Greg Wood’s book is a fascinating look at how much smoking played a role in labor relations, especially involving unions. I interned in Erie, Pa., during my final semester of college in 2006 and never knew the history of worker’s revolts and workplace spying that led to a bargained smoke break at the former Hammermill Paper Co., plant.
Originally Published: 01/23/2017
Did the ability to smoke on the job serve as a barometer on labor relations in the last 100 years?
That question and others are explored by Frostburg State University associate professor of history Dr. Gregory Wood in a new book about the 20th-century tug of war between employer and smoker. “Clearing the Air: The Rise and Fall of Smoking in the Workplace” is an academic book published by Cornell University Press that examines the history of labor strife, government regulation and sentiment about smoking in the workplace in the 20th century. Wood, who is also the Honors Program director at FSU, plans on using the hardcover book as the basis of his HIST 299 Writing and Research in History course in the fall.
The reasons for writing the book run deep with Wood, who described himself as a “heavily addicted workplace smoker” in his teens and 20s.
By age 29, Wood could not touch another cigarette after a decade-plus of lighting up.
“My immune system was compromised,” said Wood, who is now 43. “I was getting really bad sinus and strep throat pretty regularly during the winter months. I really felt that it was definitely time.”
During Wood’s research, he found how much smoking was at the center of labor feuds at the former Hammermill Paper Co. plant in Erie, Pa., during the early 1900s – to the point that cigarette breaks were negotiated in exchange for wages and labor peace. He recognized those workers’ feelings well as a young smoker.
“Workplace rules that stood between me and my cigarettes were deeply resented at the time,” Wood said.
Like most smokers, Wood would have to leave his work to go smoke, experiencing withdrawals, and it eventually affected his leisure, too.
“At times, it was so bad I couldn’t sit through a movie in a movie theater. It was hard for me to go two hours without smoking,” Wood said. “I remember sitting through the movie ‘Titanic,’ which is extraordinarily long and absolutely nic-fitting.”
Wood wants readers to understand addiction as a common occurrence in workplace social history as well as to follow the rise and fall of smoking at work.
“The golden age of smoking in the workplace was very brief,” Wood said. “Probably during the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s, but for most of the decades of the 20th century, smoking was largely prohibited and forbidden very strenuously by employers.”
Even in the early part of the 20th century, industrial employers were “vehemently anti-smoking,” including Hammermill and Ford Motor Co., Wood added. Eventually, smoking became the addiction of choice at the workplace.
“If the working class of the 19th century was drinking its way through the 19th century, workers in the 20th century would smoke their way into the new century,” Wood said.
Today in the 21st century, smoking bans and the repeal of existing bans continue to be debated in communities across the country. Similar workplace battles rage on with the advent of smokeless cigarettes and vaping.
“It struck me that nicotine has outlasted its historical source, which is tobacco,” Wood said. “Nicotine and nicotine addiction will long survive after tobacco is gone into the ashtray of history.”
“Clearing the Air” is available for purchase through Cornell University Press and online booksellers.
Wood is available for interviews about his research on smoking in the workplace, its effects on unionization, social effects of smoking bans and the role of tobacco in American life by calling 301-687-4998 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.