Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Drinking Tobacco - A 17th Century Vice - by Deborah Swift

Nobody in my novel THE GILDED LILY 'drinks' tobacco, which is a pity because that is actually the word that was used for smoking in the 17th century. If I had used that word than the reader would have stopped to think why and it would have brought them out of the story to focus on the writer instead of staying in my 17th century world.

So I used the word 'smoke' even though it is technically incorrect. Cigarettes did not exist of course so all smoking was through a pipe, and the smoke was drunk, sipped or swallowed. Smoking was a word only applied to the tobacco itself when it was alight!

Tobacco was very expensive so pipe bowls were very small, allowing less than an ounce of tobacco. The stem of the pipe was very long and the hole through which you drank very small. You would have had to suck quite hard to get your hit of tobacco.

Still Life With Clay Pipes Painting By Claesz Pieter Oil Painting
Painting by Pieter Claesz 1636

Clay pipes were very decorative especially those made for women, and I have an example at home which has flowers around the bowl. The pipes were cast from a mould after the original shape was carved from wood or fashioned from clay. The one below from the Museum of London shows a carved sailing ship.

For more examples you can't do better than to visit the website of Heather Coleman, an amateur archaelogist and expert on clay pipes.

This image of a seventeenth century woman with a pipe is from an article about women and smoking by Beth Maxwell Boyle. She has a collection of pipes and smoking related memorabilia on her website

Pipes were also used by children in the age-old fashion even in the 17th century as Michaelina Woutiers' 'Boys Blowing Bubbles' from the 1640s shows us. This painting is in the Seattle Art Museum, and is a wonderful resource for costume detail. Note the shell used for holding the bubble-blowing liquid. Let's hope the boys did not 'drink' the contents!

Are there things in novels you have read that jumped you out of the story? And if you're a writer have you made decisions that were technically incorrect for the benefit of the reader?

And for more about the THE GILDED LILY, a historical adventure set in rich mansions and dark alleys of 17th century London have a look at the trailer.

THE GILDED LILY is already available on Kindle and will be out in paperback and in other e-formats in the US on 27th November. Read the latest review at TheLittle Reader Library


  1. Can't wait to read this book, Deborah. It's strange to think of women and children smoking pipes isn't it? Well now I finally have a Kindle so I can get the e-book. If it's anything like The Lady's Slipper I know I'll love it.

  2. Can't wait to read this book, Deborah. It's strange to think of women and children smoking pipes isn't it? Well now I finally have a Kindle so I can get the e-book. If it's anything like The Lady's Slipper I know I'll love it.

  3. The idea of not distracting your reader with something foreign to them is interesting. I can see that as an ideal for a novelist, but given how easy it is now to check things out on the web I think a lot of us readers must dip out to look things up quite often. And not necessarily obscure things, maybe just things we've forgotten, like a geographical location...

  4. I think that the word drink instead of smoke would be a hard one for readers to swallow (no pun intended).

  5. Hi Anne and Heidi, yes it's an interesting debate. I think I don't necessarily want the reader to jump from the emotional arc of the story into research mode, but to stay fully engaged in the world I've created. Of course for some readers the whole point of historical fiction is for them to learn something new and they want to look things up. But not all readers are like that and many might consider the book to be either poorly edited or poorly written if a word they were unfamiliar with appeared in another context. So as a writer I have to juggle all the different demands of readers.

    Thanks Karen for your compliment.

  6. Hi Deborah,

    This is interesting and I'm glad another writer has shared the dilemma of reader understanding versus historical accuracy. I am writing a saga set in 5th century Britain involving Saxons. As exRoman mercenaries their battle charge cry would have been in Latin, but I felt this would confuse people reading about Saxons. I have therefore used a term more Old English in its feel so as to keep the reader in the scene. Fascinating where our books/research lead us!


    1. Hi Elaine - I can quite see your point. Interesting that you had to replace Latin with Old English. Writers make these decisions much more often than readers think.

  7. As a reader I think at first I would consider it an editing mistake unless the scene was something like a parent explaining to a child how to drink from a pipe for the first time. It would pull me out of the narrative for a moment but I am one of the readers you mentioned that reads historical fiction for a fun way to learn history.

  8. Great article, Deborah. Loved your trailer, too. Good luck with this one when it hits the US.

    ~Adrienne deWolfe


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