Banned: Women not allowed to smoke in public (1908)

Woman smoking a cigarette 100 years ago

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Back in 1908, a law was passed in 1908 in New York City made it illegal for women to smoke in public places. Called the Sullivan Ordinance, the rule only survived two weeks.

Here’s an opinion column that was published shortly after the ban began.

Having saved women from cigarettes, will Little Tim now rescue them from cocktails?

Which is worse? Smoking in public or drinking to excess in exclusive cafes?

by Ethel Powers – The Evening World (New York, N.Y.) January 24, 1908

They have stopped women from smoking in public! Their excuse for this is public decency.

They say it is wrong for women to smoke in public places — that it is offensive to those who look on and detrimental to the character and dignity of the fair sex.

Who say and do this? Why, who else but those lords of creation — men.

Having saved women from cigarettes, will Little Tim now rescue them from cocktails

Perhaps they are right. They are very wise and know lots of things — lots more than a poor woman can know — about public decency and everything else.

But if man is so interested in — so solicitous — about weak, wayward woman, why doesn’t he reform her altogether?

Why does he stop her from a little evil like smoking in public when there is a greater, a viler, a more scandalizing evil, which he can and should remedy — mighty and gifted lawmaker that he is! — and that is drinking in public?

Stop the thirsty sisters from sipping their wine and swallowing their cocktails in the big, exclusive cafes, and you need never worry about anything else they do.

The beginning and end of their cigarette and other habits is in the wine or cocktail glass.

Actress Belle Archer smoking a cigarette

Mean man encourages them to do this

If it is poor taste for women to be seen smoking in the so-called exclusive cafes of New York, then surely it is something to be deplored when they are allowed to sit down and drink just as long as their escorts will pay for the liquor.

It is not an uncommon sight to see women helped to their carriage after spending part of an evening at one of New York’s “exclusive” restaurants. Admitting that it is unladylike for women to smoke, is not their indulgence in intoxicating liquor more to be abhorred? And is it not the men who encourage them to do this?

A woman may smoke a dozen cigarettes and still be able to walk out of a cafe with dignity, but what woman can drink half a dozen glasses of wine and get to her carriage unaided?

Shall the ban include men? If women are not permitted to smoke in public, why not prohibit men from smoking in the exclusive restaurants?

It might perhaps be a relief to a sensitive woman if she knew that smoking was altogether debarred from these cafes. It isn’t the most pleasant thing in the world for the woman to have her escort sitting opposite puffing cigar smoke in her face.

Prior to the passage of the anti-cigarette ordinance, a prominent restaurant proprietor of New York stated that women were prohibited from smoking in the most exclusive hotels and resorts in Paris.

1971 Virginia Slims - Women and cigarettes 1908
1971 ad for Virginia Slims cigarettes, with mention of the 1908 smoking ban

Women smoke in Paris

Having spent last summer in the French capital, and having visited all the best cafes, I must take issue with him on that point.

At the Ritz, for example, which is considered one of the most exclusive hotels in Paris and is patronized by the “swagger set” and the nobility, women are permitted to smoke.

Women of the highest circles in Paris, grandes dames of the Russian and English nobility, and even of our four hundred, are in the habit of indulging in the weed at tables in the Ritz.

At the Prex Catalin, a tea garden which is owned by the proprietor of the Figaro and is frequented by the swelldom of the capital, women are not only allowed to smoke, but the proprietor’s wife, a noted Parisian beauty, is seen daily smoking in her husband’s cafe.

More women choosing to smoke cigarettes (1897)

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