“Noxious Weed,” The Anti-tobacco Movement in Early America

tobacco coin

“Noxious Weed:” The Anti-Tobacco Movement in Early America

An anti-tobacco movement began to emerge in America after the Revolutionary War. Even then the effort was a small, ill-formed weed often lost in the fields of other reformist movements. One historian has called it the “uncertain little sister of the anti-liquor crusade.”

The initial animus towards tobacco was—and continued to be throughout the first half of the 19th century— mainly based on “moral” grounds, not primarily because of health concerns. Tobacco, filtered through the unsoiled souls of most reformers, was viewed as the ally or henchman of “evil rum.” The two, drink and nicotine, were see as the twin sisters of moral decay. To many, tobacco produced a thirst most easily quenched by liquor. And everyone knew where drinking led one……….

The first major anti-tobacco figure to emerge in the United States was the famous and admired Dr. Benjamin Rush, who published an essay bemoaning tobacco use and its pernicious effects in 1798. Though Rush did point out tobacco’s adverse effect on health, the bulk of his essay dealt with its contribution to moral decay.

Though the anti-tobacco movement was not significant nor highly visible during the early decades of the nineteenth century, Rush did beget adherents who cast their tinny voices into the wilderness. Among the most prominent and vocal was the Reverend Orin Fowler, a Massachusetts clergyman who believed temperance would not succeed until tobacco use also ceased. Fowler, who was also a phrenologist, was among those reformers who thought tobacco imbued with erotic aspects (he was neither the first nor the last to hold such beliefs) and saw it a destroyer of inhibitions, which led to the usual horrid consequences of sin.

Fowler sent forth his views in A Disquisition on the Evils of Using Tobacco, probably first published in 1834 or 1835 and widely available throughout the east. His work, which also contained a small section on the effects of tobacco on health, became one of the seminal tracts in the anti-tobacco movement. The few reformers who made tobacco an issue often used Fowler’s book as a guide and inspiration for their work.

The anti-tobacco movement began to tentatively appear in Indiana by the 1830s. Capitol city resident Calvin Fletcher noted in a March 1836 diary entry that a young Indianapolis area Methodist minister named Smith preached a sermon on the evils of “chewing & spitting” tobacco. The exact content of Smith’s sermon is unknown, but it seems likely they reflected those of Fowler. (see below for a list if some of the major arguments against tobacco use)

Anti-tobacco forces gathered strength in the decade before the Civil War. By the mid- 19th century, the anti-tobacco movement was gaining strength, as more people added their voices to a swelling chorus decrying tobacco use. By the 1850s an Anti-Tobacco Tract Depository had been established in Fitchburg, Massachusetts and was selling tracts like the Diary of the Rev. Solomon Spittle, a pastiche telling of the tobacco addiction of a minister and its ravages upon his body, which featured a testimonial from former president John Quincy Adams. Other works were often geared to specific audiences, like the 1862 The Winter School, or, The Boys’ Campaign Against One of Their Worst Enemies, a cautionary tale about tobacco for students to be used by teachers. There was also a change in the content of the warnings as, increasingly, health concerns regarding tobacco use came to the forefront. Activists cited the addictive properties (“an enslaving habit,” according to one of the many tracts dealing with tobacco) and general ill effects on eyesight, circulatory system, and brain.

The movement grew even stronger after the war. Still strongly allied with other reform elements of the period (one of the major reformist works of the period was the memoir of Hoosier Mason Long, whose Mason Long the Converted Gambler told of his battle against the triple addictions of gambling, alcohol and tobacco), the anti-tobacco ranks swelled each year and, like Mason Long, it was not uncommon to see the individuals preaching against multiple sins, often tobacco and alcohol. The different reform movements often mirrored one another. One common element was “taking the pledge” not to use alcohol or tobacco. Temperance workers often gave out ribbons or badges to those promising to abstain from drinking, while anti-tobacco forces often gave children a token that could be worn on a chain if they pledged to never use the “noxious weed.” On one side he token showed a young boy on one side with the words “I will never use tobacco in any form. The obverse contained the message “Tobacco tends to idleness, poverty, strong drink, vice, ill health, insanity & death.” It was hoped that youth would wear the “medal” as a badge of honor and influence others to abstain

Despite the increase in the strength and sophistication of both movements, a long battle was ahead.

Major Early Arguments Against Tobacco Use

1. Moral:

Tobacco use leads to ruinous effect on the habits and morals of the user. It leads to “idle, sauntering habits…,” induces “benumbing, grovelling, stupid sensations….” Most importantly, it leads to intemperance. Chewing, sniffing and smoking often lead to drinking!!!!!

“Tobacco benumbs the affections and moral feelings, and renders love a mere passion. I knew a man who married a fine woman. At first he was very affectionate, his moral feelings were active, and for a time he studied for the ministry; but imbibing the habits of chewing and smoking, he became less pious and affectionate to his wife, and by the time he smoked thirty cigars per day, he could swear like a pirate, and abuse his wife shamefully. Not being able to endure his treatment any longer, she commenced drinking to drown her trouble, and soon put an end to her life.” [quoted in Robert, The Story of Tobacco in America, 109-110]

“…. The tobacco pipe excites a demand for an extraordinary quantity of some beverage to supply the waste of glandular secretion… ardent spirits are the common substitutes; and the smoker is often reduced to the state of dram drinking, and finishes his life as a sot.” [Fowler, 16]

“… smoking and chewing tobacco, by rendering water and other simple liquors insipid to the taste, dispose very much to the stronger stimulus of ardent spirits; hence, the practice of smoking cigars, ahs been followed by the use of brandy….” [Dr. Benjamin Rush, quoted in Fowler, 16]

Smoking and chewing, said one who once did both, “produced a continual thirst for stimulating drinks, and this tormenting thirst led me to the habit of drinking ale, porter, brandy, and other kinds of spirits…. I reformed, and after I had subdued the appetite for tobacco, I lost all desire for stimulating drink.” {Fowler, 16]


Though some early reformers saw that there were benefits to using small doses of nicotine in medical treatments, they saw only ill effects of smoking, chewing and snuff-taking on a person’s body and overall health.

“… tobacco is an active poison; … its constant use induces the most distressing and fatal diseases.” [Fowler, 14]

“No man can devote himself to the pipe, the quid, or the snuff box, without certain injury to his health and constitution. He may not perceive the injury at once, on account of immediate exhilaration; but complicated chronic complaints will creep upon him apace, making life a burden, and issuing a premature dissolution.” [Fowler, 14-15]

Anti-tobacco activists often “proved” that tobacco was a poison by telling of cats or dogs that were killed instantaneously when nicotine was placed on their tongues. “ A drop or two of the chemical oil of tobacco, being put on the tongue of a cat, produces violent convulsions, and death itself in the space of a minute.” [Robert, 107-108; Dr. Rees, quoted in Fowler, 12]

“As medical men, we know that smoking injures the whole organism, puts a man’s stomach and whole frame out of order; but it acts mainly, as all other poisons do, on the nervous system.” (quoted in the 1888 publication Anti-Tobacco by Abiel Abbot Livermore, 2-3)


Many activists pointed out that tobacco was damaging to the intellect…

“Intoxicating drinks, opium and tobacco, exert a pernicious influence upon the intellect. They tend directly to debilitate the organs…. Weaken the memory, unfix the attention,, and confuse all the mental operations…. [tobacco] can bow down to earth an intellect of giant strength, and make it grind in bondage…. . The use of tobacco may seem to soothe the feelings, and quicken the operations of the mind; but to what purpose is it that the machine is furiously running and buzzing after the balance wheel is taken off?” [quoted in Fowler, 14]

Economic Costs:

Fowler estimated that tobacco cost America over 25 million dollars a year (ten million spent on tobacco, 12 million dollars in time lost because of it, and over 3 million to pay pauper taxes and charity to those who succumbed to tobacco and drink and were unable to be productive citizens). [Fowler, 18-20]


Learning: Education After the Civil War

Education in Indiana Overview

The 1880s period has been called the “great awakening in education” in the state of Indiana. It was a time of rapid growth of schools and increase in funding for education. The state’s educational system was “highly decentralized” and controlled by elected township officials in rural areas and appointed boards in the cities. During the 1880s the majority of the state’s schools were of the ungraded district variety housed in one-room schools in session for only 120-140 days per year. The quality of education in these district schools varied greatly and was usually much inferior to the education afforded urban schoolchildren. (Phillips, Indiana in Transition, 385-387)

School Districts

19th-century rural school districts were often created to ”bring schools to children” and alleviate the problem of getting children to schools caused by lack of transportation. This led to “neighborhood” schools and assured local control, a concept eagerly supported by the often tight-fisted farmer who sought to keep taxes down and the degree of control high.

In the Midwest, typically, the school district varied in size and shape, but schools were invariably located at a crossroad, often very near the farm of the most successful or influential local farmer. An Illinois educator noted in 1883 that the ideal was to have 9 district schools per township, with each township approximately two miles square with school located in center of district. This “ideal,” like others, was seldom attained. The 1880 map of Delaware Township (which then included parts of what is now Clay Township) shows 12 schools within the township boundary. The nearest schools to our site were at District # 2 at what is now 126th & Allisonville Road and District # 1 located just east of present day 131st & Lantern Road

“The heart of …independent school districts was its annual meeting.” Once a year, usually on a date set by the state legislature, taxable farmers met to elect then school board and set procedures for the district. (Fuller, The Old Country School, 43-47

Interior of 1886 District School Interior at Conner Prairie. I led the research for the project.

Interior of 1886 District School Interior at Conner Prairie. I led the research for the project.



“Except in Indiana, where there were a large number of brick schoolhouses, it [the one-room schoolhouse] was a rectangular frame structure, almost invariably painted white, with three windows on each of its longer sides, one door squarely in the middle of it, and a small belfry directly above the door.” Though the above description fails to fully take into consideration widespread local variations, it does offer a reasonably accurate picture of many district schools in the Midwest.

The arrangement of windows allowed for sufficient light and ventilation during warmer months, but that was often not the case in the darker, closed-in months of the school term. Ventilation, in particular, was a problem during the winter and one often ignored by local school officials. The ideal classroom (note the attached drawing found in the Indiana State University Archive) was to feature proper ventilation.

Again, ideally, the windowless wall of the school was to face west to allow sunlight to fall at the proper angle onto the students’ desks. That, however, depended upon the road on which the school sat. Invariably (Fuller calls it the ‘almost the natural law in the Midwest”) the door faced the road. The chimney was usually located on the wall opposite the door. Initially, there was often only a single privy for use by both genders.

The district school was a multipurpose facility. It was also used as a community center, grange hall, polling place, and meeting venue. In addition to classroom education for children, it was used as a site for “adult” education and entertainment by hosting chatauquas and lyceums. (Fuller, 72-75; Wrenn Collection, ISU Archives)

Teacher Education

Though many felt that teachers were born, not made, the Midwest was also home to a coterie of progressive educators who believed in teaching pedagogy (the art and science of teaching). This feeling led to a growth of “Normal,” or teacher education, schools and colleges. In Indiana, the “official” normal school was Indiana State Normal School at Terre Haute. ISNS was founded in 1865, but did not open its door until 1870. Other, private normal schools such as Central Indiana Normal School in Ladoga and Central Indiana Normal College in Danville also existed. Normal schools sprouted across the nation between 1870 to 1890.

Normal schools rose upon the tide of thought that felt teaching was a “science” which could be taught and learned just as any other science. This was diametrically opposite the views of many who felt teaching was an inborn faculty or that no formal teacher training was necessary. Many who held this view were precisely those who pushed young, untrained teachers into country schoolrooms. Even the Superintendent of Iowa Schools did not think teacher training indispensable to classroom success, but instead pointed to what he considered the four primary characteristics needed to teach: knowledge of subject, uprightness of character, a desire to improve, and common sense.

Untrained teachers and their quality (or lack thereof), though, were the major complaint issued against rural schools by the “educational establishment.” One Wisconsin school committee claimed that “poor teacher…. are the bane of the rural school.” Official at ISNS saw teacher education as a “logical necessity.” These differing views notwithstanding, it is obvious that there was often a wide gulf between the quality of education offered rural students and their city cousins.

Normal schools were not the only means of training teachers. By tradition and state law, Indiana teachers were required to attend a county “teachers institute.” These institutes were a prime learning ground for rural teachers. Institutes were 1-5 day gatherings in which those wishing to teach, inexperienced teachers, and even their older colleagues came together to share teaching skills and knowledge. At these gatherings, experienced teachers or education professionals taught others to teach. Eventually much time at institutes was devoted to teaching methods. Institutes also appear to have been used to prepare would-be teachers to take the county teaching exam in order to obtain their license. These were often thorough, intense exams that sometimes began at 6:00 am and lasted all day. The failure rate for these difficult tests was often over 50%.

Institutes were held yearly within each county. By 1886, Indiana required that each township also hold one township institute each month during the school year, usually on Saturday.

[Fuller, 162-168; Lynch, History of Indiana State Teachers College; ISNS Annual Report for 1879]


By 1870, 56% of midwestern public school teachers were female. This trend was partly due to the manpower drain caused by the Civil War and simply continued after the conflict. Additionally, women worked cheap. Because there so few other professions open to them they more readily worked for sums lower than a man would demand. On average the typical female teacher was a young farmgirl looking for a career away from the fields (though not broken down by gender, records at ISNS show that 175 of the 273 students enrolled in 1879 were children of farmers). Many of them learned on the job.


Location of district schools in 1880s circled in red

Location of district schools in 1880s circled in red


Road to Macksville

Cross section of typical corduroy road

Cross section of typical corduroy road

Getting to Terre Haute was one thing. Going across the river to Macksville and other parts of Sugar Creek was quite another. Not yet bridged, the Wabash River had to be crossed on ferries. An illustration of how frustrating just getting to Sugar Creek could be was provided by perhaps the most unusual of early Sugar Creek “settlers.” Sr. Theodore Guerin had been sent from France to establish an academy for women in the United States. After a long sea journey from France and an arduous trip across the country she and five other Sisters of Providence arrived in Terre Haute, a town she described as “not pretty.”

The Sisters were then just about five miles from their destination, a small plot of ground in northern Sugar Creek Township. On October 22, 1840 they set out for their new home. Carrying provisions, they took a stage coach to the ferry, arriving there at 10:00am. If she thought the last five miles of her journey would be any less arduous than all those previous, she was quite wrong. She still had to cross the Wabash and the bottoms to get there:

“As there is no bridge we were obliged to wait our turn to be ferried across. We waited until three forty-five in the afternoon, that is, more than five hours and a half. At last we crossed, but scarcely had we been on the road ten minutes than were again in the forest, and the ground was so covered with water it was like a small pond. The plank road having disappeared, it became dangerous to travel on account of the trees that had fallen here and there. No matter! The horses were whipped up and they rushed into the water. At every moment we were on the point of being overturned, although Father Buteux went ahead with a pole to sound the road. At length, unable to go any farther, the water being too deep, wet to the skin he had to get up with the driver. Once the carriage struck a stumbling horse, and a wheel went over the trunk of a tree, and lo! The carriage was again thrown on its side. The water entered the coach and the horses were swimming rather than walking. It was like being in the middle of a sea, but in a sea surmounted by a thick forest; for the trees are so near together that it required all the experience of American drivers to be able to get through. There was imminent danger for us and we had two miles to cover in this way.”

What Sr. Theodore called a plank road was likely a corduroy road. It is hard to describe just how terrible dirt roads could become in wet weather. Nearly every account left by those who traveled the Midwest spoke of the horrible conditions of the roads. They were little more than quagmires in wet weather or rutted with deep furrows in dry times. Tree stumps often littered the pathway (The specifications for National Road only required that stumps be no higher than 18 inches, a height over which wagons could safely pass over without damaging an axle.).

As in many areas, attempts to make roads more passable in Sugar Creek focused on an abundant natural resource, trees. Logs were split in half to make puncheons, the same technique used as floors in early log cabins. The puncheons were laid perpendicular across other puncheons used as a base, rather like floor joists. The logs were held in place by lath-like strips of wood that also acted as curbs. Corduroy roads were often used to traverse low spots or swampy areas. That is why the Sisters encountered them as they crossed the bottoms west of the Wabash. They were also used in other such areas throughout Sugar Creek. The roads caused a jarring ride for those using them and soon deteriorated due to the ravages of traffic and nature.
Roads, whether of gravel, dirt or wood, were helpful to those living in Macksville and Sugar Creek, but there were still obstacles to making the area easily accessible. Most important was the lack of a bridge over the Wabash. Ferries still had to be used to get wagons, people and livestock across the river. The long waits at the ferry docks often caused traffic jams on both sides of the river. Ferries were vital but inefficient.

A bridge was needed. Most everyone said that (with the notable exception of the ferry keepers, one assumes). But, where was it to be located and who would pay for it? Vigo County did not have the money for it. No one wanted the city Terre Haute to foot the bill. Sugar Creek Township certainly couldn’t afford such an expenditure. That left it up to private enterprise. Some sort of company was needed to build the bridge. That company was indeed formed. In January, 1845 the Indiana Legislature passed a bill authorizing the formation of the Terre Haute Drawbridge Company. It was authorized to sell stock in the company in order to “erect and maintain a bridge across the Wabash river at any point within 500 yards of the National road, on the southside thereof or downstream.” The act fixed the tolls to be charged to bridge users.

The bridge was completed and opened to traffic in December, 1846. It became the focal point of local Christmas festivities that year. Hundreds strolled over and back across the bridge led by a band playing martial tunes, which seemed particularly apt as the country was at war with Mexico. At one point 500 people crowded the bridge and its approaches singing, dancing and Huzzah-ing the new structure that meant so much to the area.

The Wabash Express, a leading Terre Haute newspaper, was effusive over the bridge, calling it “an excellent and useful structure.” No structure,” it noted, “of a public character about Terre Haute, does more credit or will add more to the prosperity of the place, than the Wabash Bridge….” It noted that Ohio Street had been finely graded for an easily accessible approach to the bridge from the Terre Haute side. So, too, had been the western approach. Already livestock, goods and people were passing more easily across the river. Tellingly, the article stated the improvement most needed now was “to improve the road through the bottom to the bluff land at Macksville.”

And that was the crux of the problem still plaguing easier access to and from Sugar Creek Township. The bridge was a great addition, but the bottoms were still a barrier to movement. Muddy and rutted in the best of times, during high water the bottoms became little more than a bayou or swamp. Travelers crossed it with trepidation even in good weather. But a snow melt or heavy rains made it impassable. During those times the area was literally cut off from the east side.

This was not only a transportation dilemma, but had serious effects on the local economy. This worried many in Terre Haute who feared unless something was done that towns to the west or north of Sugar Creek would become an economic hub for the area instead of the growing city just two miles east of Macksville. An 1851 newspaper editorial in the Wabash Express took note of the potential problem and called for the building of plank or gravel roads to remedy the problem. It noted that those in the townships west of the river were already turning their attention and trade to Illinois, Paris in particular. They were doing so even those towns were more distant than Terre Haute. The paper called for something to be done about the bottoms.

It took four years but finally progress was made. In 1855 and 56 the “grading up” of the bottoms took place. Tons of rock, gravel and soil were hauled. Luckily there was a gravel pit on the southeastern edge of Macksville so it did not have to be hauled very far. Soil was dug from the bottoms or hauled in. Months of back breaking labor slowly built up a road across the bottoms. Inch by inch, layer by layer was compacted until the grade rose more than fifteen feet about the bottoms. It would be a major step for Macksville.