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In "In the Midst of Alarms" (1894) by Robert Barr, the author is describing a young boy in a Canadian village, who was smoking:

Young Hiram’s devotion to the Goddess Nicotine had never reached the altitude of a cigar. He had surreptitiously smoked a pipe in a secluded corner behind the barn in days when his father was away. He feared both his father and his mother, and so was in an even more embarrassing situation than old Hiram himself. He had worked gradually up to tobacco by smoking cigarettes of cane made from abandoned hoop-skirts. Crinoline was fashionable, even in the country, in those days, and ribs of cane were used before the metallic distenders of dresses came in. One hoop-skirt, whose usefulness as an article of adornment was gone, would furnish delight and smoking material for a company of boys for a month. The cane smoke made the tongue rather raw, but the wickedness was undeniable. Yates’ wink seemed to recognize young Hiram as a comrade worthy to offer incense at the shrine, and the boy was a firm friend of Yates from the moment the eyelid of the latter drooped.

So:

  1. How could the cane be used instead of tobacco in cigarettes? And did the author mean "sugarcane" or "bamboo"?
  2. And what's meant by "ribs of cane", are they "the outer crust of cane"?
  3. What could be meant by "made the tongue rather raw"? and what's the contradiction in this statement, that made the author use "but"?
2

Sugarcane is a known substitute for tobacco. Here are some examples:

In North America, sugarcane plantations in Louisiana supplied both sugar and the cane for the ribs of hoop skirts. Ribs does not refer to any specific part of the sugarcane. It means simply the stiff framework that gives the crinoline skirt its shape. Cane was one of the materials used for the ribs, but whalebone, steel, and nylon were also common. We still use the term "ribs" for the metal framework of an umbrella.

Since the ribs of a skirt would be made from the stiff outer husk of the sugarcane, its smoke would not be juicy or flavorful, but harsh. This would cause the tongue to dry out, but the allure of doing something forbidden would overcome this discomfort. That is why Barr writes "but the wickedness was undeniable". The word "deny" here is used in sense 3c given on the Merriam-Webster page:

to restrain (oneself) from gratification of desires.

To sum up: "cane" is sugarcane. "Ribs" is the framework of the crinoline. "But" indicates the contrast between the discomfort caused by a dry, somewhat scorched tongue, and the thrill of smoking.

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  • Nylon ribs in hoop skirts? Hadn't hoop skirts gone out of style by the time nylon was invented in the 1930s?
    – user14111
    Dec 20 '20 at 9:39
  • Not according to Wikipedia, which specifically cites nylon as being used in hoop skirts from the mid-20th C onward. Perhaps Wikipedia is wrong, but I'm not going to quarrel with them as I have no expertise in the history of fashion.
    – verbose
    Dec 20 '20 at 9:42
  • @verbose wiki cites nylon in hoops skirts, not all hoop skirts are crinolines.
    – Spagirl
    Dec 22 '20 at 1:33
  • Your earlier comment was about hoop skirts. The OP’s question also mentions hoop skirts. If your point is that nylon wasn’t around when the book was written, fine, but the question, my answer, and your earlier comment all reference hoop skirts in general, not only crinoline in particular.
    – verbose
    Dec 22 '20 at 1:40
  • @verbose Thank you so much for this comprehensive answer. Dec 23 '20 at 18:25

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