Smoking in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Cigarette smoke`
Cigarette smoke / Shutterstock

Tobacco initially was used as a harmless remedy to treat wounds and relieve headaches but the representatives of the elite gradually started smoking, sniffing and chewing it. In Portugal, Spain, France, England and Holland tobacco was used by clerics and laymen, men and women. Some countries attempted to ban it. The neighbouring Russia tried to do just that from the early 17th century. The Orthodox Church there insisted that devout Christians should not consume tobacco, therefore the formal ban was in place in Russia until the late 17th century when Peter the Great, the West-oriented ruler who was also a great smoker, removed the prohibition.

Intensive use of nicotine and alcohol leads to dependency. But tobacco consumption was spurred by the common belief that tobacco smoke is helpful as a defence against plague. This is why tobacco was swiftly becoming a popular product and the number of smokers increased dramatically. In Hungary, tobacco became popular at the turn of the 17th century, just like in Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) where tobacco first arrived in the second half of the 16th century while in the early 17th century smoking rose to a massive scale. Tobacco consumption traditions spread in Poland and the GDL from east, Turkey in the first place, and from west, mainly England and Spain. Tobacco was an expensive product, therefore some sorts of the plant were cultivated in Europe including the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Addictions of the Citizens of the Grand Duchy

In the GDL, just like in other regions, tobacco first became popular among the nobility. Burghers started smoking tobacco actively in the middle of the 17th century. According to historian Jonas Matusas (1899–1962), the palatine of Polotsk wished to rent the business of tobacco trade in 1638 after receiving the privilege from the king.

Polotsk residents said they would only agree to the deal if similar arrangements were implemented in the capital city of Vilnius. We should agree with Matusas’ conclusion that “tobacco likely generated a substantial turnover in Polotsk and Vilnius in the first half of the 17th century because the officials aimed at reaping higher profits by monopolising it through rents. ” It looks like the nobility used tobacco for sniffing and the poor smoked it in the early stages. That kind of division was no longer visible in the late 18th century.

Conversely, Tobacco chewing never really became popular. It is safe to assume that tobacco trade was an important source of revenue for many European countries already by the middle of the 17th century because many countries introduced the state monopoly in tobacco trade and appointed the administrators. It was at around this time the GDL did this in 1661. In 1669 the GDL rented the entire enterprise out. It was the case that the administration of the tax on tobacco was ineffective. Next door, Poland introduced the monopoly on smoking and sniffing tobacco as late as in 1775. The GDL did the same one year later, in 1776. The new system did not produced significant revenues for the state because trade volumes were low and tax collecting administration was poor.

According to Matusas, peasants in the GDL most probably started consuming tobacco in the late 17th century. Later in the 18th century tobacco was a commonly used product. Peasants mostly consumed home-grown tobaccos. Peasants copied this tradition from the nobility who cultivated tobacco in their own lands. The 1791 agreement between the Treasury of the GDL and tobacco suppliers banned processing and sale of the locally grown tobacco. This indicates that tobacco consumption was a common habit among all social classes, from the elite to ordinary people. A tobacco-box turned into an accessory that almost every man carried with him. Duke Karol Stanisław Onufry Radziwiłł „Pone Panie Kochanku ” (“My Dear Sir” Lithuanian Karolis Stanislovas Radvila “Mielasai Pone”) who was the palatine of Vilnius from 1762 to 1764 and from 1768 to 1790 would make tobacco-boxes himself.

Vilnius, the capital city of the GDL, was an important centre of the tobacco trade. Data collected by S. Samalavičius reveal that local merchants traded huge quantities of tobacco – whole leaf and cut – already in the middle of the 17th century. Sources mention different sorts of tobacco, including English and Brazilian, as well as tobacco prices. Gdansk, Konigsberg and Riga were the three main ports for tobacco imports. For instance, historical documents point to the fact that tobacco imports from Holland were going up significantly through the port of Riga since the middle of the 17th century. Smokers in the GDL could choose from eight sorts of tobacco in the late 18the century while tobacco sniffers had an even broader choice of eleven sorts at the time. Domestic tobacco was the cheapest one in the market at 18 groszys a pound while Knaster from Holland was the most expensive tobacco priced as much as six złotys a pound. Tobacco was imported from many countries and regions including Spain, France, Morocco, Holland, the Americas, Puerto Rico and Russia.

The rise in tobacco consumption prompted massive production of clay pipes in England, Holland, Germany and other countries in the middle of the 17th century. The three countries became the dominant players in pipe exports with Prussia joining the club in the 18th century. The GDL was among significant pipe importers. The 2004–2005 archaeological investigation in Vilnius revealed that local artisans had produced clay pipes – glazed and undecorated – in Šnipiškės, the then suburban area of the capital. Archaeologists found fragments of a kiln for firing pipes, 132 pipes of five types with defects, pipe fragments and pipe holders for firing and glazing. More than 600 pipes dating back to the 17th century have been found during the excavation of the territory in and around the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius.

In general, two types of pipes have been found in the cultural layers representing the 17th and the 18th century, one being shorter Turkish-style pipes made of brown clay, the second being longer Dutch-style pipes made of white clay (kaolin). Historical sources from the second half of the 17th century often mention “Ukrainian-style” and other pipes in Vilnius. Their prices ranged from several groszys to several złotys. Wooden pipes were simpler and cheaper. Historians have not yet found any written or archaeological proof of the production of pipes in Livonia or present-day Estonia. Unfortunately, pipe makers started marking their products on a regular basis as late as in the end of the 18th century.

As far as tobacco consumption in concerned, the GDL found itself in the same cultural sphere as the rest of Western Europe. The ineffectiveness in administration of taxes from tobacco sales however, is more an Eastern European phenomenon.


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