Whatever their resolutions, the start of the new year has marked the end of one habit for Boston’s downtown smokers: stepping out on the Common for a cigarette. In one of his last acts before leaving office, Mayor Thomas Menino approved an ordinance banning smoking on Boston Common and the city’s other parks. That measure went into effect last Tuesday.
As restrictions on smoking have made the great outdoors the last refuge of beleaguered smokers, the notion of a smoking ban on the 50-acre Common might come as a bit of a shock. But it is especially ironic given the park’s history. In the mid-19th century, when public smoking was prohibited throughout the city, Boston Common was the only place that nicotine lovers could legally light up and consume their tobacco in peace.
The rise and fall of smoking in the Common says a lot about evolving social mores and attitudes toward health over the last two centuries. It also opens a window onto the changing uses of public space—and how, when it comes to what we’re allowed to do outside, stated justifications are often only part of the story.
Boston’s fraught relationship with smoking dates back to the 17th century, when the colony’s Puritan founders, who frowned on the use of tobacco, moved to curtail its use. The Colonial court first banned smoking in public in 1632, assessing a small fine of one penny for violators. In 1638 a new law upped the penalty to 10 shillings and prohibited smoking within 300 feet of all homes, barns, fields, forests, inns, and public houses—effectively outlawing smoking throughout the city. Although widely violated, these and later blue laws governing tobacco use remained on the books until 1880. Boston earned a well-deserved reputation for its persecution of smokers, who were routinely fined or even arrested on the streets.
The city’s smokers got a welcome reprieve when Mayor John Bigelow announced in 1851 that a “Smokers’ Circle” would be established in the southwest end of Boston Common, near the present day Parkman Bandstand. In this shady grove, outfitted with a circle of benches, gentlemen could gather to discuss the events of the day while enjoying cigars and pipes (cigarettes did not become popular until the 1880s). As a local magazine noted, the Smokers’ Circle quickly became a favorite haunt for businessmen who “resort each afternoon and evening to inhale the bewitching weed.” Just how long the Smokers’ Circle survived is unclear—it may have become obsolete during the Civil War when multiple regiments were mustered on the Common. It was certainly gone by 1880, when the city’s smoking ban was overturned. In any case, the Smokers’ Circle marked the first volley in a campaign to legalize tobacco use in the city, and Boston Common served as the sanctuary where this “freedom” could be exercised.
The creation of the Smokers’ Circle also spoke to the changing physical and social landscape of the Common. Once a grazing area on the outskirts of town, the Common had by the mid-19th century become the scenic centerpiece of a growing city. With the construction of the State House in 1798, prominent Bostonians built stately homes along Beacon Street, and Beacon Hill residents began to lead efforts to beautify and “improve” the park. Hills were leveled, bogs were filled in, and tree-lined malls were constructed around the perimeter of the Common. Most significantly, residents’ cows, which had grazed in the Common for two centuries, were summarily evicted in 1830. In the process, the area was transformed from a productive space for grazing, carpet beating, and militia drilling to a refined leisure space for genteel residents. Fashionably dressed women strolled the malls, a social ritual that allowed them to see and be seen amid the urban bustle.
Since smoking was then almost exclusively a male activity, the creation of the Smokers’ Circle would clearly have been understood as something else as well: a male-only space in a park that was technically open to all and increasingly claimed by well-to-do women. Such gender-specific amenities were not unique to the Common; around the same time, Central Park boasted a Ladies Skating Pond as well as a Ladies Pavilion, where women park goers could wait unmolested for the streetcar.
Ultimately these preserves gave way to more mixed interactions in the 20th century, and after the smoking ban was lifted, smoking—by both men and women—became routine throughout the Common.
Now, more than 130 years later, Bostonians are reinstating the smoking ban on the Common (as well as in Franklin Park, the Public Garden, and dozens of other city holdings). Health concerns over exposure to secondhand smoke have dominated the debate, and proponents of the ban argue that it will reduce litter and pressure smokers to quit. But while health issues are the most touted motivation, changing social practices in the Commonwealth, most notably the decriminalization of marijuana and the pending legalization of medical marijuana, are a subtext that has never been far from the surface in discussions of the new rule. Residents have recently complained of increased levels of pot smoking in the Common, particularly near playgrounds or other spots frequented by children. And the widespread public pot smoking at the annual Freedom Rally sponsored by cannabis reform advocates in the Common every fall has long been a bête noir of city officials.
Last August, Boston City Councilor Bill Linehan first proposed boosting the penalties for public pot smoking in the Common to $300, which would have required violators to present identification and allowed the city to issue warrants for those who failed to pay their fines. But the measure stalled; instead, a broad-based smoking ban was introduced the following month. With its promised health benefits, the blanket smoking ban sailed through the City Council in late November.
Will we see a move to re-create the Smokers’ Circle? Not anytime soon, because the smoking ban on the Common is not just a health measure but a way of accommodating bigger changes in the public order. For more than four centuries, Boston Common has been a bellwether of social change. If you want to know how Bostonians feel about smoking in another hundred years, see what’s legal on the Common—and that may tell you all you need to know.Marilynn S. Johnson is a professor of history at Boston College and is cocurating an exhibition with her students on the history of Boston Common. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.