When New York Banned Smoking to Save Women’s Souls

In January 1908, Katie Mulcahey was arrested on the streets of New York, becoming the first victim of the city’s new law — banning women from smoking in public. Though men could and did smoke anywhere they wanted, a woman with a cigarette was regarded as “dangerously sexual, immoral and not to be trusted.” In fact, for most of the 1900s, women weren’t free to move as they pleased outside of their homes without a male escort. They were refused service in most restaurants, cafés, and hotels, while saloons and private clubs simply closed their doors to female customers. Women who appeared in public places without a respectable man were often regarded as prostitutes. Smoking women were rebellious, and their mutiny — which began in the 1880s with the mass production of cigarettes — occurred along with a number of other social changes. A new invention — the department store — suddenly made it socially acceptable for women to shop and appear in public without escorts. More and more women participated in public activism, and more permissive social attitudes infuriated those who questioned both public women and their smoking. As it turned out, Katie Mulcahey was the law’s only victim. She was the only woman ever cited for violating the ordinance, though it’s unclear how many other women refrained from lighting up in public because of the ban. After just two weeks on the books, it was vetoed by New York’s mayor.