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Tobacco has long been a subject of fascination and concern, for a variety of reasons. The New York Public Library possesses significant collections relating to the history of tobacco, containing materials that cross many different cultures and areas of research; these collections serve scholars from many fields, including literature, history, art history, the history of the book, and the sciences. Drawing upon these rich resources, Dry Drunk provides historical context for the uses and abuses of tobacco, showing, among other things, that it has been the focus of endless, if ever-shifting controversy since the moment of its introduction into Europe from the New World.

Like the potato, tobacco is a member of the Solanaceoe or nightshade family (genus Nicotiana) native to the Americas, and it seems to have mystified Columbus and his crew when they arrived in the New World at the end of the 15th century. Nonetheless, over the course of the following century the novel herb worked its way solidly into European culture. By the mid-16th century, it was grown in discrete quantities all over Europe, where the plant was widely held to be a medical panacea. By the early 17th century, the curious practice of inhaling its smoke had become a popular leisure activity. It was not until the latter part of that century, however, that the verb "to smoke" came into use; before then, one "drank" tobacco smoke, generally through a pipe. This activity was described as titillating to the senses in a way analogous to the imbibing of alcohol, and it shared many associations with drunkenness. A first-time tobacco "drinker" had to grow accustomed to the taste, as with alcohol, and the practice tended to be zealously abused like, and often in conjunction with, its liquid counterpart. Image after image of drunken stumbling, vomiting, undisciplined behavior, and dazed reverie as a result of drinking and smoking attest to this connection.

Appellations for the plant itself were many at first. Initially grouped with the European genus hyoscyamus or henbane, in France it came to be known as nicotiane after the ambassador, Jean Nicot, who introduced it at the French court. The latter term was formally accepted as its scientific name before the end of the 16th century and was eventually adapted for its most powerful psychoactive ingredient, the alkaloid component nicotine, which was isolated and identified only in 1828. In addition, it has been called petun(m), and picietl, just two of its native American names, as well as the divine or holy herb, the Queen's herb, and herba panacea. Most languages eventually adopted variants of tabaco, an Amerindian term that probably identifies one of the instruments through which tobacco was traditionally consumed.

For the first 300 years following the "discovery" of the herb in Europe, pipe smoking predominated. Snuff, the leaves of the plant very finely ground into powder, was mentioned in reference to Amerindian usage, and it was known and used with increasing frequency in the 17th century, but it gained momentum as an element of popular culture only around the turn of the 18th century. The cigar was a phenomenon of the 19th century, while the modern cigarette, an invention of the second quarter of the 19th century, gained preeminence only in the years between the two world wars. Recently, the cigar has recovered some of its mystique, even as the debate over tobacco has accelerated, with smokers pitted against non-smokers and, increasingly, individuals and government in conflict with tobacco companies. As we approach the 21st century, then, the history of tobacco use and abuse continues to be written

Elizabeth Wyckoff
Print Specialist

The books and prints in this exhibition are drawn from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Arents Tobacco Collection, Spencer Collection, and Rare Books Division of The New York Public Library.

The exhibition has been made possible through the continuing generosity of Miriam and Ira D. Wallach.

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