Some young adults in Connecticut are doing a slow-burn over Monday's decision by the Connecticut General Assembly's Public Health Committee to consider a bill to raise the legal minimum age for the purchase of tobacco products to 21, with the goal of reducing smoking among teens.
Here's a link to yesterday's Yale Daily News article about the issue, 'Bill could raise smoking age to 21.'
Most local folks are aware of the tobacco plant's long and illustrious relationship with the Connecticut River Valley, a staple of the region ever since indigenous tribes first picked the naturally-occurring plant and tamped its dried leaves into pipes for smoking. Farmers began cultivating the plant in Connecticut in the 1600s, with the town of Windsor recording its first planting in 1640. Connecticut tobacco farming reached it's apex in 1921, with over 30,000 acres planted with broad-leaf 'shade' tobacco, the large leaves of which are used primarily as the outer wrappers of cigars. Production declined in the 1990s, falling as low as 2,000 acres cultivated in 1992. Views on tobacco use have contributed to the plant's demise, the long wide fields covered with the shade tents no longer a staple of roadside scenery on a slow summer Sunday drive through the Valley.
But these negative views are not new, no-siree Bob. As a matter of fact - in a case of 'deja vu all over again' - in the year 1650, the minimum age for using tobacco was set at 21, per regulation of the Connecticut Colony General Court. Looked down upon as an "evil weed" by the Puritans, the 1650 law was even more draconian than the one proposed Monday, permitting tobacco use over the age of 21 only under a doctor's recommendation. That may sound silly, but many folks throughout the ages have touted tobacco's medicinal effects, even using 'tobacco machines' - which blew smoke into the afflicted's lungs - to revive drowning victims. Perhaps a modern metaphor would be the marijuana debate, with lots of people okay with its use as a medicinal agent for the ill, just as long as the healthy folks aren't enjoying it, too.
Here's a cool website - http://www.tobaccohistsoc.org/index.htm - that can tell you a whole lot more about the history of tobacco in the Valley than I can. Better yet, check out the museum that owns the website, the Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum in Windsor, Conn. The museum just opened for the season the first week of March and will be open until mid-December. You can find details on the website. Operated as a joint project between the town of Windsor and the Connecticut Valley Tobacco Historical Society, the museum's mission statement reads:
"The John E. Luddy/Gordon S. Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum collects, preserves, researches, exhibits, and interprets the scope of the tobacco industry in Tobacco Valley, which stretches from Portland, Connecticut, along the Connecticut River Valley through Massachusetts and the lower tip of Vermont. The museum seeks to preserve the artifacts and history of cigar tobacco agriculture before it is completely gone from the valley and to increase public awareness of the importance of the economic, political, and social impact of the tobacco industry on the history of this valley."The future owes a tremendous debt to those who take on the mission of preserving yesterday today.
I can tell you this about tobacco, having spent my fifteenth summer working on a tobacco farm in Westfield, Massachusetts: It was the hardest, dirtiest job I've ever had...And I'm glad I did it. And, oh how times have changed. One day, during the last week of picking, one of the straw bosses came over to the bus as everyone was getting ready to board for the long, tired, sweaty, smelly ride home. He was carrying a clear plastic trashbag...Full of cigars, apparently our reward for being such good workers. From kids 14-years old, to married men with kids the same age, we all went home with pockets stuffed with the fruit of our labor, a cloud of cigar smoke following the bus as it pulled out of the dusty dooryard that day.
Here are some images of tobacco farming in the Valley from the American Memory Collection of the Library of Congress, from the Farm Security Administration Collection. Captions in quotes are the FSA's.
"Tobacco barn on the farm of Mrs. Mary Smith, Polish-American tobacco farmer. Near Thompsonville, Connecticut." (Sept. 1940)
Photo 1: American Memory Collection, Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection, Delano, Jack, Digital ID: fsa 8c03197
Photo 2: American Memory Collection, Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection, Digital ID: fsa 8c03194
Photo 3: American Memory Collection, Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection, Digital ID: fsa 8c03215
Photo 4: American Memory Collection, Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection, Delano, Jack, Digital ID: fsa 8c03209
Photo 5: American Memory Collection, Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection, Delano, Jack, Digital ID: fsa 8c03191
Photo 6: American Memory Collection, Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection, Delano, Jack, Digital ID: fsa 8c53005
Ad (top): Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, c1874, Digital ID: cph.3g04307