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March 31, 2021

Torches of Freedom: Photographs of Women Smoking Publicly During the Easter Sunday Parade in 1929

Cigarette companies began selectively advertising to women in the late 1920s. In 1928 George Washington Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company, realized the potential market that could be found in women and said, “It will be like opening a gold mine right in our front yard.” Yet some women who were already smoking were seen as smoking incorrectly. In 1919 a hotel manager said that women “don’t really know what to do with the smoke. Neither do they know how to hold their cigarettes properly. Actually they make a mess of the whole performance.” Tobacco companies had to make sure that women would not be ridiculed for using cigarettes in public and Philip Morris even sponsored a lecture series that taught women the art of smoking.

On March 31, 1929, at the amidst of the Easter Sunday Parade in New York City, a young woman, Bertha Hunt, stepped out into the crowded Fifth Avenue and lights up a Lucky Strike cigarette. This act, however, is not advertising for Lucky Strike or for any other cigarette brand for that matter. It is a public relations campaign, aimed at encouraging women to have equal opportunities – including the right to smoke and not be classified as a “fallen woman” – the name given to prostitutes and “characterless” women.

Miss Hunt issued the following communiqué from the smoke-clouded battlefield: “I hope that we have started something and that these torches of freedom, with no particular brand favored, will smash the discriminatory taboo on cigarettes for women and that our sex will go on breaking down all discriminations.”

The incident was highlighted even more because the press had been informed in advance of Hunt’s course of actions, and had been provided with appropriate leaflets and pamphlets. Eddie Bernays – the father of public relations – whose secretary just so happened to be, Bertha Hunt, cleverly arranged this public relations campaign. Apart from the issue of smoking being taboo amongst women, there was also the issue that, “…women didn’t care for the green packaging of lucky strikes, and the manufacturer concluded that changing the color was too expensive.” Bernays was able to address this problem by incorporating the similar shade of green into the latest women’s fashion. This, in turn, made women subconsciously like the green and associated the packaging of the cigarettes with that of their clothing.

While walking down the street Hunt told the New York Times that she first got the idea for this course of action when a man on the street asked her to extinguish her cigarette as it embarrassed him. “I talked it over with my friends, and we decided it was high time something was done about the situation.” The New York Times dated April 1, 1929 ran a story titled, “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of Freedom”. As women all over the country took to this new found symbol of their emancipation aggressively, Bernays must have had the last laugh at the ironic date of the story.

Mrs. Taylor-Scott Hardin parades down New York’s Fifth Avenue with her husband while smoking “Torches of Freedom,” a gesture of protest for absolute equality with men, 1929.

Edith Lee smokes a cigarette on the “Torches for Freedom” march, New York, 1929.

Ten young women followed Bertha Hunt that day down Fifth Avenue, brandishing their torches of freedom. The audience’s imagination was captured as newspapers enthusiastically reported on this new scandalous trend. Bernays used “sexual liberation as a form of control.” The days that followed saw Bernays not only emphasizing the liberation movement for women as far as cigarettes were concerned, but also waxing eloquence on its slimming properties and glamour quotient that ensured women getting hooked to Lucky Strikes. Sales doubled from 1923 to 1929. Bernay’s justified his $25,000 paycheck to Hill and their fruitful association continued for another 8 years that saw a miraculous jump in the sales of cigarettes. While voting rights were yet to be granted to women, Eddie Bernays got them an equally symbolic though hollow torch of freedom in a spectacular fashion.

Years later Bernays would smile confidently at the radical effect the campaign had wrought about in society, “Age old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal.” While the intentions behind this radical change might certainly be murky, there is no doubt that the Torches of Freedom became a landmark trendsetter in the world of advertising and public relations and is influencing the rules of the game even today.

Lucky Strike cigarette advertisement, featuring Rosalie Adele Nelson advising “To keep slender, I reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”

1900 cigarette ad; targeting women is not a new strategy.

“Women Are Free!” American Tobacco Co., 1929.

Marlboro, in stark contrast to the Marlboro Man ads we’re familiar with today, started the “Mild as May” campaign to encourage women to take up smoking cigarettes that were appropriately mild and easier to smoke.

“I smoke a Lucky instead of eating sweets.” A 1929 ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes featuring Lady Grace Drummond Hay – journalist and first woman to fly around the world in a zeppelin.

“Light a Lucky, and you’ll never miss sweets that make you fat... Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” A 1929 ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes featuring Constance Talmadge.

This PR campaign could not be used today as you can no longer promote smoking amongst any publics. However, this campaign was also to promote equality and equal opportunities amongst men and women and in the way this campaign was presented, a similar approach could be used today. It was not illegal for women to smoke during this time; it was only the societal expectations and image associated with it that prevented them from doing it.


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