Historian's Notebook: Tobacco at Oberlin

by Geoffrey Blodgett '53

The on-going battle against the cigarette on campus today inspires a backward glance at the tangled history of Oberlin tobacco policy. Right at the outset, the community Covenant of the 1830s banned smoking, chewing, and snuffing for reasons best captured some 230 years earlier by King James I. James warned his subjects in fine Elizabethan prose that if any one of them should use tobacco "as a drowsie lazy-bellied god, he shall vanish in a lethargie." In post-Civil War Oberlin, tobacco trailed only alcohol among incentives to moral reform. In January 1880 anti-tobacco agitation surged momentarily out in a front. A newspaper in nearby Wakeman put it this way: "The moral village of Oberlin is again on the rampage against one of the evils of its society. This time, tobacco has to suffer."

Non-conformists could be found. Marx Straus was the town's leading clothier, running his shop out of Park House, the old Oberlin Inn. He owned the Inn until he gave it to the college in 1895. A prospering Bavarian Jew who had arrived back in the 1850s, Straus lived in a handsome Italian villa on South Main, his front lawn graced by two imported animals, a stag and a mastiff. (The house disappeared in the 1870s; the mastiff was broken by an ice truck in 1922; the stag survives today further on down South Main, kitty-corner across from the Oberlin fire station.) Large, affable, and flamboyant, Straus was the first man in Oberlin to smoke cigars in public. Small children stared at him. Most adults looked the other way.

Mass production of cigarettes began in Durham, North Carolina, in the mid-1880s. After that, furtive smoking began to spread across the Oberlin campus. All sorts of people got involved. Raymond Swing, son of the eminent church historian Albert Temple Swing, and later eminent himself as an international radio correspondent, started smoking secretly at age 14. "I wanted to be good," he later testified, "but it was too much for me." A young English instructor from Princeton joined Raymond and his friends for late night smokes around a campfire in the woods on the edge of town. The famous academic reformer Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago, who grew up in Oberlin and went to college here just before World War I, testified that he longed to defy the tobacco ban but "was not robust enough" to smoke. The novelist Sherwood Anderson recalled that when he was a young man selling paint in Elyria, young faculty couples from Oberlin would come over to smoke and drink and talk books behind drawn curtains in his living room.

The popular young Professor Henry Churchill King, on the rise in official Oberlin, set himself against all this. The covert use of tobacco violated the love of truthfulness, he told his students. As president after 1902, he called for a "New Puritanism" in Oberlin, an activist self-denial which prized "heroic service" over "passive self-indulgence." In January 1914, responding to King's dogged insistence, the men's senate resolved to try to enforce the campus tobacco ban, even though students regarded it as unenforceable and therefore "absolutely foolish."

World War I damaged that sort of grudging deference. The War and its aftermath took King from the campus for a stretch of diplomatic service. In his absence, in a general reaction against the Progressive civic morality which informed king's pre-war mood, the year 1919 witnessed a major surge of restlessness among students and younger alumni against Oberlin's demanding behavioral traditions. An angry pamphlet, originating in New York City, circulated among alumni to arouse concern over Oberlin's current problems: inadequate faculty salaries, listless athletic policies, close-minded college administrators, and the need for change in student social rules, namely the hoary rules against smoking and dancing. On his postwar return to Oberlin from abroad, King acknowledged that the time for change had arrived. In November 1919 the faculty lifted the smoking ban for men. A month later, social dancing also became legal. The 1920s brought few flappers, flasks, or raccoon coats to Oberlin, but the college did meet the decade with a careful arms-distance embrace.

In May 1931, as the roar of the '20s faded into the anxieties of the '30s, the college faculty, after wrenching debate, voted to let women smoke in the privacy of their own rooms. After that, there was no controlling the tapping finger and the blue haze in dorm lounges, in the Campus and the Varsity, and later in the Snack Bar.

The Surgeon-General's report persuaded millions to drop the habit, but the culture of choice that set in across the 1960s at Oberlin and elsewhere protected die-hard smokers from organized constraint. Finally, in 1993, the college turned on the cigarette and banned smoking from almost all indoor campus spaces. The ban worked. Oberlin shares in the success of a project in behavioral coercion of national dimensions. This historic campaign, though hardly a clean sweep-outdoor smoking remains highly visible-is so remarkable that school kids may soon be reading about it just as we all once studied Prohibition. Prohibition-that cause had many origins. Some of the most important of them, come to think of it, sprang up in Oberlin, Ohio.

Geoffrey Blodgett is Oberlin's Danforth Professor of History.