A Woman's Touch

The origins of cigar smoking are unknown. According to anthropologists, ancient Mayan women were just as likely as their men to smoke tobacco.

The word cigar originally derives from the Mayan sikar ("to smoke rolled tobacco leaves"). In fact, A Guatemalan ceramic pot dating back to the tenth century depicts a Mayan man smoking tobacco leaves tied together with a string.

As for women and cigars, the earliest evidence of women smoking is in fourteenth-century Aztec culture. Tobacco was used for spiritual and medicinal purposes by women doctors and midwives. An illustration features Aztec women being handed flowers and smoking pipes before eating at a banquet.

In 1492, during his explorations of the Americas, Christopher Columbus was offered dried tobacco leaves as a gift from the American Indians. Soon after, sailors brought tobacco back to Europe and the plant was being grown all over the continent.

In 1735 John Cockburn, an  Englishman traveling in Costa Rica, noted “These gentlemen gave us some seegars (sic)...these are leaves of tobacco rolled up in such a manner that they serve both for a pipe and for tobacco itself. These, the ladies, as well as gentlemen, are very fond of smoking."

Perhaps the first example of stereotyping men and women with cigars can be found in Rudyard Kipling's 1899 short story, "The Betrothed". A fiancée tells her husband-to-be, "Darling, you must choose between me and your cigars." Rudyard Kipling infamously said, “A woman is only a woman but a good cigar is a smoke”.

By the turn of the century, American and European women both enjoyed smoking. But the relationship between women and cigars (or smoking in general) continued to be a secret love affair.

Marlene Dietrich smoked while watching burlesque shows at the Frisky Pom-Pom Club in Hollywood. It’s said that she started smoking cigars in Berlin in the 1920s. At the time Berlin had women-only cigar clubs frequented by writers, artists, and others living what one would call a hedonistic lifestyle. In a cameo performance, Dietrich was shown smoking a cigar in the movie “Touch of Evil”.

Secret cigar clubs quickly sprang up in major cities in the United States. Cigars were considered the property and a privilege of men, therefore, women had to smoke in private. Independent women felt that they had the equal right to those same powers that men called their own. During the cigar boom in the 1990s, women began smoking cigars openly.

Over the last few decades, more and more women have become conspicuous about the pastime. Women began discovering cigars through a partner, friends or through other women. Perhaps, the reason women started to enjoy cigars so much is that there is something deliciously wicked about them. To partake in what was known only as a man’s habit was also once intriguing and dangerous to the modern woman.  

But most women say they partake in smoking for the same reason men do; smoking cigars is purely relaxing and enjoyable. In 2013 it was reported that about 2 percent of U.S. women say they smoke cigars, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That's about 3.2 million women. Today, it is estimated that number could be as high as five percent.

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