AS0000133F01 Teenagers, smoking cigarettes

The Nickel and the Cigarette

(Reading time 5 minutes)

I started smoking when I was in seventh grade.  I was 13.  All of the guys did it in 1939.  We could tell who the loose girls were, if we found out they smoked. The word spread in the schoolyard about such girls, and then everyone knew.  We couldn’t keep a secret in school anymore than the senior citizens can keep secrets in a retirement home. It was our gossip recreation.  If the girls thought we didn’t know, then they hadn’t smelled a smoker.

My mother and father smoked Raleighs and Kools cigarettes for a very good reason. Both brands had a coupon on the back of the pack.  These coupons, when collected in volume, were worth some very good quality premiums.  I remember one in particular; a beautifully made, quality wooden inlaid top, card table.  My mother enlisted all of her friends and neighbors to smoke Raleighs and Kools, and save the coupons for her.  It worked, and she got the card table.  Quality cigarettes in those days were 13 cents a pack; a carton was one dollar. There were also cheap brands, such as Marvels at 10 cents a pack, but no coupons and much inferior tobacco.  This was depression time, and times were tough.

I remember my school chum and I would scan the curbs along the street, while walking home from school, hoping to find a cigarette butt big enough to light. Once in a while, we would find one long enough to share a couple of puffs each. We never considered what kind of disease we could get, puffing on a butt thrown away by whomever. We also puffed on some old cigar butts.  Kids will do anything when not supervised. That’s not all I got away with unsupervised.

A better workable plan was to earn some small change tips, by delivering groceries for the local grocery store, or shining shoes. Then we could buy a brand new, un-opened pack of Camel cigarettes, all our own.  The local soda fountain and ice cream store sold cigarettes for one penny each.  My buddy Stanley and I were delighted when we earned enough money to buy a whole pack for ourselves. But if not, I still had one penny left over from my school money to buy and share a smoke.   Cigarettes were not king size then. Kings started later with Pall Mall. Camels were our special favorite brand.  A taste all of their own.  No cork tip. We smoked them straight.  I’d walk a mile for a Camel. Oh boy, what a treat!

When I started smoking, I used butts from an ashtray. (short butts) Most people smoked them as short as possible.  In the 1930s, cigarette holders were popular.  You could smoke them so low, you couldn’t hold it for even one more puff. Many people made their own holders from scrap materials, like an old discarded fountain pen, hollow tree limbs, tubes of any kind the right size, plumbing parts, or whatever would work. Movie actors used them, too. Anybody remember Greta Garbo holding a cigarette in a holder and saying, “I want to be alone.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, a very popular practice was to roll your own cigarettes. There were a few of great ways to do that.  The hard way was to roll them by hand.  I did that with Bugler Cigarette Tobacco.  It came in a white cotton cloth bag and a drawstring, like the cowboys used in the movies. Not being good at “rolling my own”, the tobacco usually fell out, and the paper crumbled.

The best way was to use a cigarette-rolling machine, but they cost 50 cents in the depression.  My buddy Stanley and I would have to deliver a lot of groceries to earn that much. Then we would have to buy the tobacco and the papers. All together too expensive.  That was big time for us. We were just beginners. We delivered groceries and shined shoes for our spending money.  Five cents for a shoe shine.

Eureka! My dad bought a “Bugler” cigarette-rolling machine.  That meant I could now roll my own with a “nickel bag” of Bugler Cigarette Tobacco, when I was home alone. WOW. I think that could be where the expression originated “nickel bag”.  Now we could smoke up a storm with our own Bugler bag of tobacco.  It cost seven cents for the tobacco, including the cigarette papers. We just had to deliver one more bag of groceries for the extra pennies.

Man oh man! We were living.  My buddy Stanley Ross and I both learned to inhale.  We could hide behind a big billboard in our neighborhood, where we built a bunkhouse of scrapped boxes, and smoke ourselves into consumption. We had a guilt trip, but it was great.

My dad liked to put menthol crystals in his cigarettes that he rolled, to make his own version of Kools.  Sometimes, he would insert too big of a piece of the menthol in the tobacco.  One puff and it would make you cough, and your eyes and nose would run big time. It made me sneeze and cry at the same time. Whew!  That stuff is strong.  I never let my mother or father know that I was a smoker.  Since they both smoked, they probably didn’t smell my breath or smoke on my clothing.

I really think my Mother did suspect that I smoked.  Each morning, she would make me a sandwich for lunch when I went to school. (Egg salad or peanut butter and jelly were my favorites) Beside the sandwich she left for me in a paper bag on the table, she also left a nickel for a three cent drink in the lunchroom, and another penny for the big penny soft pretzel that I could buy, on my way home from school.  One more thing she left on the dining room table for me when I was in eighth grade, was a single Raleigh, corked tip cigarette.  Mom denied this each time I would tell the story. When we were both senior citizens, we became more open and honest with our relationship.  One time after I told this story, she whispered to me “Maybe I did leave a cigarette once in a while for you but don’t you dare blame me for your becoming a smoker.  And, you must stop telling everyone that story. What will people think?  I smoked until age 53, then quit forever.”