The Archaeology of Smoking and Tobacco

By Georgia L. Fox

(University Press of Florida, 2015; 192 pgs., illus., $70 cloth;

Nothing in the material culture of the Americas is more ubiquitous than tobacco.  From the times of the earliest Native Americans to the present, tobacco has played an important role in the culture of the Americas.  In this absorbing study, California State University-Chico, archaeologist Georgia Fox uses the disciple of historical archaeology to examine the material culture and the social aspects of tobacco use in North America in the post-Columbus era.

While prehistoric Native Americans primarily used tobacco in religious and spiritual settings, European Americans developed a culture around the social and recreational consumption of it. Historical archaeology is informed by the examination of historical documents and the study of archaeological items.  Fox skillfully uses both to paint an expansive picture of tobacco use in North America.  Tobacco was the first major export from the New World and it has played an important economic role ever since.  Its discovery, production, consumption, and trade are important parts of the American experience.

Until the 20th century, tobacco was usually smoked in clay or stone pipes.  These pipes, which are found in abundance on nearly every historical site in North America, are critical parts of the American historical record.  At Jamestown, for instance, archaeologists have already recovered more than 50,000 pieces of clay smoking pipes dating from 1620 to 1690.  Pocahontas’ husband, John Rolfe, introduced varieties of tobacco from South America to appeal to European tastes, and it was soon the colony’s most important product.

Using the historical record and DNA analysis of smoking pipes, archaeologists are learning a lot about smoking among women.  African American slaves had their own smoking rituals and paraphernalia.  In Western boomtowns like Virginia City, tobacco, along with drinking and gambling, were the most common forms of entertainment.  Evidence of tobacco chewing is also found in spittoons.  Pipes and other tobacco related artifacts can be sourced and dated, making them important tools for archaeologists exploring historical sites.

Fox tells us that tobacco played an important role in every major shift in American life, such as the change from rural farming communities to raw industrial cities, for example. She finds that tobacco made those traumatic transitions easier. “It was a binder of human experience regardless of gender, class or ethnicity,” she writes. The Archaeology of Smoking and Tobacco is an engaging study of Americans’ perceptions of themselves.


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