Georgina Grant, Smoking and Respectable Femininity

Georgina is a Curatorial Officer for the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, based at Blists Hill Victorian Town. She has the responsibility of maintaining, developing and delivering the interpretation of the 52 acre site. Her role is varied, ranging from researching the history of canal vessels to installing Quaker costume displays and giving talks on a traditional Victorian Christmas. Follow Georgina @GeorgyGrant.

 ‘I never saw a woman – not a basket woman or a gipsy – smoke before!’ Charles Dickens 1846

I was recently tasked with the challenge of re-interpreting a gallery of prints. There are nearly fifty eighteenth and nineteenth century prints in the gallery, and not much is known about them. The prints are generally satirical pieces, poking fun at those who smoke tobacco and the fashions surrounding it. The aim of the re-display is to take time researching the images and bring to light attitudes towards smoking in these centuries.

One print particularly caught my eye. It is of a lady dressed in a riding outfit, standing in front of elegant furniture. In one hand she holds a riding whip, and in the other a cigarette. She almost defiantly blows smoke out through her mouth. Out of all the prints, there are only two focusing on women smoking. The other print is dated 1801 and depicts a working class woman puffing away on a clay pipe. She is sitting outside a pawnbrokers. There is not so much surprising about this print. She is painted as ugly and in an immoral light; a device often used to depict feminine smoking. Smoking amongst both genders of the working class was also common, especially so during the eighteenth century.

Nevertheless, women were rarely depicted in the act of smoking. The print of the lady in the riding outfit made me wonder who she was. There is no inscription on the print; no hint as to when it was produced, by who or for whom.

Using the style of the riding outfit to date the print, it could be assumed that the print dates to 1849-1859. What intrigues me most is that it illustrates a Victorian woman smoking. Feminine smoking was openly criticised by respectable society in the mid Victorian era. Subsequently very few women smoked.

Feminine smoking was heavily associated with loose morals and prostitution. For a lady to smoke during the mid nineteenth century was to condemn herself as ‘fast’. Women did not smoke, only their suitors did. Towards the end of the century, whispers circulated about women smoking cigarettes. They were judged as extremely loose women. Indeed cigarettes became a common feature in Victorian erotic photography.

One of the earliest mentions of feminine smoking comes from an illustration in the satirical magazine Punch in 1851. ‘A Quiet Smoke’ depicts five women in a tobacconists shop. They are wearing wide skirts and bloomers and three of the ladies are smoking. The suggestion is that if women are willing to copy male attire, they are likely to imitate other male traits such as smoking. But this picture is satire and cannot be assumed as general societal behaviour. Only bohemian intellectuals, the rebellious and artists risked defying convention.

So who is the lady in the riding outfit? Perhaps she is a bohemian, pushing the boundaries of respectable femininity or possibly she is one of the women from those elite circles in the 1850s, amongst which cigarette smoking became popular. Another theory is that as lady who rides, or even hunts, she has adopted male behaviour. One of the concerns about women who hunted was their adoption of immoral behaviour, no doubt learnt from their companions in the field – drunken, raucous men. In his Hunting Sketches (1865), Anthony Trollope describes this concern:

‘There are two accusations which the more demure portion of the world is apt to advance…against hunting as an amusement for ladies. It leads to flirting…and it leads to fast habits…’

(Now) laughable reasons given by critics on feminine smoking also include the growth of female moustaches caused by the movement of the lips while smoking (Religious Tract Society 1898) and the more extreme idea that by adopting masculine habits, women may bring the human race to an end.

Towards the late nineteenth century, a few more women began to smoke; cigarettes were cheaper and more readily available at this time. But the liberal, educated ‘new woman’ who smoked tobacco did not become popular in art right until the turn of the century. Even then the link between smoking and sexual habits, real or imagined, remained strong.

The research into this print revealed more than I first assumed. By and large Victorian women are renowned for their ‘good’ conduct and it was interesting to find something which publically contradicted that behaviour. The ideology of women smoking in the Victorian era brings to light attitudes felt towards them on a larger scale, such as what was deemed respectable feminine behaviour and their role in society. Smoking was (and it can be argued, remains) a contentious topic, and by delving deeper into research ‘different’ histories can be brought to light and provoke opinion.


I would like to thank the Senior Costume Interpreter at the Costume Project for helping me to date the print.

Related posts:

Fragments of the Modern City: Material Culture and the Rhythms of Everyday Life in Victorian London

New Women vs. Old Men?: sexual danger and ‘social narratives’ in later Victorian England


One comment

  1. It may have been Lola Montez whom Dickens met on the lecture circuit. A lot of the woman smoked cigars too or a special pink cigarette not to mention snuff. Do send me copy of the print and your email and I think I still have copy of a print of her smoking. V interesting article thanks.

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