A cartoon mocking the Ordinance from The Evening World
On January 21, 1908, it became illegal for women to smoke in public in New York City. That day, the Committee on Laws of the Board of Aldermen unanimously voted to ban females from lighting up in public places. The law, called the Sullivan Ordinance, put the responsibility of preventing women from smoking not on the women themselves but on business owners.
According to a New York Times article on the Ordinance’s passing sub-headlined “Will The Ladies Rebel,” the idea for the law followed a recent announcement that “in certain restaurants smoking by women would be permitted.” Speakers at the Ordinance’s hearings reported never having actually seen women smoke in public, expressed desire for not only a ban on women smoking but a ban of smoking in the presence of a woman, called the Ordinance unconstitutional, and one dissenter declared smoking should simply be banned outright, or at least by those under 21. The archived article is followed by a piece on a cow holding up a railroad.
The Ordinance, which was named for Bowery-representative and Tammany alderman Timothy Sullivan, got its first test the following day, when a single woman, one Katie Mulcahey, was fined $5 for breaking the Sullivan Ordinance and was subsequently arrested for refusal to pay the fine. Due to the ordinance lacking information on how the penalty should work, Mulcahey was released the following day, and the mayor, George B. McLellan Jr., vetoed the ordinance shortly thereafter.
Largely forgotten by history, the Ordinance is largely remembered when recounting New York City’s smoking history and when gauging how far women’s rights have come in the decades since. New York restaurants, of course, remained smoky until 2003, when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s restaurant and bar smoking ban went into effect.