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Journal of the Week — Cope’s Smoke Room Booklets

At a time when the proliferation of cheap newspapers and magazines was designed to strike the lowest common denominator of popular taste, the Tobacco Plant did its substantial bit to maintain a lively interest in literary topics among ordinary middle-class readers. Seldom, before or since, could an Englishman get as much good reading matter for his twopence.”

The Smoker’s Textbook
Liverpool: At the office of “Cope’s Tobacco Plant,” 1889
GT3020 H2 1889

By the late nineteenth century, Cope’s Tobacco had become a household name. The company’s brands of snuff, cigars, cigarettes, and other tobacco products were enjoyed by millions of smokers not only England, where the factory was located, but overseas as well. The name was also known to millions of non-smokers due to an incredibly innovative public relations campaign that included advertising, politics, and Cope’s very own trade publications, Cope’s Tobacco Plant and the Smoke Room Booklets.

Although Rickett Wills & Company was the first to introduce branded smoking tobacco in 1847, the Cope brothers were quick to follow suit with “Cope’s Mixture.” The foundation of the Cope’s empire was established in 1848, when Thomas Cope and his elder brother, George, opened a modest cigar manufacturer in Liverpool. At the time, they had less than a dozen employees. Business grew rapidly, however, and before long they were forced to move into a bigger building. They expanded again in 1853, purchasing a lot on Lord Nelson Street, where Cope’s would stay for the rest of its history. Over the years, the operation expanded into adjoining buildings that had become vacant and by the 1880’s, Cope’s Tobacco occupied the whole side of the street and added more than 1,500 employees to its payroll, most of whom were women and girls.

The Smoker’s Garland, part 1
Liverpool: At the office of “Cope’s Tobacco Plant,” 1889
GT3020 S6 v.1

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, a rise in population coincided with a rise in demand for tobacco products. From 1870-1890, tobacco consumption in England had increased by 20% per capita. Smoking had won societal acceptance as a mildly reprehensible but enjoyable habit among artists, writers, and “men-about-town.” However, another faction of the community took quite a different view. Under a prevailing spirit of rational observation and empirical inquiry, an anti-tobacco lobby emerged consisting of medical professionals, cultural leaders, and politicians. For the first time in history, a public campaign against smoking had begun. Asserting that the tobacco habit was the cause of a range of both psychological and physical disorders, the British Anti-Tobacco Society and the North of England Anti-Tobacco Society worked tirelessly to ensure that smoking did not increase in popularity. And they were successful, for a while…

Selections from original contributions by James Thomson
Liverpool: At the office of “Cope’s Tobacco Plant,” 1889
PR5656 C6

The Cope brothers had an aggressive, coherent, and decisive marketing strategy, which they developed not only for its customers, but also for special interest groups and cultural leaders who could shape the moral and social climate surrounding smoking. The company relied heavily on posters, press advertisements, point-of-sale displays, and special packaging to carry the image and brand to both the trade industry and to the general public. In terms of design, Thomas Cope understood that, by standardizing the overall presentation of his products, he would be able to create something visually identifiable with the Cope’s name and brand. The firm’s principal artist, John Wallace (who used the pseudonym, George Pipeshanks), was responsible for the distinct blend of humor, fantasy, and decorative appeal which would become the recognizable Cope’s trademark. He designed package labels, posters, show cards, and illustrated Cope’s magazines and books. By the 1880s, Cope’s had six different brands of cigars, priced to appeal to every social class. For instance, “Cut Cavendish” was smoked by “hardy, working men, soldiers and sailors”; “London Shag” appealed mainly to metropolitans; and “Our Mutual Friend” was for smokers who wanted to roll their own cigarettes, for it also contained smoking papers in the packet. By the end of the century, the range of Cope’s branding practices and products extended to twenty tobaccos, six cigar brands, nine cigarette brands, and ten brands of snuff.

Charles Lamb in Pipefuls
Liverpool: At the office of “Cope’s Tobacco Plant,” 1890
PR4860 A4 1890

As the firm flourished, so too did its founders. From obscure provincial entrepreneurs who lived “over the shop,” the Cope brothers evolved to become important municipal figures, active in Liberal politics. Meanwhile, the anti-tobacco lobbies had also achieved enough prominence… to be featured as the butt of jokes in magazines such as Punch. But Cope’s promotional innovations were not limited to advertising. They also pursued vigorous campaigns to legitimize smoking in the face of increasing opposition from those who deplored it as both a social nuisance and a medical risk. They did so by turning attention toward progressive issues, such as gender equality and workers’ rights. The company was the first to employ women as tobacco workers, at a time when society was still sensitive to the question of female labor. Cope’s capitalized on the working conditions it provided its women-led workforce. And for its labor policies, the company received praise and endorsements from writers such as Charles Dickens, Andrew Halliday, George Augustus Sala, and Emily Faithful — bestowing a legitimacy which would have been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve through advertising alone. Without a doubt, the press played an important part in establishing the idea that Cope’s was a model employer. 

Thomas Carlyle: Table Talk
Liverpool: At the office of “Cope’s Tobacco Plant,” 1890
PR4422 C6

The Cope brothers did more than cultivate favorable press coverage. They created their own. In 1870, they undertook the major innovation of launching a magazine, Cope’s Tobacco Plant, designed to promote not only the firm, but also the cause of smoking in general. The first issue, from March 30, 1870, made the company’s intentions clear:

Tobacco; all about Tobacco, and nothing but Tobacco; and to this programme it will adhere. All new inventions in machinery employed in tobacco manufacture, and all patents relating to such inventions, will be reported upon and receive our best notice. The culture and management of the tobacco plant, legislation in reference to tobacco in all parts of the world, excise and customs regulations, the multifarious aspects and workings of tobacco duties, will receive our fullest and most careful attention.” 

Cope’s Tobacco Plant included all of the same design elements and production of the company’s products, published as a twelve-page folio on tinted paper in double columns, ornamented with decorative titles and splendid comic vignettes by John Wallace. From 1870-1879, the magazine became an encyclopedia of anything related to tobacco, with features including articles, poems, essays by famous literary figures, book reviews, smoking anecdotes, and cartoons. There were also features dedicated to the topic of smoking and health. Acting as an antidote to the anti-tobacco lobby, which had its own periodical, Tobacco Plant would regularly single out prominent individuals — including Dr. Charles Drysdale, who was the first to link smoking with cancer of the tongue and lip. More than simply denying the dangers of smoking, the company maintained that there were active benefits to the habit. For their articles, they recruited writers and doctors to provide testimonials which claimed a comprehensive range of medical advantages.

The Smoker’s Garland, part 2
Liverpool: At the office of “Cope’s Tobacco Plant,” 1889
GT3020 S6 v.2

In the first years of its run, Tobacco Plant gave most of its editorial space to the news of interest to tobacco manufacturers and dealers: announcements of patents, classified advertisements, and articles on the much-hated excise tax. The magazine also considered tobacco in its historical, geographical, ethnological, societal, physiological, and literary context. It gave recipes for tooth powder made of cigar ashes, advised on the care of pipes, and ran descriptive essays on various restaurants where smoking was an amenity to be enjoyed with food and drink. Mostly, it went in heavily for verse, establishing what was considered an “obvious affinity… between the lovers of old books, irreverently called Bibliomaniacs, and Tobacco.” Beginning in July 1874, the magazine published lengthy book reviews and reprints excerpted from old and scarce titles. But by 1878, the editor reluctantly concluded that, perhaps, he had misjudged the clientele. 

Produced on Cope’s own premises by John Fraser and distributed through tobacconists, newsagents, and railway bookstalls, the magazine had a circulation of more than 10,000 copies at its peak. All in all, Cope’s Tobacco Plant lasted nearly a decade and even crossed the Atlantic through a distribution agency in Tennessee.

Amber: All About It
Liverpool: At the office of “Cope’s Tobacco Plant,” 1891
QE391 A5 H33

The last volume of Cope’s Tobacco Plant was issued in 1879, but it would not be the company’s last pursuit of self-publishing. A decade later, Cope’s thriftily put some of its best content to new use in a series of fourteen Cope’s Smoke Room Booklets. The link between tobacco smoke and literature became particularly established as the British smoke room became the sanctum where “genial lightsomeness in literature seems naturally to consort with pleasant and perfumed pastime.”   

Printed with lithographed wrappers and illustrated within, the occasional offerings contained highlights from the Tobacco Plant. In “The Smoker’s Text-Book” and “The Smoker’s Garland,” parts 1-3, the content ranged from a generous selection of verse and prose in praise of tobacco, some written especially for the periodical and the rest drawn from the works of various recognized authors. Other titles include, “Amber: All About It,” written by J. G. Haddow and based on materials collected by William Mccall and printed in the Tobacco Plant; “Cope’s Mixture,” an anthology of excerpts from the column of the same name which had run in the magazine during most of its career. Three other Smoke Room Booklets collected the curious material the Tobacco Plant had printed on pipes in America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and England. Remaining true to the bold tradition of the original publication, the series also devoted several numbers to literary subjects, such as James Thomson, Charles Lamb, and Thomas Carlyle.

Cope’s Mixture
Liverpool: At the office of “Cope’s Tobacco Plant,” 1890
GT3020 C65

Today, Cope’s Tobacco Plant and Smoke Room Booklets represent a unique part of Victorian history, providing a fascinating glimpse into the work of smoking and popular culture. Behind the beautiful advertisements, the exotically named brand packages, and the quaint and curious anecdotes of Cope’s publications, exists a general intention to convert smoking into a signifier of the good, the literary, the chic, the artistic, the bohemian, the manly, the modern, the aristocratic, and most of all, the natural. 


1 Comment
  • Alexander Jolley
    Posted at 00:35h, 01 February Reply

    It’s pretty fascinating how brand names can come and go. As stated in this blog, Cope’s was a household name in this period, much like Rockefeller’s Caricene. However, today you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone familiar with Cope. I certainly wasn’t! What among our brand names of today will be completely forgotten in 100 years’ time?

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