Young Man With A Pipe

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.

30 Comments on "Young Man With A Pipe"

  1. I wished I smoked pipes (and even cigarettes) just so I could dabble in the lovely accoutrements.

  2. The Owl Shop, on College Street in New Haven, founded in 1934, is still around and during the Heyday was the briar patch that attracted pipe smoking crowds large as the ones yelling “Boola Boola” at The Yale Bowl.

  3. My brother gave me his grandfather’s pipe and some tobacco back when I turned 22. I could never bring myself to smoke in public, however, as just the thought of seeing some skinny kid in a blazer pipe smoking made me want to punch myself. It just seemed too affected and studied at the time.

  4. Thanks for the wonderful article. I have the majority of my father’s collection of pipes (one went to a brother), and I find them a wonderful accompaniment to less-strenuous yard work, though I am still a tongue-toasting tyro.

    The friend who started me into pipes observed that while all non-smokers hate cigarette smoke, and some dislike cigar smoke, hardly anyone ever objects to pipe smoke. Too bad there are so few places to actually smoke in public.

    P.S.: You failed to mention the most famous pipe-smoker of all: Der Bingle. Perhaps because he was not someone “we consider [among] the best dressed of the 20th century”?

  5. Christian | June 22, 2012 at 4:02 pm |

    Not one of the century’s best dressed, but America’s first icon of cool (yep, Bing pretty much invented cool) long before Frank and Elvis, and there’s a cool photo of him at 1:22 in this great tune:

  6. You forgot that other glamorous aspect of pipe smoking…cancer. How any responsible adult in 2012 could write an article glorifying smoking is beyond me. Be sure to write a follow up piece about how you enjoy having radiation treatments.

  7. Mike,

    Yes, tobacco is a known carcinogen. Everybody knows this; you don’t have to be unpleasant about it.

    You also know, of course, that not all smokers get cancer, emphysema, or other diseases from the use of tobacco—right? After all, George Burns smoked daily for eight or nine decades, and he lived to be 100. (Example chosen for illustration only. Not all users will have similar results.)

  8. OldSchool | June 23, 2012 at 7:56 am |


    Which Bay Area tobacconists did you work for?

    From the early 60’s, I I remember Jim Mate’s on Geary Street in San Francisco and Drucquer’s on University Avenue in Berkeley.

  9. OldSchool | June 23, 2012 at 7:59 am |


    Here’s the old Owl Shop catalog from the 1960s. If you click each page, you can see the entire catalog:

  10. OldSchool, I worked mainly at Drucquer’s second location in the town of Albany, right next to Berkeley. Also brief stints at Grant’s on Market Street in SF, and a Tinder Box in the North Bay.

  11. I started smoking a pipe when I was 14, or 46 years ago in 1966. Back then, smoking a pipe was a common practice. At work, at play, in restaurants and cars, men could be seen smoking in public. My maternal uncle, a great guy and a WW2 combat veteran, smoked a pipe. I recall him looking so relaxed and contented while smoking. As soon as I became old enough to earn money and possibly look old enough to buy a pipe and tobacco, I did. My first pipe, a cheap Willard, and a pocket pouch of Half and Half, with tax, cost $ 1.75. The pipe, although cheap, was very nice, a straight pear shape.

    As time went on, smoking became less acceptable, and things are the way they are today. At my last physical, I noted that I smoked an occasional pipe. (To be a little honest.) My doctor literally flew off the handle, and looked at me as if I were a mass murderer.

    Today, my smoking is limited to one or two bowls while playing golf. Can’t smoke in the clubhouse or anywhere else, including home. As far harmful effects go, in moderation, I can’t see it any more harmful than walking down the street. I have to laugh. In the very affluent small town where I live in a second or third class neighborhood, I see the village idiots drinking coffee and lattes outside the local Starbucks breathing all kind of toxic fumes from the endless auto and truck traffic. Heaven forbid, someone would dare to smoke.

    I long for the 1960’s. Cheers!

  12. OldSchool | June 23, 2012 at 7:34 pm |

    Christian (and others intested in such emphemera):

    Here’s the Drucquer’s catalog:

    Click on the over to continue through the catalog.

    Just the names of those old blends bring tears to my eyes.

  13. woofboxer | June 24, 2012 at 2:32 am |

    Did you mean emphemera or emphysema?…ha ha.

    Unfortunately anyone under 50 smoking a pipe looks as though they are trying terribly hard to look mature and sophisticated. It makes your clothes smell too. Leaving aside health considerations it’s just not the way to go IMO, but each to their own.

  14. Ralflorins | June 24, 2012 at 5:10 am |

    What happens when they discover that one of the following causes cancer?

    a) Oxford cloth
    b) Khakis
    c) Grey flannels
    d) Regimental stripe ties
    e) Herringbone tweed jackets
    f) Navy blazers

  15. Thought I would share this “In a 2003 survey, the Department of Health and Human Services calculated that there are 1.6 million pipe smokers in America. The same survey revealed that there are 14.6 million pot smokers and 600,000 crack smokers, which means that if an American is smoking something in a pipe these days, it’s more likely to be dope than Dunhill’s Mixture 965.”

  16. If one reads the lit–it is important to consume some liquid (non-alcoholic) while smoking a pipe (or cigar for that matter) as this reduces mouth, lip and tongue nasties. Also, lit seems to indicate that less than two pipes (or two cigars) a day, is only a tiny bit more of a cancer risk. On a more happy note, there are several reliable suppliers of estate pipes (yes they are cleaned up and sterilized) on the internet, and price wise, they are the way to go for those for whom expense is a consideration. (Which should encompass about everybody).

  17. I started smoking a pipe at 18 and my collection is up to four with a very nice custom made pipe that a friend commissioned from a hobbyist the other year. At first, I was worried that it seemed affected, but to hell with it – I enjoy it. Picking up cigarettes was a big mistake, but I still enjoy my pipes. As someone else noted, most people find pipe smoke pleasant. I spent many nights at a diner discussing politics, religion, etc. with friends while smoking my pipe and I only ever once had someone complain (they were incredibly rude about it too), but with my state’s public smoking ban, that came to an end. I belong to a club where you can smoke, but I haven’t really brought my pipes in. That should change.

  18. Michael Mattis | June 25, 2012 at 7:18 am |

    My favorite San Francisco bar, the Occidental Cigar Club, just inducted a new partner into the business. He also works at Telford’s in Mill Valley. He claims that Telford’s has the largest selection of new and estate pipes west of the Mississippi.

    Ask for Thomas. Tell him Michael from the Ox sent you.

  19. Dutch Uncle | June 25, 2012 at 7:31 am |

    @ Greg K.

    Don’t worry about looking affected.

    Unfortunately, today many people think you’re affected if you are clean-shaven and wear a necktie.

  20. This marks the second post on this site that I’ve despised due to a glorification of smoking.. How stupid do you have to be? Cancer isn’t cute… you won’t look classy in a hospital bed!

  21. To all the anti-smoking activists:

    Yes, everyone knows that smoking can be (not is, but can be) hazardous to one’s health. Yes, everyone knows that smoking is a “lifestyle choice” that might (not will, but might) result in a shortened lifespan. You don’t need to remind us.

    Now please take your sanctimonious selves elsewhere.

  22. OldSchool | June 25, 2012 at 7:46 pm |

    I gave up pipe smoking in 1993 after having smoked regularly since 1965. The pipe had been an essential component of my ivy style, and complemented the tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, the Weejuns, the OCBDS, etc. The decision to abandon the pipe was based entirely on a growing awareness of the associated health hazards. I do not regret my decision.

    However, neither do I deny the endless pleasure that pipe smoking gave me, the joy of finding and adding new pieces to my collection, and the tactile pleasure derived from holding, cleaning. and polishing them. The arcane lore associated with pipes was far more interesting than the millimetric difference in collar lengths of BB, Press, LE OCBD collars.. The associated pipe stands, humidors, and even reamers were a source of visual pleasure. The lighter vs. wooden match debate was more interesting than the lined vs. unlined collar debate. The differences between billiards, Canadians, yachtsmen, bulldogs, etc., not only in terms of shape, but of real or imagined smoking qualities are bits of information that still stick with me after all these years. The visits to pipe emporia in various cities and the sampling of multifarious tobacco blends were pleasures beyond description.

    As mentioned above, I do not regret my decision to give up the pipe, but neither do I deny the fact that the habit, the hobby, provided me with years and years of enjoyment.

  23. Been a seasonal pipe smoker for years as I picked up the habit from my father. I honestly believe that its party for enjoyment and party for the feeling that I am keeping a tradidtion alive.Rarely do i smoke during the summer months due to the heat here in Texas, but I did find myself strolling the neightborhood int he evening walking my Schnauzer with pipe in hand, breaking in a new pair of weejuns, khakis on, and short sleeve brooks brothers sorts shirt with button down collar….wasn’t a bad feeling.

  24. I keep intending to take up the pipe… Maybe this is the right time, what with lockdowns and such…
    I certainly have the age for it…

  25. Charlottesville | August 24, 2020 at 3:17 pm |

    I have a few nice old pipes, and I like the idea of an occasional contemplative smoke, especially in the fall, but I rarely get around to it more than once a year, and most years I seem to forget. Like the woman Mark Twain wrote of, I have neglected my habits.

  26. Henry Contestwinner | August 24, 2020 at 8:00 pm |

    Charlottesville, maybe we can indulge in a cross-continental simultaneous smoke! We pick a date & time, adjust for the time difference, then fire up.

    I used to have a monthly excuse to enjoy one of my father’s pipes—my church’s men’s night. We would gather in someone’s yard to talk, drink, enjoy some fattening food (my specialty is homemade onion dip), and smoke cigars and/or pipes. Ah, those were the days—seems a lifetime ago.

    My favorite pipe tobacco is RL6, available exclusively at Hellam’s, California’s oldest tobacconist.

  27. Charlottesville | August 25, 2020 at 11:20 am |

    Good idea, Henry. I smoked a cigar with my wife’s brother sometime last fall, and I think that has been it for me and nicotine for coming on a year. I will need to buy an ounce of Virginia Burley and Cavendish for the coming fall weather and dig out my pipes. Your church men’s nights sound great, and I hope they can return soon.

  28. Henry Contestwinner | September 2, 2020 at 7:48 pm |

    I thought about it, and realized that the last time I enjoyed a cigar was on the Fourth of July with my brother & father. I find it’s not the nicotine as much as it’s the company that I enjoy—which is why I know I would enjoy a smoke with you enormously.

  29. R Firestone | August 1, 2021 at 10:20 am |

    I’ve smoked a pipe for about 15 years now. I picked up the hobby right after college. I don’t really recall what drew me to the pipe other than the fact that I am naturally drawn to traditional things and activities. I had never smoked and all the smokers I grew up around were cigarette smokers. I went through all the usual pitfalls of a new pipe smoker, but I quickly overcame them and moved away from cheap, aromatic tobaccos to more satisfying English blends. I am always shocked when others are shocked that a man of my age smokes a pipe. It must be similar to the shock I feel when I discover that so many adult men nowadays want to dress like they are still twelve. Oh well, I’ll keep dragging the giant “t” of tradition forward into the future no matter what the poorly dressed mob around me thinks because there are things in this world that remind us of and connect us to our humanity that need to live on. That is probably something I thought of while smoking my pipe.

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