Lady Nicotine

It’s missing the first and last sentences, but I can fix that.

These lines are from the back of the recipe for apple sauce cake. And this is actually copy of a poem that circulated in this form in the early 20th century, popularized by religious organizations and anti-smoking groups, and attributed to various individuals.

Walt Mason, from his obituary in the Jun 22, 1939 edition of The Pittsburgh Press

All of them, however, are basically poor copies of a work by Walt Mason, who wrote prose-poems that were syndicated for newspapers in his Rippling Rhymes column.

Walt Mason was born in Columbus, Ohio on May 4, 1862, the same day in the Civil War that the Siege of Yorktown ended when General McClellan was stunned to discover that the Confederate army had retreated in the night and the Union army was prepared to make war with a ghost town. Orphaned at 15, Mason traveled around looking for work, finding his niche when he got hired to work on a newspaper in St. Louis that folded shortly thereafter.

From there, however, Mason got work at The Atchison (Kansas) Globe, some 50 miles from this recipe box’s home in Wichita, and he’d go on to write his syndicated prose-poems for 200 newspapers. Generally, they were topical, usually light, and frequently pithy–sort of a print version of Charles Osgood, if you’re of a generation that understands the reference. (If you’re too young, well, I guess… imagine if Pharrell Williams ever said anything useful or interesting, ever, at all, and that it was related to something that happened that week. That’s Charles Osgood. Now imagine that, but in writing.)

Mason died in 1939. Meanwhile, this particular work of his was hijacked and stripped of its first and last lines sometime in the late 1910s. Compare the original (this from a compilation Mason published in 1911) to a news report of someone reciting the ersatz iteration in 1923:

1911: Walt Mason’s “Lady Nicotine” 1923: W.C.T.U.’s “Nature and Tobacco”
FromUncle Walt: the poet philosopher.” Walt Mason. Published by G.M. Adams, 1911.
June 21, 1923 The Liberty (Indiana) Herald

The W.C.T.U., of course, is the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the evangelical group that preaches (as it evidently still exists in some form), broadly speaking, abstinence from tobacco and alcohol as part of a larger moral solution to social ills.

Given the history of the last century, it’s fair to say there were some obstacles to how the earlier iterations of the group pursued this goal. More broadly, I’d say that there were some ideological and theological shortcomings, too. The word temperance itself, when used to describe the virtue, refers to moderation in all things–including passions, pursuits, and totally unjustified senses of righteousness. So to call yourself a temperance union when you’re calling for total abstinence from something didn’t strike the W.C.T.U. as strange.

Admittedly, the word had taken on its second meaning of abstinence from alcohol a few decades before the W.C.T.U.’s 1873 organization, primarily because of poor Latin translation. Still, if you name your group with the word used to describe the religious virtue of refraining from excess and then set into motion the complete and total obliteration of the thing you oppose, you should consider the possibility that maybe you aren’t cut out to be the brains of this, or any other, operation.

So why would the W.C.T.U. amputate the first and last sentences of the work? Well, I don’t know about the first sentence, but as the last sentence reminds the smoker that it’s okay to put down his pipe because “he can always get a new one,” it’s possible that the original plagiarist had an agenda that, say, opposed the consumption of tobacco, ever.

From the box of G.Y. from Wichita, Kansas.

  1. I have walked in summer meadows
    Where the sunbeams flashed and broke
    But I never saw the cattle or the
    Sheep or horses smoke
  2. I have watched the birds with wonder
    When the world with dew is wet
    But I never saw a robin
    Puffing at a cigarette
  3. I have fished in many a river
    Where the sucker crop is ripe
    But I never saw a catfish
    Puffing at a briar pipe
  4. Man’s the only living creature
    That blows where’er he goes
    Like a blooming tractor engine
    Smoke from mouth and nose
  5. If God had intended he’d smoke
    When he first invented man
    He would have built him on
    A widely different plan
  6. He’d have fired him with a stove pipe
    And a damper and a grate
    And he’d had a smoke consumer
    That was strictly up to date


Missing lines:

The version copied into the recipe box omitted the first and last sentences of the original work, which are as follows (see the original above):

Smoking is a filthy habit,
and a big, fat, black cigar
advertises that you’re straying
from the Higher Life afar.

Therefore let the erring mortal
put his noisome pipe in soak–
he can always get a new one
if he feels he needs a smoke.

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