Cigarettes in War and Peace

Can you name a film from the 1940s or 1950s where the actors did not smoke, sometimes throughout the movie? Probably not. Besides giving characters something to do with their hands, Hollywood considered smoking to be sophisticated and sexy. Thankfully, today, with greater awareness of the hazards of smoking, and noble efforts by the American Cancer Society, we see much less tapping of cigarette packs, striking of matches, and tossing back of heads to exhale streams of smoke. I’d say, we’ve come a long way, baby, but that would be to quote a 1960s Virginia Slims advertising slogan.

But smoking was once an accepted part of American social life. Although my parents gave up the habit once they had children to raise, for as long as I can remember, a silver cigarette box sat on the “coffee” table in our living room. 

Hollywood’s images might have influenced my star-struck mother to smoke, but the military no doubt encouraged my father. He had enlisted in the US Army Air Corps just prior to the start of the Second World War, and I imagine brandishing a cigarette (or in his case, a pipe) added to the aura of the silver wings pinned to his uniform. Cigarettes, in fact, were included along with chocolate and gum in soldiers’ rations throughout the war and until the mid-1970s. At least in theory, the packet of five cigarettes provided a few minutes entertainment and a brief escape from the stress of combat.

Because of the availability of cigarettes, the ubiquity of smoking ,and advertisements for smoking, various brands of cigarettes became easily recognized and memorable. Thus, as the allies gained footholds on the European continent, the army set up assembly and staging points for arriving soldiers. The staging areas on the northern coast of France near Le Havre bore the names of popular cigarette brands: Lucky Strike, Old Gold, Chesterfield, and Pall Mall. Camp Tophat, another brand, though faded from most of our memories, was given to a camp in Belgium. And for the assembly points, the military chose other easily recognizable labels, including city names such as Atlanta, New York, and Pittsburgh. The inventive naming was primarily for security reasons. Later, when the camps were used as embarkation points for men returning home, the familiar American names may have provided a sense of comfort. Despite the names, the camps were little more than hastily erected tent camps, often wet and muddy places where diseases spread from soldier to soldier.

Once the repatriation of Americans was complete, the camps, still bearing their temporary names, housed German POWs and displaced persons. Little remains of the camps today, but there’s much more to read for those so inclined. 
See: A website with information, testimonials, and photos of each of the cigarette camps. An article by Carl Zebrowski

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