where there’s smoke in the american past…there’s probably a cigarette.
- Sarah Milov, The Cigarette: A Political History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019)
- Nan Enstad, Cigarettes, Inc.: An Intimate History of Corporate Imperialism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018)
Lipstick traces on a cigarette / All these memories, baby, are with me yet — written by Allen Toussaint, sung by Benny Spellman, 1962
A leading man suavely leans forward with his lighter to ignite a femme fatale’s cigarette in a 1940s film noir. A “cigarette girl” moves across a busy cabaret floor, machine-rolled offerings dangling from the tray slung around her neck. An out-of-work truck driver pulls one from his pack of Marlboro’s in a roadside diner as he reflects on his frustrations with the politicians in Washington. A beatnik pauses from his typewriter to light up, ashtray comfortably placed next to a cup of stale coffee. Although a no smoking sign warns that they should be 50 feet from the doorway, a group of tired travelers huddle just outside the airport exit doors to sneak in a few drags before heading to their flights. These are a few iconic glimpses of the cigarette in American life.
We might add many more. The African American expert on cultivating bright tobacco in rural North Carolina, exploited and never compensated. Frantic auction houses where local growers in Virginia and North Carolina wager their futures on the prices offered by consolidated corporate trusts. Factories in China suddenly erupting in labor and political protest. Courtroom after courtroom as questions of corporate law, agricultural policy, and consumer health come under continual and contested scrutiny. The working-class women of a small North Carolina town enter special doors of their cigarette factory in job-specific uniforms while, halfway around, young women in China do the same. The upper managers of the British American Tobacco Company (BAT) import Southern culture to fancy houses in Shanghai, and with it Southern Jim Crow racism. Meanwhile, cigarette branding efforts by the very same companies in China package exotic fantasies of the Orient to the American South.
Throughout all these scenes, plumes of smoke curl and waft and thicken the plot. They float over jazz dance floors and around cabarets, from the stands of baseball games and even from the dugouts, from offices and factories and bars and street corners. Cigarettes are so omnipresent on the radio that it seems like you can smell the bright leaf over the air. Then, suddenly, on television, a consumer right’s activist lawyer shockingly throws water from a glass on his opponent’s cigarette during a debate about the rights of nonsmokers. The cigarette begins to disappear from view, or so it seems, as more and more Americans come to understand its effects on health. In fact, despite enormous efforts legally, politically, and culturally to limit the deadly reach of the cigarette and its addictive nicotine draw, sales continue to boom worldwide.
We might say, then, to adjust the old adage somewhat, that where there’s smoke…there’s a cigarette. In Sarah Milov’s The Cigarette: A Political History and Nan Enstad’s Cigarettes, Inc.: An Intimate History of Corporate Imperialism, the cigarette burns with historical significance—and not only the cigarette itself lights up history in these two books, but also the idea of the cigarette. Milov and Enstad reveal how cigarettes illuminate larger ideological and ideational worlds. Everything from economics and the law to the development of hierarchies grounded in system of racial, gendered, and class-based domination come into view. Production of fortunes, consolidations of power, unexpected results of legal maneuverings, the ongoing need by the controllers of capital to exploit labor, surprising connections between regions of the world far apart from one another, and cultural activities ranging from workplace norms to the intimacies of eating and homemaking to activities of leisure such as jazz, dancing, and baseball are among topics that Milov and Enstad probe through their focus on the cigarette. In this way, a cigarette is never just a cigarette, to borrow Freud’s infamous remark about cigars; instead, the cigarette traces lines deep into key issues of twentieth-century American history. The nature of state power, the contours of the corporation as a cultural form as well as a financial and legal instrument, the historiography of conservatism and liberalism, the dynamics of empire and imperialism…the cigarette’s fumes are on everything.
Milov and Enstad are both interested in the larger implications of this iconic material object. While their studies diverge in methodology and scope, with Milov emphasizing political history and Enstad cultural history, they do share one goal: debunking the business history myth of the cigarette industry as an avatar of American innovation, what Enstad calls the “cult of the entrepreneur” who supposedly produced profits by mastering “superior technology.” For Milov, business history’s portrayal of the cigarette industry as a model of daring managerial and technological triumph in the private sector conceals a long-running mode of “associational governance” through which tobacco interests harnessed the power of the state to achieve their economic clout. Cigarette makers were only challenged, eventually, by the middle-class reform efforts of antismokers to advance a new mode of the public interest. Ironically, however, the rights-based discourse that the antismoking movement embraced during the rise of the New Right during the 1970s and 80s ended up not only opposing the tobacco lobby, but also undermining the very notion of public interest for which antismokers thought they were fighting. By linking antismoking to individual culpability and achieving their aims through the connection of smoking to measurements of worker productivity, the new regulations and laws the efforts of nonsmoking advocates produced became but new ways of harassing and hurting poor people and racial minorities. For Milov, this is no business history to be celebrated, but rather a political history that is a “thicket of contradictions” in which “the early years provided economic stability for the few at the expense of the broad public health” and “the new system” that replaced it by the 1970s and 80s “saves lives even as it stigmatizes.”
Milov presents a political and legal history of the cigarette that is very much focused on the American national story. The cigarette leads her to identify an important mode of governmentality—governmental associationalism—in American life that she contends has never been properly recognized and appreciated. She shows how in the political and legal arena, tobacco and the cigarette’s commercial successes arose from networks that defied the typical boundaries historians draw between the state, the marketplace, and other institutions. Instead, associational governance tended to integrate public and private institutions—farmers, corporations, nonprofit groups, public-private agencies—into a functional and stabilized system. It brought tobacco from the fields to auction houses to corporate factories to agencies such as Tobacco Associates, which in the 1930s flowed out of expanding New Deal bureaucracy to become a private-public entity endowed with a kind of quasi-regulatory power.
Milov traces these connections to suggest that we rethink assumptions about the decline of state power in the face of conservative critiques over the course of the middle and late-twentieth century. In fact, tobacco farmers and corporations used nonprofit organizations endowed with state-like regulatory power to sustain their system of control, to try to manage the forces of capitalism effectively. First established in the New Deal, this associational governance turn expanded use of state regulatory power well into the twenty-first century. Often paradoxically aligned with conservative political forces ostensibly opposed to state manipulation of the supposed “free market,” cigarette groups contradict the idea that New Deal liberalism’s vision of managed economies died out with the rise of the New Right. Not so when it came to the cigarette.
Milov also reveals another irony in how we think about recent American political history too, this time on the left side of the American political and ideological spectrum. The turn away from economic issues to a rights-based argument for the needs of nonsmokers in the 1960s and 70s undermined the liberal belief that conceptualizations of individual “wellness” and consumer rights would be good for all Americans. Rather than help the less fortunate, the new sensibilities of antismoking health and the rights of nonsmokers put the blame of cigarette addiction not on those making the cigarettes or blocking the effective regulation of them, but rather on the individual culpability of smokers themselves. This neoliberal turn, Milov notes, has had a disproportionate impact on poorer Americans and citizens of color, hardly a liberal goal in any conscious way. Smokers were to blame rather than the larger structures that delivered cigarettes to their hands and lungs.
When you clear the air concealing deeper historical implications of both the misunderstood history of producer groups who took over public power through associational governance from the 1930s onward and the little explored rights-based, individualistic liberalism of public interest advocacy groups in the 1960s to the present, as Milov does, it reveals that neither was particularly effective at redistributive justice. Producer groups put profits above public health and privileged corporations while only sharing a sliver of the bright leaf profits with the farmers producing tobacco. In doing so, they wound up especially reinforcing the inequities of Jim Crow racism. Antismoking reformers substituted their own middle-class vision of the good life for the collective public good life, stigmatizing racial minorities and poorer Americans in both their work and personal lives without creating adequate resources for extending the well-being of all citizens.
One suspects Nan Enstad would not disagree with any of the findings in Milov’s study, however her investigation of the idea of cigarettes is dramatically different in method and scope. She brings a sensitivity to cultural forces in order to challenge existing assumptions in business history about entrepreneurial and technological causality. And she positions the story of American cigarettes in a transnational rather than a national framework. Enstad reveals a fraught tale of the expansion of racist Southern, Jim Crow ideological hierarchies to the world, one cigarette at a time. In doing so, she often throws the gauntlet (or maybe the ashtray) down at the feet of business historians and recent historians of capitalism by demonstrating how the intimate cultural networks of bright leaf tobacco production and distribution drove the rise of infamous supposed “innovators” at the American Tobacco Company (ATC) rather than individual genius or technological acumen. They weren’t, it turned out, particularly innovative.
To a greater extent than even Milov, Enstad is convinced that the business history portrayal of the American tobacco industry is “mired in fables.” It has been driven by Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” as the engine of capitalism, but Enstad will have none of this. Carefully retracing how the ATC achieved its success beyond what she convincingly argues are the less-crucial acts of James B. Duke, she contends instead that a “bright leaf network” from the Upper South rolled together Jim Crow ideas about racial hierarchy with colonial modes of domination in order to enact a “corporate imperialism” and profit from “corporate enchantment,” an intriguing notion Enstad puts forward of the corporation not as a narrow economic or legal entity, but rather as a cultural imaginary encompassing “the whole of life, including intimacy, desire, and sexuality, not just a falsely isolated notion of economy.” Tobacco’s success, for Enstad, was less about disruptive innovation than it was about consolidating control over the ideological dimensions of tobacco. “The bright leaf network,” she writes, “was a product of Jim Crow.” And as overseas US tobacco interests such as BAT, dominated by the ATC with James B. Duke as chairman of both corporations, brought tobacco to places such as China, “part of its mission…was to manage corporate expansion while generating racial distinctions and hierarchy.” Southern American and overseas Chinese activities begin to appear in Enstad’s study as contiguous, of a historical piece rather than disparate. Enstad’s shift to culture, broadly imagined, rather than politics, narrowly conceived, draws out deeper theoretical connections powering the rise of tobacco as a historical force in America.
Moreover, political history itself changes through her methodological approach. Tobacco, as she explains, led the way in “transfiguring” the abstraction of the corporation into the status of legal personhood. Companies such as the ATC used the concept of citizenship put forward in the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War not to extend rights to individuals such as former slaves, but instead to solidify the idea of the corporation as quite “literally and functionally” an individual under law. This legal move was a kind of enchantment, and it was of a piece, Enstad notes, with the eventual magical positioning of not only tangible but also intangible elements as valuable property. Factories, buildings, equipment, and supplies constituted the economic power of the American Tobacco Company (ATC), to be sure, as it consolidated into a trust, but so do did the enchantment of “patents, trademarks, brands.” These also became property to own despite their abstract, intangible qualities. Indeed, as Enstad explains, when the ATC was dismantled after a Supreme Court antitrust case in 1911, of its $227 million in assets, $45 million were in trademarks. As Enstad points out, one misses the oddness of this economic and political situation unless one investigates it culturally, as an act of legerdemain in which new ideas about intangibles become custom as well as law. ATC’s success was not because of James B. Duke’s creative destruction as a Schumpeterian hero; it was because the company succeeded in extending the cultural value of its trademarks. “The brand was magical property,” as Enstad points out.
Enstad wants to trouble the celebratory tales of American capitalist triumph. In doing so, she also expands who participated in it. Even the corporation itself, in her historical recounting, becomes far more than just an instrument of economic innovation wielded by a CEO and a board of directors; to Enstad, drawing on ideas of Abram Chayes, it includes far more than just its owners, but also a broader “incorporation” of workers, wives and servants of managers, consumers, and inanimate entities such as the (maybe especially the) symbolic value of corporate brands. With every inhalation and exhalation by actual people, with every cigarette made, marketed, distributed, sold, and purchased, the corporation breathed life into its multitudinous social body according to Enstad. Whether in factories that disciplined transnational labor, through new modes of etiquette among an international class of merchants and managers, with the development of myriad brands that cut and sorted consumer markets into new communities of identification, when wafting across the jazz dance floor of a new cosmopolitan modernity, or in contested struggles over the uses, meanings, and allure of tobacco, the cigarette’s glow illuminates “a diversity of stories of capitalism that dominant corporate imaginaries erase.” In this way, for Enstad, “the social and cultural history of business is of critical importance,” for it is capable of fully “revealing the workings of power.”
Both books offer cold-eyed stares at the cigarette’s embers burning up American political and cultural history over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Milov and Enstad also share an interest in something less commonly found in historical inquiry: a curiosity about the magic of the cigarette. As an addictive drug that could make you feel good (but also kill you), cigarettes were indeed magical. But there is more to the enchantment of tobacco than just its chemical effects. As Milov shows, cigarette makers and their allies continually found ways to persist and thrive despite mounting challenges to their business as the true health impacts of the cigarette became undeniable. Their opponents also discovered that cigarettes were a kind of magic wand for altering the norms, rules, and laws of American life. In Milov’s book, we learn that public interest law itself arose, in part, from the potency of disgust with tobacco’s seemingly magical powers. Bright leaf had a conjury to it.
Even more than Milov, Enstad notices the magic of the cigarette. In her book, it became imbued with cultural clouds of mystique, romance, and authenticity as corporations consciously associated it with glamor, jazz, and freedom. So too, those who were exploited or treated unjustly by the tobacco industry’s economic, legal, and social machinations themselves cleverly wielded cigarettes to light up seemingly darkened doorways of opportunity, if often in compromised ways that ultimately turned to ash.
The magic of the cigarette reveals powerful illusions at the heart of American history. Enstad is explicitly interested in “corporate enchantment,” the value mystically endowed in corporations, granting them individual personhood and enabling their products to be consumed as brands that express individual personhood and collective belonging. How does this magic happen? Enstad helps us recognize the trick through expert use of cultural history methods that reveal the irrationality at the core of seemingly rational processes of political economy. Milov, by contrast, seems at first more narrowly rational in her political focus. But even her brand of political history, very prominent these days as the dominant method in twentieth-century US history, also expresses a fascination with the magic of the cigarette. In her case, the uncanny capacities of the cigarette to cause unexpected political outcomes appears as a clever sleight of hand, legally and politically. Through associational governance and its seeming opposite of public interest law and activism (in fact oddly similar in certain ways), the cigarette’s history changes the way we understand the market, the state, and society as a whole in the twentieth-century United States. What at first look like clear boundaries between economics, politics, and cultural forces actually blurred in a haze of tobacco smoke—and then in the effort to wave that smoke away.
In very different modes, both these books show how the cigarette’s complex past contains unexpected and sometimes downright mysterious historical causalities. To paraphrase Marx, cigarettes made their own history, but not as they pleased. Whether examining tobacco through politics, economics, law, social relationships, or cultural forms, Milov and Enstad both suggest that at the core of the American past, we often encounter strikingly vaporous forces. Puff on that awhile as you think about the many lives affected by the magical, and deadly, effects of tobacco.