Puff Piece

I’ve been planning to do a post on pipes for some time, and finally have the perfect excuse: a short blog post on pipes I recently did for the New York Times style section.

The assignment gave me an excuse to visit the city’s few remaining tobacconists, of which the Art Deco-era Nat Sherman was a real delight.

My grandfather smoked a pipe all his life, and halfway through my college years I thought, “When I’m 40, I should smoke a pipe.” Impatient by nature, the next day I went out a bought a drug-store special, some kandy-koated tobacco, and promptly roasted my tongue.

But I stuck with it, and after dropping out of grad school (the only thing more absurd than a Cal State BA in English would’ve been a Cal State MA in French Literature), I worked in several Bay Area tobacconists while launching my writing career. Most of my time was spent at Drucquer & Sons in Berkeley, where I helped out while the owner recovered from a heart attack.

There I learned the gentle art of smoking, got my first high-end pipes, smoked some World War II-era Balkan Sobranie stored in an air-tight tin, and got sucked into the trading circle. Dunhills, a Charatan Supreme, pre-transition Barlings, straight grains by Ashton and Upshall — I had ‘em all. Where are they now? Who knows. Probably sold on eBay to buy clothes I no longer have.

My collection today is more modest, but the Dublin has remained my favorite shape since day one. Favorite blends include Presbyterian Mixture, GL Pease’s Abingdon, Ashton’s Artisan’s Blend, and Germain’s Royal Jersey.

Here are a few LIFE archive shots of a pipesmoking contest from 1959. If you can’t figure out how in the world pipesmokers compete against each other, it’s actually quite simple: Typically each contestant is given the same amount of tobacco and two matches, and the winner is whoever can keep his pipe lit the longest. The current world record is in the three-hour range.

For more vintage pipesmoking images, see this post by The Selvedge Yard. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

13 Comments on "Puff Piece"

  1. Gregorius Mercator | December 27, 2009 at 2:06 am |

    I love smoking a pipe and I have since I turned 18. It’s a ritual that results in a pleasant aroma and taste. It’s also wonderful when having discussions or debates – you can use the stem of the pipe to emphasize your point and pausing to take a nice, long draw on the pipe or to use the tamper allows you a moment of silent reflection to gather your thoughts or merely look pensive for maximum effect.

    I give pipes my full endorsement. And yes, they do make a damn fine (practical) accessory – pop one stem down and bowl up in your breast pocket behind the handkerchief and you could look like Cary Grant or perhaps an Englishman in the country.

  2. The post reminds me of this quote “The fact is, Squire, the moment a man takes to a pipe, he becomes a philosopher. It’s the poor man’s friend; it calms the mind, soothes the temper, and makes a man patient under difficulties. It has made more good men, good husbands, kind masters, indulgent fathers, than any other blessed thing on this universal earth.”
    -”Sam Slick, The Clockmaker”

  3. I started to smoke a Dunhill back in my Princeton days, all went well until one night as a Grad. student I had this well deserved date going, we were heavy into pitching woo when the bit snapped in a very loud fashion and she thought that she broke me. We later laughed about it, but at the time it was a buzz-kill. So no more pipes for quit a while. I did resume this past year, and would you believe I snapped the bit..this morning. Well I am off to the tobacco shop. for an other bit.

  4. Pipe repairmen — another dying breed.

    In LA I went to the original Tinder Box, founded in the ’20s and which used to cater to Hollywood smokers like Der Bingle during the Golden Age. I had a Sasieni from the late ’40s with a replacement stem, and they actually drilled the holes and set the four dots and sanded and polished and charged me some ridiculously trifling sum. God bless them.

  5. Curious if you actually worked with Pease himself ….. He was there for a time, no ?

    He is certainly my favorite producer.

    Right now my favorite pipe is a commission by Teddy Knudsen, a sort of homage to his Dantonian days

    Try http://www.finepipes.com/pipes/ for a great selection of collectable briar.

    Another great provider is http://www.bisgaard-pipes.com/default.asp?vat=false&lang=uk out of Denmark

    May you smoke in peace

  6. At one time I was smoking pipes, cigars and cigarettes. I worked in a tobacco store during college and kept the pipe smoking to my room. Even though I was five years older than my classmates, smoking a pipe in the 80’s had a real air of pretentious Alpha Hotelness about it.

    God forbid you wore a bow tie, smoked a pipe and crusied campus on a Dutch bicycle. There are gonna be those that say they do it but I’ve never seen it.

    There was something magical about a glass of Laphroaig and a bowl of Mac Baren Virginia No. 1 in front of a fire. I don’t miss the cigarettes. I don’t even miss the cigars. But I do miss a pipe and a single malt in front of a fire.

  7. I’m not sure what “Alpha Hotelness” means, but I determined to make it a part of my daily vocabulary anyway.

    As for pipes, bow ties and bicycles, look no further than The Chap.

    The connoisseurs I was around would never have condescended to MacBaren due to the sweetness, but they have a couple blends I like. There’s Dark Twist and I think one called Roll Cake.

    I think it’s in that French book “The Pipe” by Georges Herment where he says that pipe smoke takes a certain amount of space and air to reach it’s full aroma, so the best smelling pipe is always someone else’s. And yet merely smelling isn’t satisfying enough, so pipesmokers are always caught between the two.

    Still, when I was talking to the guys at De La Concha, it was lunch time and I had like five guys blowing heavy English in my face. Exactly the stuff I smoke, but man did that make me need to run outside for a lungfull of taxi exhaust.

  8. Oh, and KA: Yes, I believe Pease was at Drucquer’s, but before my time (’95). I did know him through the club that made and traded ferociously at the little pub across the street (actually Albany, not Berkeley). In fact, I made a really lame trade with him I haven’t forgotten.

  9. Alpha Hotel is military alphabet for the letters A and H in this case meaning ass#@!$

    Another good one is: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot !?!

  10. As an undergraduate at Cal (known as Berkeley to “outsiders”) from 1961-65, my experiences were similar to yours. My first weekend there, I bought a cheap drugstore pipe and some Half-and-Half (or perhaps Sir Walter Raleigh). The result was that my tongue and palate were scorched. I then discovered Drucquer’s and was introduced to the pleasure of undergrad-affordable unfinished pipes and their wide range of blends. If I remember correctly (It’s been more than 40 years), Drucquer’s had wooden plank flooring and not only candystore jars full of tobacco, but barrels as well. I smoked and enjoyed their Scottish Blend (not to be confused with MacBaren’s blend of the same name)for years. I smoked a pipe from 1961-1994, when I gave it up as a health precaution. I don’t know if I’d encourage a young man to start smoking a pipe today, but pipe smoking gave me years and years of pleasure and I never regret having started. My favorite shapes were the Dublin and the 1/4 bent squat bulldog. I always preferred the sandblast finish because of the tactile pleasure it afforded–in addition to the gustatory and olfactory pleasures of the tobacco itself. Thanks for reminding me of those days and of Drucquer’s.

  11. I frequented Nat in college. Used to purchase outstanding cigarettes

  12. Another wonderful post.

    Although I got turned on to occasional, recreational smoking via cigars, it’s the pipe that I enjoy best. (I believe that recreational smoking is impossible with cigarettes–they’re too addictive.)

    I managed to snag my father’s collection of pipes; I think he got them as an undergrad in the 50s. I take to one every now and again; I find them best when doing light yardwork or other simple chores, and also as an accompaniment to Laphroaig, relaxing, and thinking.

  13. Leavitt and Pierce, Harvard’s answer to The Owl- on graduation day gave out free stogies to those in cap and gown… it was a cheap make but it sure hit the spot… many happy hours spent there, but alas, no alcohol served..
    Thanks for the posts..

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