The impossible allure of smoking

An ad in the September 1940 issue of Mademoiselle
An ad in the September 1940 issue of Mademoiselle introduced Debs Rose Tips, a special brand of red-tipped cigarettes.

The sight of someone smoking a cigarette disgusts me. But — truth be told — back in the day, I puffed away on Pall Malls.

Fact is, I couldn’t wait to get started. Smoking was so sophisticated ­— such a fun, grown-up thing to do in the late 1950s, when I was in my late teens. And because I was out on my own, living in the big city, I wanted to fit in. It seemed everyone there smoked — even my doctor.

Little did I realize this cavalier attitude would soon be shattered. The U.S. Surgeon General’s report in 1964 linking cigarettes to lung cancer and heart disease changed our smoking culture dramatically. It also convinced to me stop cold turkey.

But before then, cigarettes were advertised in all the media. Billboards displayed them prominently. I recall a radio jingle that went, “I’d walk a mile for a mild, mild Camel. They’re so mild they suit me to a tee.” 

Magazines carried full-page ads. One actually showed an artist’s rendering of a doctor in a white jacket, wearing a stethoscope, with the caption: “20,679 physicians say Luckies are less irritating.” 

My older sister collected fashion magazines. The September 1940 issue of Mademoiselle depicts a special brand of cigarettes produced by Benson & Hedges made exclusively for lipstick-wearing women, called Debs Rose Tips. The tips of the cigarettes were flame red.

With all this hype, who wouldn’t want to smoke? Plus, smoking was an aid for my job. As an airline stewardess, I was obligated to keep my weight down. 

It was well known among my flying peers that smoking kept you thin. 

And everyone did it. My roommates smoked. My boyfriends smoked. And it was done almost everywhere. Many of the pilots I worked with couldn’t wait to switch off the “no smoking” sign so they could light up. Some offices had ash trays on workers’ desks. At parties and restaurants, a cigarette just seemed to go with sipping a drink. 

I seem to remember that smoking was especially prevalent at jazz clubs, which were very popular then. 

To this day, hearing the superb music of 1960s jazz legends Erroll Garner and Dave Brubeck evokes a smoke-filled cabaret, like Freddie’s on Second Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. 

Oddly, I dared not smoke in front of my parents. Whenever I’d go to our small town in southwestern Minnesota for a weekend visit, I’d abstain completely. 

The prevailing attitude there seemed to be that women who smoked cigarettes were disreputable; my Norwegian mother and her sisters certainly sniped at those who did. However, it was OK — somehow almost expected — of men. My dad happily indulged in cigars all his life.

As I recall those days, I coughed a lot, and had an inordinate number of colds and respiratory infections. How could I be so dense as not to associate this with cigarettes?

Witnessing today’s trend of vaping among youth, I can only think, “What fools we mortals be.”

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to [email protected].