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Sinners and Saints - Part 08

Vice and Reform in Kansas

Anti-smoking reformer Myra McHenry of Wichita.Smoking

"Tobacco is a filthy weed, The Devil he doth sow the seed."-- The Burning Shame of America, 1924

Smoking has long been popular in Kansas. Not only did American Indians use tobacco, but European settlers also brought it with them. Chewing and pipe tobacco were standard provisions on the frontier.

Although many people smoked, reformers identified it as a vice. Next to drinking and gambling, smoking has been the most targeted vice in Kansas. Smoking was viewed as a filthy habit that endangered the lives of users and their families.

Cigarettes: The Little White Slavers

Reformers were especially angered in 1881 when machine-made cigarettes were introduced. These were cheaper and more accessible than the hand-rolled variety and much cheaper than cigars. Youth and women were susceptible, now more than ever, to the lure of tobacco. Cigarettes, called "The Little White Slaver" by reformers, had to go.

Temperance organizations began including anti-smoking messages in their campaigns in an effort to promote "clean living." One reformer who fought for anti-smoking laws as well as temperance and women's suffrage was Myra McHenry of Wichita. She was jailed over 40 times, mostly for blocking sidewalks and disturbing the peace. McHenry used the local newspapers to promote her views and lobbied the legislature for reforms.

As a result of the efforts of McHenry and other reformers, Kansas became one of the first states to pass anti-cigarette laws in the 1890s.

"Oh, the vile cigarette! What smell can be worse and more poisonous? I feel outraged at being compelled to smell this poison in the street. I have the right to take cigars and cigarettes from men's mouths in self-defense."-- Carry Nation, The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation, 1908

Satirical cartoon depicting Kansas being lead astray by Lady Nicotine.

Cigarettes Go To War

World War I was an important turning point for the tobacco issue. In 1917 (the year the U.S. entered the war) Kansas had just strengthened its anti-tobacco laws. Advertising of cigarettes was banned and fines increased.

Despite these state laws, attitudes about cigarettes were changing on the national level. Military doctors believed cigarettes should be part of a soldier's rations, claiming they calmed nerves, sedated the wounded, supplied energy, and kept men from more immoral activities. As a result, the YMCA, Red Cross, and Salvation Army collected funds to help buy cigarettes for soldiers.

Despite persistent attempts in Kansas to suppress the popularity of cigarettes, people continued to demand them. New brands appealed to juveniles and women. Merchants ignored the law and sold cigarettes anyway, charging high prices for importing them to Kansas. The 1909 Kansas law outlawing cigarettes was finally repealed in 1927.

Look magazine ad with doctor spokesman encouraging smoking.

After the law's repeal, the Topeka State Journal printed this cartoon (center, right) depicting the lure of cigarettes. In the drawing, portly Kansas escorts attractive Lady Nicotine while a crotchety old Reformer, with her child Anti-Cigarette Law, hisses "Hussy!"

With the law's repeal, cigarettes legally returned to the shelves but vendors had to have permits to sell them. Each pack was taxed two cents. Severe punishment was threatened for those who sold to minors.

Cigarettes became even more popular with legalization. Smoking advertisements became commonplace and glamorized the cigarette. Potential health risks posed by smoking were commonly ignored. This Look magazine ad from 1951 proclaims, "More Doctors Smoke Camels than any other cigarette!" 

View a smoking timeline.


Sinners & Saints is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History.

  1. A Moral and Pure Society - Creating better communities was the goal.
  2. Alcohol - The politics behind alcohol reform.
  3. Agitate, Educate, Organize! - Women's role in prohibition laws.
  4. Gambling - Betting men took money away from their families.
  5. Gambling Timeline - Kansas issues.
  6. Prostitution - Seen as threatening the moral fabric of society.
  7. Prostitution Timeline - Kansas issues.
  8. Smoking - Cigarettes were believed to corrupt youth.
  9. Smoking Timeline - Kansas and U.S. issues.
  10. Vice in the 20th and 21st Centuries - They're still vices, but now the issue is health.
  11. Kansas Reformed? - The definition of "vice" has shifted over time.

Contact us at kshs.kansasmuseum@ks.gov