up was not only grounds for divorce, but evidence that a woman hankered for the louche life of a prostitute. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Back in the 1970s, with the tagline “You’ve come a long way, baby,” the Virginia Slims cigarette brand published a series of humorous advertisements linking a woman’s right to smoke with women’s liberation in general. A typical ad portrayed a sepia-toned damsel sneaking a smoke in the basement, with the caption:

“In 1915, Mrs. Cynthia Robinson was caught smoking in the cellar behind the preserves. Although she was 34, her husband sent her straight to her room.”

Cincinnati women took to cigarettes in increasing numbers after the dawn of the Twentieth Century, much to the dismay of their husbands.

Two Women Smoking On A Sofa From Cincinnati Enquirer 8 May 1898 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Boffo yucks, no? But did those advertisements really reflect reality? In Cincinnati, at least, that was very much the way things were. Queen City women who smoked faced all sorts of harassment. Lighting up a cigarette was not only grounds for divorce, but evidence that a woman hankered for the louche life of a prostitute.

The Cincinnati Enquirer [13 November 1900] related the sad tale of Arthur Graham and his newlywed wife, Viola:

“Arthur Graham, a young shoemaker who is employed in a big factory on West Fourth street, between Main and Sycamore streets, believed that he was the happiest fellow on earth, and that his wife was the soul of honor, until she began to spend his wages for cigarettes. That set him to thinking, and he was not at all surprised when she left him. He heard that she had entered a house on Longworth street, and yesterday afternoon he called Patrol 1 and had her removed from the place to Central Station, where the mismatched couple told their troubles to Lieutenant Geist. She was released on her promise to return home.”

It appears that the Grahams patched things up despite her sojourn on Longworth Street. Although that infamous avenue was the very heart of Cincinnati’s red-light district, it might be uncharitable to imagine Viola engaging in naughty behavior. Maybe she sought employment in a brothel as a maid or a cook. Maybe. In any event, the couple remained together until Arthur died in 1966. Perhaps they learned to share an ash tray.

Not so George Osgood of 256 Butler Street. He was granted a divorce in 1902 from Mary “Millie” Osgood. George told the judge that Millie started on a “faithless career” by smoking cigarettes and had even adopted an alias as “Kate Keller,” a typical practice by prostitutes at the time.

In 1914, truck driver William Middaugh of West Fourth Street filed for divorce from his wife, Cassie, because she smoked cigarettes in front of company. Apparently, sneaking a smoke behind the preserves was okay by him.

Men suspected women of indulging in cigarettes secretly for years. When women took their private vice public, men erupted in outrage.

Woman Reclining On Sofa Smoking From “The Illustrated Book of Manners” by Robert de Valcourt Published 1866 in Cincinnati by R.W. Carroll & Co. Digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

The situation was somewhat more complicated when Charles W. Mangan’s wife filed for divorce in 1917. Mangan, employed by the Central Railway and Hotel Distributing Company on Reading Road, responded that Nettie Mangan not only smoked, but drank and threw furniture at him.

Similarly, John H. Gardner of 1036 Findlay Street had more than tobacco on his mind when he filed for divorce in 1922. His wife, Nellie, he alleged, not only smoked cigarettes, but spent his money at the racetrack and absconded to Phoenix with another man.

When she lit up a smoke on their 1925 honeymoon, Mabel Collinsworth Kopp “shattered the ideals” of her groom, Melville Kopp. Asserting that she also read “questionable” magazines, Melville, who made his living playing the organ at movie theaters, filed for divorce. Mabel responded that Melville had only married her to escape the affections of another young lady and that Melville’s parents never liked her. Melville told the court that his mother objected to Mabel’s smoking.

As early as 1885, cigarette smoking raised serious questions about a woman’s morals. The Cincinnati Post [3 November 1885] interviewed a dealer in second-hand books at his stall on Fifth Street near Mound. That neighborhood included several elementary schools and the reporter, noticing that the book monger offered several brands of cigarettes for sale, assumed that his customers were school children. Not so. It was women who bought the smokes. The dealer told the Post:

“I believe there are more women than men who smoke in this part of town – and drink – if you could see as much of it as I do. I believe there are five women to one man in this locality who drink.”

This led the Post reporter, it appears, to reconsider his entire opinion of the fairer sex.

“The old gentleman placed the smoking and drinking by women in juxtaposition and the Post realized that the woman who stimulates with a cigarette will soon not object to a fluid stimulant.”

That is just the opinion, nearly 35 years later, expressed by Rabbi David Philipson of Rockdale Temple, who in a 1919 sermon, excoriated “slaves to fashion” who smoke, drink, “emulate chorus girls” and regard as old fogies those decent folks who try to abide by “laws of decency and reverence.”

The rabbi was strongly seconded by famed evangelist William Ashley “Billy” Sunday, who blew into Cincinnati on a 1921 crusade. After blasting a veritable menagerie of modern wickedness, Sunday zeroed in on one particular target: the “damphool woman” who smokes cigarettes. “She’s skating on thin ice,” he thundered as his audience at the First Presbyterian Church shouted “Amen.”

Having none of this was Allene Sumner, author of the “Woman’s Day” column in the Cincinnati Post. When the National Fire Protection Association proclaimed that incendiary hazards had increased astronomically since women took up smoking, Ms. Sumner was roused [9 June 1927] to feminist ardor:

“They say sarcastic things about ‘the natural refinement of women rapidly succumbing to this habit.’ Wonder just how many generations it will be before human minds will function sufficiently rationally to have shed tradition and prejudice and do enough straight thinking to see that there is little or no connection between ‘a woman’s refinement’ and whether she smokes or not, any more than whether or not she can be refined and eat chocolates or drink coffee?”

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