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Pipe Dreams: It’s the most ancient method of smoking in human history — and, popular perception would have it, the preserve of modern society’s most ancient members. But is pipe smoking overdue a rebranding?
By Christian Chensvold
The Rake, issue 22
My grandfather smoked a pipe, so like many who grew up with a pipesmoking relative, my childhood memories are filled with his smoldering briar’s fragrant aroma and peaceful demeanor as he sat in his easy chair, puffing away silently but observantly.
Though he died when I was still young, the memory of my grandfather’s pipe stayed with me just as his sweetened cavendish mixtures would linger in a room long after he’d left it. So one day while at college I saw a professor stroll across the quad smoking a pipe, and the thought popped into my head that someday I too should take up the briar— say, when I’m 40. Impatient by nature, I went out and bought one the very next day.
It’s easy to forget that for four centuries, starting with the introduction of tobacco into Europe in the 1550s, it was completely normal for a young man to smoke a pipe. “Young man with a pipe” has to be one of the more commonly shared titles of artwork from the age of Rembrandt to 20th-century photography. Moreover, films made during World War II frequently show young draftees smoking pipes as they prepare to, say, jump out of an airplane. Popular ditties such as “Collegiate Sam,” a ‘20s foxtrot, lauds the “red-hot ladies’ man” of the title, whose enviable gear includes a Dunhill pipe, and Charles Ryder, like so many other Oxford students of the day, puffs a pipe in Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.” French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote at age 16 of the pleasures of pipesmoking, and Huckleberry Finn smokes a corncob while sailing down the Mississippi at the age of 12. Finally, the movie “Dead Poets Society” features a scene in which a group of ‘50s teenagers light up pipe tobacco together (a decade later it would have been an altogether different herb).
I stress the connection between youth and pipes since thanks to good genes and vigorous exercise I still look like a young pipesmoker even though I’ve been doing it for 20 years. It’s only in the past few decades — since the post-‘60s inversion of values in which everything traditional became bad and everything edgy became good — that we associate pipes with old men.
Oddly enough, the golden age of pipesmoking — the ‘20s to the early ‘60s —corresponds to the golden age of menswear. Briar, which comes from the root of the heath plant, first became used for pipe carving in 1840, but modern mass production, growing middle class affluence, and the popular image of the pipe as a smart accessory for a young man greatly spread its popularity through the middle of the last century. Pipes were such a common masculine accoutrement that, in America for example, many purveyors to gentlemen — Brooks Brothers for city gents, Abercrombie & Fitch and LL Bean for the hunting and fishing crowd — offered pipes in their catalogs.
As a result of this parallel timeline, a good portion of the men we consider the best dressed of the 20th century — the Duke of Windsor, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable — smoked a pipe. My favorite cinematic smoker is Leslie Howard in 1939’s “Intermezzo,” but I’m biased as Howard shares my lanky frame, Nordic features, and also smokes my favorite shape, the Dublin, which I’ve always though the best example of jaunty panache tempered by classical restraint.
After college, again impatient — though this time to launch a writing career — I bided my time working for a couple tobacconists in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I learned about fine tobacco (still one of the world’s most affordable luxuries), and fine pipes, which alas are not quite so affordable now that the heyday is long behind us. The declining popularity of pipesmoking has left few remaining manufacturers, and it’s tougher than it used to be to find quality at an affordable price. Danish brand Stanwell, founded in 1948, continues to produce great factory pipes in the $100 range, and Dunhill remains the Rolls-Royce of pipes, though its pipes now start at about $500 US. Among collectors, desire is generally split across so called “estate” pipes from the great English firms such as Charatan, Comoy’s, Barling, GBD and Sasieni, brands that, like so many in the other industries, were eventually sold by the founding family and quality soon declined. Other collectors go for artisan pipes by carvers such as Tom Eltang and Jess Chonowitsch of Denmark, the biggest pipesmoking country in the world. These artisans source the market’s most flawless pieces of briar with spectacular, one-in-a-thousand grain patterns, and then carve freeform shapes, letting the grain of the wood dictate the design. Such pipes are often priced in the several thousands of dollars.
Like many other things that don’t come naturally — golf, for instance — many men have taken up pipesmoking only to abandon it out of frustration. The pipe burns hot, scorching the novice’s tongue, and won’t stay lit. The required equipment (matches for constant re-lighting, tamper, pipe cleaners), arsenal of polishing and sweetening ointments, and required regular cleaning quickly weeds out the dabblers while rewarding the happy few who were truly born to smoke a pipe. Learning to puff just enough to keep the pipe going, but without causing it to get too hot, is like learning to play the oboe, minus the music theory.
There’s an old saying that a man smoking a pipe always looks like he knows something you don’t, and evidently he does.