The Case of Missing Cigarettes

As America’s anger thermostats overheats on Mark Twain censorship, Iconic Photos looks back at a visual issue that regularly graces our semi-annual, revisionist political correctness hissy fits: cigarette censorship in photos.

The French, for all their enthusiastic fume-making, seems to be the worse offenders. Not even presidents or philosophes escape the firm hand of their cigarette censors, whose efforts are often sophomoric and inexplicable: Jacques Tati’s much-loved character, Monsieur Hulot, someone so iconic that even his silhouette was instantly recognizable, was depicted as gnawing on a papier-mache windmill instead (how did they come up with this idea?!). This actually reminds me of a scene in Thank You For Smoking where an American senator attempts to digitally remove cigarettes from classic films. The scene was not in the original novel, but its author Christopher Buckley would have agreed; Buckley once called a similar practice, “tampering with cultural DNA”.

Buckley was referring to a 33-cent stamp commemorating Jackson Pollock. In 1999, Pollock becomes the second American painter to be thus commemorated (first was Norman Rockwell). The U.S. Postal Service hired an artist, one Howard Koslow, to copy the iconic Jackson Pollock image by Martha Holmes. Holmes took the photo at Pollock’s studio in East Hampton, N.Y., for a LIFE magazine cover story in 1949. The photo, of course, showed the denim-clad artist, a chain smoker, pouring paint onto canvas, with a cigarette hanging languidly from his mouth. Koslow was explicitly ordered to leave out the cigarette, and despite much hoo-hah, the stamps went to press without it.

But this is not the first time a cigarette has been excised by the U.S. Postal Service. A more egregious example was the 1994 stamp commemorating Robert Johnson; the original photo showed the blues guitarist with his signature cigarette, which was notably absent from the stamp. This is more egregious because there were only two verified photographs of Robert Johnson, and the portrait on the stamp was the defining image of the man. Altering it was like, I don’t know, taking away Churchill’s cigar. But wait, they have also done that too:

Yousef Karsh literally took it away to capture Churchill’s combative nature. If he were still alive Churchill would probably have been angrier with public censorship of his cigar, committed by the London museum, The Winston Churchill’s Britain at War Experience. Churchill makes a “V” shaped symbol with his fingers, with his signature stogie in the corner of his mouth, in the original photo, but not anymore in the images that greet museum visitors. (Come on, how many museum-goers actually say, “OMG! Winston was soooo cooool with the cigar! Let’s go and buy some!)

Churchill would have hated it, but his German nemesis might be enjoying a posthumous chuckle. Adolf Hitler was an anti-smoking zealot; he believed that smoking was “decadent” and equal to “racial degeneracy” and that it was wrong for the master race to smoke. Feeling it was bad for Germans to see statesmen and role models with cigarettes, he ordered many top Nazi officials to stop smoking; this directive even extended to foreign leaders. Hitler had a cigarette removed from the photos of Stalin that Nazi Germany published when Stalin met with the Nazi envoy, Joachim von Ribbentrop.

It is tempting to play “You Are Hitler” card here, but other unfavorable comparisons can be found too; sociologist Todd Gitlin put it better than I ever can: “The communists used to airbrush inconvenient persons from photographs. Americans are airbrushing signs of inconvenient sins.” However, it is not just Americans; everyone seems to be doing it these days. Soon, we will be learning sanitized versions of history, where FDR, Sigmund Freud or Humphrey Bogart never smoked, reading books where Sherlock Holmes didn’t rely on cocaine and tobacco, and watching movies where protagonists are allowed to blow others’ heads off but not allowed to light up.

Often, the argument is about the children, for they are impressionable. Removing the cigarette from the photo of Clement Hurd which was on the dust jacket of the book he illustrated, “Goodnight Moon,” was such a case. In this case, the concerns were legitimate as “Goodnight Moon” was a classic which has lulled children to sleep for nearly 60 years but I am willing to bet 95% of the readers — both parents and children alike — would never have noticed that tiny little cigarette. Sometimes it is to be wondered whether the publishers deliberately try to stir up controversy for they could easily have skirted around the entire issue by using a different picture of Hurd where he was not smoking.


In 2005, Heinemann, a publisher likewise took out the cigar from the mouth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel from the cover of Leonie Bennett’s biography of the Victorian engineer. Heinemann responded to the resulting controversy by saying teachers and libraries will not buy books for children if the cover had a picture of someone smoking.

Yet “think of the children”, or for more educated among us, “Ad usum Delphini” is often a cravenly argument to further political agenda. On censoring a cigarette out of a stamp of the chain smoker Bette Davis, Roger Ebert quipped, “We are all familiar, I am sure, with the countless children and teenagers who have been lured into the clutches of tobacco by stamp collecting.” And don’t think it was all harmless; revisionism is only hilarious up to a certain level: in the far-away and simpler time called 1959, the American Gas Association managed to have all references to gas ovens and the gassing of Jews removed from the broadcast it sponsored, which happened to be the film Judgment at Nuremberg.

But I believe when we see a picture of someone famous — Churchill, Pollock or Freud — we admire them for their abilities and genius, not for their smoking. Whether a cigarette, cigar or any other fumigant is present or not, we see beyond them to witness in those photos men of talent; our focus is not on the cigarette, unless specific attention is called for by its inexplicable absence. Cigarette censorship opens a debate where such a debate was not necessary, where such a debate could only detract from the images and where such a debate would never have existed without the censorship itself.

66 thoughts on “The Case of Missing Cigarettes”

      1. Cigarettes *are* cool. They look cool, they’re fun to hold. And they are disgusting. And they cause debilitating diseases. Why does it have to be one or the other?

      2. Cigarettes are cool if you think about how they look, holding them etc., but smoking as habit or smoking for fun or to BE cool – nah, that isn’t cool at all!

    1. Hmmm….George Orwell is turning in his grave right now, or better yet yelling I told you so. 1984 becomes closer and closer to reality everyday.

  1. I am kind of ambivalent about the whole thing. Smoking does stink. I never smoked, but my parents are certainly suffering the consequences of it.

    I don’t think there is a whole lot of value in scrubbing it from historical photos, but on the other hand why push so hard to retain images of smoking?

    The stamps are intended to portray individuals and their accomplishments, not their addictions. They are paintings, not photos, so why waste the paint on something so unnecessary? If you compare, there are quite a few other details changed or left out, so what is the big deal?

    1. Retaining images of smoking? It’s re-writing history. It’s scrubbing fact. It’s censorship and it’s absolutely beyond me how this could be remotely acceptable, no matter what your opinion of the habit.

      As to Jackson Pollock: A painting? It was a reproduction of reality. Of a photograph. It’s not an original image the painter created, and it’s not fiction. The subject is still called “Jackson Pollock” and it’s still a representation of a famous historical image. A colorful misrepresentation of who Jackson Pollock, a CHAIN smoker was. A misrepresentation of reality, no matter what you think of reality. Cause and effect are fundamental laws of ‘nature.’

      Please reconsider your take. Reading up on official censorship will make you cringe. This reality extends to official documents and seeps into court testimony and our very concept of a justice system. Censorship is wrong and there are no ifs, ands or buts about it.

    2. Can you disassociate the addictions from the accomplishments that easily? What powers of discernment you must possess.

      Revising undeniable historical fact in pursuit of a transient political goal is different only in degree from the historiography practised by totalitarian regimes.

  2. Tobacco has always been associated with freedom. There is a movement now to stamp out all freedom and symbols of it.

    1. He’d be pissed that people are copying National Socialist propaganda technique without attributing him as the grandaddy of it all. He’d be all like: “Respect, yo.”

  3. Photos will surface of George Bush fighting Osama Bin Laden to the death under the Mission Accomplished Flag in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1

    Censorship is wrong. Re-writing history is reprehensible. There is nothing good about this. You know who else will want to jump on the bandwagon, here? Team SarahPac will soon announce that there never were cross-hairs on that poster. They were little bunnies, and the voters were supposed to “hop the bad ol’ Dems out of office.”

    Think hard about this before confusing your frame of censorship with your disdain for a gross habit. Please.

  4. I’m somewhat surprised that no one has mentioned 1984 by George Orwell, since that was the first thing that popped into my head. Especially since the story revolved around rewriting history everyday to keep it’s stable hold over the lives of the citizens in the city/state/country.

    It seems harmless enough but it starts with the small things, and when no one complains, it continues onto larger things. Personally I’m not so concerned with the painting reproductions, but I am deeply disturbed by the photographs that have been altered because it’s a disservice to the people photographed, especially Churchill.

    It’s called History because it happened, if it were supposed to be altered it would be called fiction. Some people may not like it but cigarettes are part of history, as are many other things people might not be exactly proud of, and it could be one of the least offensive things in the list of terrible things in history.

    I’m done ranting and will leave with this quote. “Those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

  5. Actually, this was first proposed in a book by Arthur C Clarke years back, called “Ghost From The Grand Banks.” One of the main characters had made obscene amounts of money going back over Hollywood films and removing smoking, frame by frame.

  6. The anti-tobacco nuts falsified the statistical analysis they cite which “suggests” the link between tobacco and cancer. Now we’re seeing Stalinesque photo editing. WTF?

    Smoking is nowhere near as bad for you as we’re being told – and it’s way better than being a prescription amphetamine addict.

  7. The past is immutable, but for those that believe otherwise there’s apparently the ability to edit photographs and paintings.

    I would advise them that, “If thy eye offends thee, put it out.”

    It is not their job to try to dictate to everyone else what images they see. Churchill smoked, FDR smoked, and the list goes on. The alteration of photos featuring those great people diminishes them because it attempts to create mythical beings. People have flaws, machines don’t.

    Those that attempt to erase our flaws, either current or past, are attempting to turn us into mindless, soulless automata.

  8. I wonder how long it is before coffee, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and other caffeinated beverages start getting censored. Or how long it is before pieces of fried food start getting censored… …

  9. Two more examples: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” compilation set from a few years back and The Beatles “Real Love” single from the anthology set. I’m sure I’ve seen an Abbey Road poster somewhere that was missing Paul’s ciggie too.

  10. I worked for Disney a few years back. In ALL the company literature, photos of Walt Disney holding his Chesterfield cigarette have been altered to remove the offending tobacco.

    In the lobby of the executive building there is a larger than life photo of Walt done in tiles that has his cigarette removed.

    Walt died of lung cancer in 1966.

    1. At least that is an instance of a private company making a decision to portray themselves in a different light. (Somewhat akin to Disney painting out scenes of racism in Fantasia, or George Lucas changing Star Wars so Han Solo didn’t shoot first.)

      I certainly don’t agree with any of it, but I see their right to do it. Government censorship in any fashion, however, is absolutely inexcusable.

    2. nuts. i’m sorry he died, but i am NOT into altering any orignal art. you do know how man movie’s the’ve removed the twin towers from, right? hey, they existed, they are part of art. just shouldn’t be that way. don’t alter history.

    3. Actually, this one makes sense because Disney himself had this done during his lifetime. He didn’t want to encourage kids to smoke, so he would avoid smoking on-air/in public appearances, and remove cigarettes from photos of himself.

      1. Agree that his decision was right – as his movies are made for children and we should keep children away from cigarettes. And this really depends on us – adults. Kids always try to copy our behavior and our habits, especially now when cigarettes are easily accessible. I’m talking about so popular now online cigarette stores like, outlet etc that sell cigarettes without any age control. Let’s be good examples for our kids.

  11. Not sure what the deal is on the Robert Johnson Pics but those are not two different renditions of the same picture or if they are, a heck of a lot of unnecessary changes were made in addition to the removal of the cigarette. The position of the guitar, the eyes and the background for just three.

    I can understand the cigarette thing in the light of political correctness or even adding a more interesting background but why change the position of the guitar?

  12. Abbey Road cover (Macca’s ciggy) and iconic photo of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (cigar) in front of huge chains have both suffered similar censorship but I forget who the guilty parties were.

  13. Though the characters were iconic in that period of time. We as humans tend to look what was than what is, we all know that cigarrets are harmful and it kills. However the depiction in our day to day lives, cigarrets has become a hobby that youth and elderly persons use.
    The depiction of the prominent photos emulates one thing to society, smoking is “cool”.

    1. Speak for yourself! How dare you to speak in the name of all? How dare you to speak in my name, ignorant brainwashed creature?

  14. A photos without a cigarettes are more interesting and it isn’t so ugly. This is a necessary little correction, but it not giving a good protection for a minors, because they often observing an your parents behaviors and sometimes they copying it. Anti-cigarette education is very needed. Nicotine is a highly toxic substance and it may to harm a human lungs.

    1. It is not government’s role to make photos more interesting. What would you think if they replaced the cigarette with a bible? That would certainly be more interesting!

      After all, it’s only a ‘necessary little correction.’

  15. […] Thanks to Iconic Photos for putting me on this soapbox… As America’s anger thermostats overheats on Mark Twain censorship, Iconic Photos looks back at a visual issue that regularly graces our semi-annual, revisionist political correctness hissy fits: cigarette censorship in photos. The French, for all their enthusiastic fume-making, seems to be the worse offenders. Not even presidents or philosophes escape the firm hand of their cigarette censors, whose efforts are often sophomoric and inexplicable: J … Read More […]

  16. > Churchill smoked, FDR smoked, and the list goes on. The alteration
    > of photos featuring those great people diminishes them because
    > it attempts to create mythical beings.

    On the stamp for FDR’s 100th birthday, his cigarette (in his trademark
    cigarette holder) is prominently on display:

    What’s been omitted, not only on every stamp but in nearly every
    photograph, is his wheelchair. This is the only inclusive photo
    that Google Images finds:

  17. Yes, Adolf Hitler was simply correct in in his knowledge that smoking is stupid, poisonous, and shouldn’t be promoted.

    Photo-lying about Hitler, himself, is usually more subtle. Jew publications simply avoid publishing the thousands of photos showing him smiling, enjoying the company of friends, families, and fans. Instead, they publish photos of him looking angry. That creates a wrong impression by omission. It’s deliberate, of course.

    Hitler was also a vegetarian, and right after he came to power he outlawed the jews’ barbaric practice of ritual slaughtering of animals — where they cut a neck artery and watch the animal stumble, struggle, fall, flail, bleed out, and finally die. Hitler was a vegetarian but he didn’t outlaw meat-eating. He was fairminded.

    Jewry has reversed the Truth about Adolf Hitler.

    My website offers the truth. And my website offers the American Solution. “It’s not politics. It’s life.”

  18. Actually, the attempts to better cigarettes during the ’70’s and again during early ’00’s (as the sane alternative to puritan prohibitionism) were blocked by the fanatics antismokers.

    If you add that crime to the rest, of lying, misleading public opinion, fraudulent extortion of public funds, funding from big pharma and huge waste of state funds into their junk science reports and paranoia campaigns (which could have been channeled to something actually useful, like medical research, therapies and facilities that would have helped countless people), then it is reasonable to conclude that antismokers are the foulest criminals of murderous disposition.

  19. It’s not just cigarettes. FDR demanded, mostly successfully, that press photos never show his wheelchair throughout his time in office. It’s also missing from his memorial. One would think he’d look more heroic in it.

  20. “…in the far-away and simpler time called 1959, the American Gas Association managed to have all references to gas ovens and the gassing of Jews removed from the broadcast it sponsored, which happened to be the film Judgment at Nuremberg.”

    Not one word about “gassing Jews” or “ovens” was uttered at the Nuremberg Trials. My father was at the trial, some 10 feet from Goehring, and later wrote extensively on the topic. Despite what “everyone knows,” there was not a single word about “the final solution” and not a single shred of evidence from the tons of German records seized. The Nuremberg Trial did not convict anyone of gassing Jews. The mix of real events, apocryphal ones, myth, emotion, and political posturing that led to what we now consider the “history of the Holocaust” — whatever one thinks of its accuracy — was a heady one, evolving in a time of widespread pain, suffering, and war fatigue. But the Holocaust was not a matter before the court in Nuremberg, no matter what you high school teacher told you.

    1. Clarification: I do not mean there was no statement about these things, so I was wrong to phrase it with “not one word” when it was a lack of physical evidence I meant. My main point was not to contest the events, but to remind folks that what we think we know about this was mostly in Poliakov’s (the Russian judge’s) opinion and sentencing statements. The whole thing is a horror whatever happened and how. But all the “final solution” hubbub came after that trial — much more than came up AT the trial.

  21. […] being an adult”?). In any case I certainly don’t agree with the revisionism involved in censoring vintage images of smoking. We may now be far more aware of the dangers associated with tobacco but we should also, I believe, […]

  22. Reblogged this on Menningarmiðlun ehf. and commented:
    Ritskoðun að yfirtaka menningu okkar?
    Sem sagnfræðingur hafa rannsóknir mínar oftast snúist um að svipta hulunni af sannleikanum og grafa upp löngu gleymdar upplýsingar. Nú er aftur á móti endursköpun minninga og heimilda orðið lykilatriði hjá fyrirtækjum, stofnunum, einstaklingum og ríki líkt og sjá má á þessari bloggsíðu Iconic Photos.

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