The Sullivan Ordinance of 1908

Sullivan Ordinance“The Sullivan Ordinance d[id] not make it an offense for a woman to smoke but . . . for the manager or proprietor of a public place to allow her to smoke therein.” [1] When the Committee on Laws of the New York City Board of Aldermen, now the New York City Council, approved the anti-smoking ordinance a newspaper headline asked “Will the ladies rebel as the ladies of New Amsterdam did when Peter Stuyvesant ordered them to wear broad flounces?” [2] In feminist folklore one lady, Katie Mulcahey, did rebel though there are discrepancies in the public record of her rebellion.

In one account, “The ordinance was quickly enforced with Katie Mulcahey arrested on Jan 22 [the next day] but was vetoed by Mayor George Brinton McClellan Jr only two weeks later.” [3] In a contemporary account, “Policeman Stern rubbed his eyes to make sure he saw straight at 1:20 o’clock this morning . . . He had seen a woman calmly take a cigarette from a package and light it, striking a match on a house wall.” [4]

Katie’s arrest was a curiosity according to the plain language of the ordinance:  “She was picked up for smoking outside a Bowery home and fined five dollars but imprisoned when she refused on principle to pay.  Curiously, the ordinance did not prohibit smoking outside, nor did it call for individual smokers to be fined . . . The Times did not note the misapplication of the law.” [5]

Another curious aspect of the enforcement was its apparent prematurity.  As the Times did note, following committee approval Alderman Sullivan’s “control in the board [wa]s absolute and he [rushed] the new law through”[6] the full board the same day.  But the “new law” rushed through the Board of Aldermen could not become law in fact until signed by the New York City Mayor as chief executive.  The mayor never signed off on the ordinance but by all accounts vetoed it.

Women Smoking in the 1900'sThe Spare Candy blog and the Nashua Telegraph article both say Mayor McClellan vetoed it “two weeks later.”  Others suggest that McClellan’s veto came much sooner, no later than a day after the board’s enactment:  “Katie Mulcahey was arrested under the law and fined $5 . . . Mayor George Brinton McClellan Jr had actually vetoed the ordinance but it had been incorrectly posted by a court clerk.  Mulcahey was soon freed.” [7]  A contemporary account, perhaps the most accurate, says “Mayor McClellan vetoed ‘Little Tim’ Sullivan’s ordinance prohibiting women smoking in public places yesterday,” [8] 3 February 1908, with the communication that “I know of no provision of law which gives the Board of Aldermen the power to enact an ordinance of this kind.” [9]

What might have motivated Alderman Sullivan to introduce his ordinance was “the announcement made just before New Year’s Eve that in certain restaurants smoking by women would be permitted.” [10] At the committee hearing “He explained exactly how the law would operate and stated very emphatically that several leading restaurant keepers had approved of it.” [11] At the Gotham Club the next day “Cigarette smoking by women was publicly denounced and privately defended,” [12] indicating the trend of public opinion on the issue at that time.

Today Katie would have opportunities everywhere to defy New York’s statewide no-smoking restrictions in indoor areas of “places of employment, bars, food service establishments, public means of mass transportation, child day care centers, public institutions for children, public and private colleges, commercial establishments used for carrying on or exercising any trade, profession, vocation, or charitable activity,” [13] and on and on down a long, long list of restricted areas.

As a consolation feminist smokers can say at least that the § 1399-O statewide statutory language, “Smoking shall not be permitted and no person shall smoke in the following indoor areas,” does not discriminate on the basis of gender as did the Sullivan Ordinance.

[1] “No Public Smoking by Women Now,” New York Times, 21 January 1908.  The offending manager or proprietor might “suffer revocation of his license and also be fined,” Id.

[2]Id.  “Stuyvesant had attempted to mandate women’s clothing and dancing, declaring that they should wear broad flounces . . . Our research indicates that the ‘broad flounces’ refer to the style of petticoats the women wore underneath their skirts.  The women countered with a threat to stop wearing petticoats altogether and Stuyvesant withdrew the order,” “New York City’s Sullivan Ordinance, which barred women from smoking in public, passes today in 1908,” Nashua Telegraph, 21 January 2011.

[3] “Spare Candy is a feminist and politically liberal blog covering women’s rights issues in the United States and around the world, including equality for all, reproductive health, sexual assault, body image, pop culture, and much more,” Id.  “When the New York City authority banned women from smoking in public, two weeks later Katie Mulcahey has been arrested for violating the rule, and since then smoking was often seen as a symbol of women’s emancipation,” http://

[4] “Arrested for Smoking,” New York Times, 23 January 1908.  This account continues: “‘Madam, you mustn’t,’ he shouted.  ‘What would Alderman Sullivan say?’  ‘But I am and I don’t know,’ replied the woman, answering both questions.  At the night court she told Magistrate Kernochan she was Katie Mulcahey, 29 years old.  She refused her address. ‘I’ve got as much right to smoke as you have,’ she added. ‘I never heard of this new law and I don’t want to hear about it.  No man shall dictate to me.’  In default of $5 to pay the fine which Magistrate Kernochan imposed she went to a cell, carrying her package of cigarettes.”

[5] Andrew P Haley, Turning the Tables:  The Aristocratic Restaurant and the Rise of the American Middle Class 1880–1920, University of North Carolina Press, 2011, at 299.

[6] “No Public Smoking by Women Now,” New York Times, 21 January 1908.

[7] Allan B Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America, Basic Books 2007, at 57.  See also Cassandra Tate, Cigarette Wars: The Triumph of “The Little White Slaver,”  Oxford University Press, 1999, at 102.  Neither of these sources describes the details of the incorrect posting nor how a “court clerk” got involved in the legislative process.

[8] “Mayor Lets Women Smoke,” New York Times, 4 February 1908.  As to the “Little Tim” nickname, “Timothy P Sullivan was not a physically small man by any means.  He got the title to differentiate him from his companion in politics of the same Christian and surname,” Little Tim Sullivan is Dead at 40,” New York Times, 23 December 1909, his cousin Timothy D Sullivan.  The alderman did not survive for long the demise of his ordinance.

[9] “Mayor Lets Women Smoke,” New York Times, 4 February 1908.

[10] “No Public Smoking by Women Now,” New York Times, 21 January 1908.  “Rumor held that the legislation was revenge by a ‘well-known politician,’ probably ‘Little Tim’ Sullivan, who had been denied a reservation at a prominent city restaurant.  True or not, Sullivan must have viewed a bill that would bar the ‘smart set’ from smoking in the city’s elite restaurants as a populist cause,” Haley, Turning the Tables, at 298.

[11] “No Public Smoking by Women Now,” New York Times, 21 January 1908.  One of the four speakers at the hearing opposing the proposed ordinance asked, “If the aldermen were going to take up the matter at all, why didn’t they prohibit everybody smoking, especially boys under 21?” Id.

[12] “Smoking by Women Called Deplorable,” New York Times, 23 January 1908.  A Gotham Club member confided to a reporter at the event, “I often smoke, you know, but it would never do to admit it in public.  The prestige of this club must be preserved,” Id.

[13] New York Public Health Law Section (§) 1399–O.  And in New York City two years ago “Mayor Bloomberg signed a bill that prohibits smoking within New York City’s parks, beaches, and pedestrian plazas,”, extending no-smoking restrictions to outdoor areas.

One Comment/Review

  • hoppity says:

    It’s a really interesting article, and I daresay the attempted law was typical in that the penalties were applied to other men, so that the women would not disobey to protect the bar-owners. The 7th paragraph is irrevelant, she did not state she wanted to smoke in places where men were banned. The 8th paragraph implies gender equality is a ‘consolation’ which is a bit weird, unless you are being sarcastic (apologies I’m as not American, and may not understand the humour). Also strange (if not disrepectful to someone who lived a 100 years ago) how you refer to the women using their first name and the men using their last name. Thanks & Best Wishes

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