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Basel museum traces history of tobacco

Anyone trying to give up the smoking habit is advised to stay well clear of the Culture Museum in Basel. It has mounted an exhibition on the social history of tobacco which gives the visitor as much pleasure as a good cigar.

Anyone trying to give up the smoking habit is advised to stay well clear of the Culture Museum in Basel. It has mounted an exhibition on the social history of tobacco which gives the visitor as much pleasure as a good cigar.

Tobacco was first cultivated as a medicinal plant by the indigenous population of North America in pre-colonial times. It was also smoked in pipes or as huge cigars - much bigger than those of today - during religious rituals.

The first heavy smoker to arrive in Europe was also the first to suffer at the hands of anti-smoking campaigners. A Spaniard who came back with Christopher Columbus was imprisoned for 10 years because the Inquisition thought the devil was smoking out of his mouth.

But even the Spanish Inquisition was unable to prevent the spread of the tobacco habit throughout the continent. By the 17th century it was being consumed in Switzerland, despite fears that fires might by started by careless pipe-smokers.

The exhibition uses illustrations and antique objects to trace the social history of tobacco, and in the section devoted to its cultivation and processing there are tobacco leaves giving off a satisfying aroma.

Photographs of well-known 20th century smokers show how cigarettes were a fashion accessory, especially in the 1920s. Curator Wiebke Ahrndt says at one time, cigars sent out political smoke signals because they were popular among such revolutionaries as Che Guevara.

"They were also a social instrument indicating status, and a tool of diplomacy," she added, pointing to a photograph of Sir Winston Churchill luxuriating in a cloud of his own cigar smoke.

The exhibition ends on September 10.

by Richard Dawson

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