Smoking During Adolescence: A Warning From the Boy’s Own Paper

Elizabeth Penner is a final year PhD researcher at De Montfort University, Leicester. Her thesis focuses on the representations of masculinity as portrayed in the popular nineteenth-century magazine the Boy’s Own Paper. You can follow her on Twitter via @VictorianPenner. This article is for all those Victorianists who have made New Year’s resolutions . . and those who are struggling to keep them.

Keep in good health by living as you ought to. Do not smoke, and avoid all bad habits. Be pure in body and in thought.

Anon (Boy’s Own Paper) [1]

Lewis_Hine,_Newsies_smoking_at_Skeeter's_Branch,_St._Louis,_1910

Lewis Hine, 1910

With a print run of 88 years, the Boy’s Own Paper (1879-1967) is one of the most recognisable juvenile magazines of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The Boy’s Own Paper, commonly referred to as the BOP, is well known for its publication of adventure and public school stories and for its representations of the British Empire. However, as a publication of the Religious Tract Society, the BOP incorporated a Christian message across its literature. It also placed a strong emphasis on the importance of healthy living and physical exercise. Bruce Haley observes that ‘no topic more occupied the Victorian mind than Health – not religion, or politics, or Improvement, or Darwinism’.[2] The readers of the BOP were no exception as is evidenced in the number of letters they sent the paper seeking medical advice. Most of these queries received a response from Dr William Gordon Stables (d. 1910), a retired Royal Navy medical doctor and one of the BOP’s most prolific contributors.[3] Stables wrote adventure fiction and instructional articles but he is mainly remembered for his medical advice and his reputation for prescribing ‘a cold tub’ to readers who suffered from various ailments and ‘evil habits’.[4]

For the most part, the BOP praised the benefits of moral and healthy living rather than on sensationalising harmful and immoral behaviours. However, it did not refrain from openly expressing its disapproval of boys taking up the habit of smoking.  The paper’s correspondence pages were full of stern advice to young readers warning them of them of the dangers of smoking. One reader was informed:

Smoking will weaken your heart and interfere with your growth in strength. If you want to grow up lanky, pale, and with blood as thin as an old wife’s third cup of tea, smoke by all means. If you want a pimply face, smoke. If you want to have no more brains than a bladder of lard, smoke.[5]

The paper rebuked another reader, who had already taken up the habit of smoking, stating that it was ‘[n]o wonder you are lanky. A boy of fourteen smoking. What will you be at thirty, if you live?’.[6] The BOP also published articles that directly addressed smoking.   A. Arthur Reade’s ‘Smoking and Smokers’ (1883) provided readers with detailed descriptions of the side effects of smoking as a means of deterrence. Reade openly condemned smoking and portrayed the practice as unmanly:

First, let me ask you why do you smoke. Is it because you think it is manly? If so, it is a very foolish belief. A great many things which no one thinks of calling manly are done by men. Is wife-kicking manly? Is fighting manly? Is drunkenness manly? Is swearing manly?[7]

By comparing smoking with other deplorable habits such as drunkenness, violence, and domestic abuse, Reade’s anti-smoking message was less than subtle. His argument reinforced the publication’s opinion that manhood was not simply a biological state but rather that the characteristics of manliness were built on morality, temperance, and self-control.

Photograph from author's private collection

Photograph from author’s private collection

Authors who addressed the subject of smoking often drew on medical studies as evidence to support their objectives. In an early piece published in the BOP’s ‘Our Open Column’, the author of ‘What Comes From Smoking’ (1879) included a short account of one physician’s study of the effects of smoking on 15-year old boys. According to the (unnamed) physician, the boys suffered from mouth ulcers, indigestion, palpitations, etc., all of which disappeared once the boys had discontinued using tobacco. To reassure the readers of the validity of this study, the author concluded, ‘[n]ow, this is no “old wife’s tale”, as these facts are given on the authority of the ‘British Medical Journal’.[8] This was in keeping with the BOP’s objective to provide both entertaining and informative literature. And by basing its arguments on the findings of medical experts, the BOP presented itself as an authority the damaging effects of smoking in adolescence.

The paper addressed its anti-smoking message to a variety of boys, demonstrating to readers that smoking was dangerous for all boys, irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds. For those wishing to join the navy, the following advice would have made boys think twice about smoking:

Very remarkable testimony is borne by the American naval surgeons to the evil effects of smoking upon boys. Of the lads who apply for admission to the navy as apprentices one-fifth are rejected on account of heart disease, and the surgeons declare, as the result of their long-continued examinations, that ninety-nine cases out of a hundred this weakness arises from smoking.[9]

Boys with scholarly pursuits were also warned about the dangers of smoking. In the article ‘Young Students and Tobacco’ (1886), Mr Henry King-Parks discussed the research findings of Dr Dio Lewis, who found that ‘smoking may prove the unconscious means of retarding [the students’] advancement in life’.[10] To the working-class boy, Stables advised:

All medical authorities agree that to smoke before one is twenty at least is to weaken every nerve and muscle in the body, including the heart. I do heartily grieve when I see a cigarette or pipe in the mouth of a boy. Mind, I wish you all well, but I do not wish to enforce my opinions on anybody. It is no advantage to me; so smoke away as much as you please, but I am doing my duty in telling you that you are thus drawing drafts on the Bank of Health, and you will remember my words when they are presented for payment.[11]

These were fairly damning words from someone who did ‘not wish to enforce my opinions’!

Despite these instructional articles against the use of tobacco, the BOP remained fairly quiet when it came to the subject of grown men smoking. Throughout the publication, there are numerous depictions of men smoking. In ‘A Day of my Life at Oxford’ (1889), the author described how ‘[a]fter Hall some “out-college” men drop in for coffee, and we sit smoking and chatting over events of the day.’[12] Not only does this scene portray smoking as part of the daily ritual of nineteenth-century British life, within the context of a university it might even be regarded a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. This would seemingly go against the BOP’s otherwise overtly anti-smoking sentiments. However, the paper was aimed at a juvenile audience and its advice administered from the experienced mature author to the impressionable young reader was unmistakable: ‘[n]ever learned, smoking is never needed’.[13]

In conclusion, I leave you with a poem by F. B. Dovton.[14]

‘My First (And Last) Cigar!’

I think I began with a bit of cane,

     And lighted it on the sly,

I tried to enjoy it, but all in vain,

     For the smoke got into my eye.

My face turned white, and eyes turned

         red,

     But then it was worse by far

When the can it flew to my back instead,

     Whilst smoking my mock cigar.

I was very – what, you may haply guess!

     Ah me! ‘twas a spell of woe.

Was I beaten? To that I must answer

            “Yes.”

     Was I beat? I can answer “No.”

So I cried “Encore!” though my back was

            sore

     (How plucky your schoolboys are!),

For no one knows all the pain I bore

     In smoking that cane cigar!

I rose to a “cutty” – a bit of clay—

     Which upset me, I own, at first;

I turned all colours, my head gave way,

     I had a most raging thirst.

Of tobacco, like physic, I took my fill,

     I reeled like a jolly tar;

But then I was never so very ill

     Till I tackled a real cigar!

It was, I fear me, a common weed,

     And one of the cabbage tribe.

When just half through I was bad indeed –

     So ill that I nearly died!

I grow as pail as a sheeted ghost,

     Lost my perpendicular,

And fondly clung to a friendly post

     In the throes of my first cigar!

“You can’t be a man,” quoth Cousin Fred,

     “Till you smoke like a chimney tall;”

“If I do I shall die, and then,” I said,

     “Shall never grow up at all!”

The pangs I’ve suffered and all in vain,

     Than the rack they were worse by far.

I am wiser now, and myself again,

     ‘Twas my first (and my last) cigar!


[1] Anon, ‘Correspondence’, Boy’s Own Paper, 21 June 1890, p. 608.

[2] Bruce Haley, The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 3.

[3] Stables also contributed to other periodicals including the Girl’s Own Paper (1880-1956), Little Folks (1871-1933), and Young England (1866-1937).

[4] Anon, ‘Correspondence’, Boy’s Own Paper, 22 November 1890, p. 128.

[5] Anon, ‘Correspondence’, Boy’s Own Paper, 21 June 1890, p. 608.

[6] Anon, ‘Correspondence’, Boy’s Own Paper, 27 July 1889, p. 687.

[7] A. Arthur Reade, ‘Smoking and Smokers’, Boy’s Own Paper, 8 September 1883, pp. 798-99 (p .798).

[8] Anon, ‘What Comes from Smoking’, Boy’s Own Paper, 8 February 1879, p. 63.

[9] Anon, ‘Boys and Smoking’, Boy’s Own Paper, 17 October 1885, p. 38.

[10] Anon, ‘Young Students and Tobacco’, Boy’s Own Paper, 24 July 1886, p. 688.

[11] Gordon Stables, ‘A New Year’s Letter to Working Lads’, Boy’s Own Paper, 7 January 1899, p. 231.

[12] Anon, ‘A Day of my Life at Oxford’, Boy’s Own Paper, 11 May 1889, p. 511.

[13] Ibid.

[14] F. B. Doveton, ‘My First (And Last) Cigar!’, Boy’s Own Paper, 6 April 1889, p. 431.

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