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Golden Age of Invention: Vile and Stinking Custom
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In researching Part IV of my series on the history of 17thC patents, this week I’ve been reading through the various proclamations issued by James I — the Scottish Stuart successor to Elizabeth I in 1603. I was of course supposed to focus on only the proclamations that had something to do with patent monopolies. But the full list was far too interesting to ignore.
Some of the proclamations I’ll write about another time. Many of them have to do with changes to the coinage of England, which is something I still need to get my head around. Even more are about restraining the extraordinary growth of London, by forbidding new buildings, trying to get the existing plots rebuilt in brick rather than flammable timber, and occasionally ordering courtiers, their families, and their various employees and hangers-on, out of the city. I’ll write about these properly another time, as it’s quite extraordinary that one of the things that was so important to England’s precocious economic development was so continually opposed by those in charge.
But some of the most interesting proclamations to catch my eye were about tobacco. Whereas tobacco was famously a New World crop, it is actually very easy to grow in England. Yet what the proclamations reveal is that the planting of tobacco in England and Wales was purposefully suppressed, and for some very interesting reasons.
James I was an anti-tobacco king. He even published his own tract on the subject, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, just a year after his succession to the English throne. Yet as a result of his hatred of “so vile and stinking a custom”, imports of tobacco were heavily taxed and became a major source of revenue.1 Somewhat ironically, the cash-strapped king became increasingly financially dependent on the weed he never smoked. The emergence of a domestic growth of tobacco was thus not only offensive to the king on the grounds that he thought it a horrid, stinking, and unhealthy habit — it was also a threat to his income.
What I was most surprised to see, however, was just how explicitly the king admitted this. It’s usual, when reading official proclamations, to have to read between the lines, or to have to track down the more private correspondence of his ministers. Very often James’s proclamations would have an official justification for the public good, while in the background you’ll find it originated in a proposal from an official about how much money it was likely to raise. There was money to be made in making things illegal and then collecting the fines.
Yet the 1619 proclamation against growing tobacco in England and Wales had both. The legendary Francis Bacon, by this stage Lord High Chancellor, privately noted that the policy might raise an additional £3,000 per year in customs revenue. And the proclamation itself noted that growing tobacco in England “does manifestly tend to the diminution of our customs”. Although the proclamation notes that the loss of customs revenue was not usually a grounds for banning things, as manufactures and necessary commodities were better made at home than abroad, “yet where it shall be taken from us, and no good but rather hurt thereby redound to our people, we have reason to preserve”. Fair enough.
And that’s not all. James in his proclamation expressed all sorts of other worries about domestic tobacco. Imported tobacco, he claimed, was at least only a vice restricted to the richer city sorts, where it was already an apparent source of unrest (presumably because people liked to smoke socially, gathering into what seemed like disorderly crowds). With tobacco being grown domestically, however, it was “begun to be taken in every mean village, even amongst the basest people” — an even greater apparent threat to social order. James certainly wasn’t wrong about this wider adoption. Just a few decades later, a Dutch visitor to England reported that even in relatively far-flung Cornwall “everyone, men and women, young and old, puffing tobacco, which is here so common that the young children get it in the morning instead of breakfast, and almost prefer it to bread.”2
In case disorder wasn’t enough, on public health grounds James was informed by the College of Physicians that the English-grown tobacco was “more crude, poisonous and dangerous for the bodies and healths of our subjects, than that that comes from hotter climes”. Although tobacco in general was often taken medicinally, if English tobacco was really inferior or even harmful, suppressing it thus became a matter of pharmaceutical regulation too — something James was happy to do. Just a year earlier he had decreed that all apothecaries were to use a standard recipe book, written up by the College of Physicians too. (One rather wonders if the influence he gave the physicians meant that they had been willing to tell him whatever he wanted to hear about the relative merits of English-grown tobacco.)
And tobacco was a threat to food security — one of the most important issues of the time. By taking up the land that would otherwise be used for growing food, tobacco increased the risk of famine in lean years. Before the proclamation, the king had already had his Privy Council issue orders banning the growth of tobacco within a few miles of London. With the city’s expanding population already a source of concern, the growth of tobacco nearby was all the more worrisome “in regard of the conversions of garden grounds, and rich soiled grounds from diverse roots and herbs”. Indeed, I suspect that food security was the original justification behind the entire policy of regulating tobacco, as it was a common reason behind many other prohibitions too.
The use of grain for starch, for example, to stiffen those wonderful Tudor and Jacobean ruffs, had become increasingly regulated in the 1600s on exactly the same grounds. When those regulations failed, in 1610 starch-making in general was simply banned. Inns and alehouses were similarly a target for regulation, on the grounds that the barley used to strengthen beer and ale could also be used for bread. Even the growth of woad for dyeing cloth, which the Elizabethan government had actually encouraged, had immediately been restricted by the same government when it proved too popular a crop. If policymakers were using food security to justify restrictions on even the things they thought essential to the nation’s economy, like woad, they were certainly more than happy to use the same justification to prohibit the things they thought were useless vanities, like tobacco.
Indeed, policymakers thought that the domestic production of tobacco would actively harm one of their key economic projects: the development of the colonies of Virginia and the Somers Isles (today known as Bermuda). Although James I hoped that their growth of tobacco would be only a temporary economic stop-gap, “until our said colonies may grow to yield better and more solid commodities”, he believed that without tobacco the nascent colonial economies would never survive. Banning the domestic growth of tobacco thus became an essential part of official colonial policy — one that was continued by James’s successors, who did not always share his more general hatred of smoking. Although the other justifications for banning domestic tobacco would soon fall away, that of maintaining the colonies — backed by an increasingly wealthy colonial lobby — was the one that prevailed.
The 1619 ban on domestic tobacco, in a nutshell, contains all of the key issues of early seventeenth-century governance: a concern for the king’s revenue, for stability, and for the health and hunger of his people — with a foreshadowing of the development of Britain’s empire too.
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In the original email, I forgot to completely remove a sentence I had been in the middle of deleting, which meant I accidentally claimed that tobacco revenue alone brought in over £100,000 per year in customs. This is completely mortifying. In fact, tobacco brought in about £5,000 per year in 1619, rising to a bit over £8,000 in 1623. The incomplete sentence I hadn’t quite deleted was actually originally supposed to be about total customs revenue, which was over £100,000 a year.