From true confessions to true confections : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

From true confessions to true confections

Before you begin to read, know that this is not another self-serving “how-to-get-more-fun-from-your-briar-pipe” tutorial, nor a testimonial for which pipes and tobaccos are the best buys, nor my personal opinion of that popular blog, “Take a look at this outstanding briar that I just bought on eBay!” I’ve been around this hobby for slightly more than a half-century and, waxing nostalgic, I’ve taken a look back at my Old (pipe) World and glanced at this New (pipe) World, and I see many significant differences and positive changes taking place. Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker, says: “History is usually stories that are over.” This is my story … but it’s a story that’s far from over. Being an oldster, some memories fade, while others remain vivid despite the passing years. (Age-wise, I am approaching antique, and the briar pipes I bought and smoked as a young adult are already vintage!) I belong to an ever-dwindling group of pipe smokers who, like General MacArthur’s tribute to “old soldiers,” also fade away, but I clearly remember what it was like to be a pipe ingénue at about the end of the Korean War.


Supposedly, Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a 19th-century French critic, journalist and novelist, was the first to utter the oft-quoted epigram “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing. Nowadays, the proverbial “they” jokingly respond: “Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.” Clever repartee, but that’s not where I’m going. Any casual observer citing Karr’s epigram when referring to this hobby, in my opinion, knows zilch about pipe smoking or pipe collecting. And that anonymous person who posted this comment on the Internet: “A briar pipe is a style of pipe that was common from the 1920s through the 1950s” is also someone who’s far afield; the briar pipe is certainly not a thing of the past! It’s very much alive and well today.

It was, as I remember, a period of stasis when I started smoking a pipe. As I evolved as a pipe smoker, so did pipemaking. The hobby and the habit have been transformed. It’s undergone a tectonic change in every dimension and aspect. And I am not talking about whether there are less or more pipe smokers today than 50 or 60 years ago, whether there are now fewer brick-and-mortar outlets for tobacco products than when I was a young adult, or about the myriad socio-economic-medical costs and contemporary conflicts over tobacco and smoking in public places, or that taxes on tobacco products have gone through the roof. I am talking specifically about what’s dramatically changed in this last half-century: I’ll call it a renaissance in pipe smoking and all the related pipe stuff … and the dawn of a new era of skillful craftsmanship and deft manipulation of la bruyère into superlative smoking specimens.

For readers too young to remember, after World War II in the United States, a few unrelated, but watershed, events were taking place: cigarette sales, especially “roll-your-own,” led pipe sales by far; cuspidors were taken out of public buildings and other gathering places; mass production of pipes had removed Saint-Claude from its exalted position as the maker of 90 percent of the world’s briars; President Dwight Eisenhower rejected a tariff commission recommendation to raise the duty on imported briar pipes (meant to protect the U.S. pipe industry that employed some 1,600 workers); and a Washington State Bureau of Statistics and Immigration report, Manufacturing Opportunities in the State of Washington, claimed that “… some of the lesser known native woods might be used in various ways, suggesting that the manzanita is especially adapted to the making of ‘briar’ pipes.” History has shown that Saint-Claude experienced the gradually encroaching competition from other countries, and manzanita never became a serious threat to the briar. The same can be said of other woods engaged in mid-20th-century pipe manufacture—bubinga, calico bush, ebony, hickory, mountain laurel, olivewood, rosewood and others—that no discerning pipe smoker of my time enthusiastically accepted as a good alternative. (In this century, some are now proclaiming the smoking pleasure and durability of both bogwood [morta] and Rhamnus [a genus consisting of several varieties of buckthorn from China] pipes.)

Of course, it was also a time when the U.S. government and the health-science community began to take an interest in and conduct research on the effects of smoking, and being relatively young and invincible, I had little interest in learning about that stuff. As I recall, the central message in a mid-1950s leaflet titled “The Adventures of the Wisdom Family,” issued by the Central Council for Health Education, left it up to the individual to decide, while other sources advised a harm-reduction approach by switching from cigarettes to safer forms of smoking, such as pipes and cigars. Albert Q. Maisel, a frequent contributor to Life, Reader’s Digest and The Rotarian on health-related issues, asked his physician in an article he wrote for Collier’s magazine, Nov. 4, 1950: “Would you advise me—an average, sedentary, moderately healthy character—to keep on smoking or to quit?” The doctor’s precise reply became the title of that article: “Don’t Smoke—Unless You Like It.” Well, I liked it. Heck, in the ’50s, cinema audiences watched film stars smoke on the silver screen, and as they did, so did the audience. Mr. Playboy, supreme bachelor and lifestyle entrepreneur Hugh Hefner, smoked a pipe, so why shouldn’t I?

As a freshman, more accurately, a neophyte pipe smoker in Boston in the 1950s, I was introduced to Dr. Grabow, Kaywoodie (“The Last Word in Pipes”), Medico (its ads touted “…now made of pre-war quality imported briar”) and Yello-Bole, the most accessible and reasonably priced pipes in the marketplace, at least for my pocket. Those were the days when R.J. Reynolds used small briar pipes as premiums to promote the sales of at least one pipe tobacco, George Washington. My parents owned a small grocery store in the city, and I snagged my earliest pipes from the shelves … at no cost. To add to my smoking experience, I bought a few carved meerschaums from Hayim Pinhas, Istanbul, a popular mail-order house of the period. When I had some extra jingle from my after-school part-time job, I would buy a relatively nice briar from one of the local tobacconists—Ehrlich, Leavitt & Peirce or L.J. Peretti—or order one from the Iwan Ries catalog. In an adventurous moment, I’d order a package deal: six irregular, unvarnished, but grand-smoking briars at a cost of $15, postpaid, from Peter Ross & Company, Arundel, Sussex, England.

In assorted magazines in our store I read the frequent ads from E.A. Carey trumpeting his pipe design: “My new pipe is not a new model, not a new style, not a new gadget, not an improvement on old style pipes. It is the first pipe in the world to use an ENTIRELY NEW PRINCIPLE for giving unadulterated pleasure to pipe smokers,” but I didn’t buy into this hype. Does anyone remember Wally Frank’s “amazing briar” pipe, offered during the 1950s, “specially caked with that revolutionary ‘Magic Lamp’ process”? I never owned one. Most any no-name Algerian briar, or one from Raoul Amiel’s factory near Philippeville, Algeria, was within my means, a Dunhill or a Charatan was beyond it, and the Custom-bilt, the Doodler series and the later, phenolic-resin-coated, pyrolytic graphite “The Pipe” were too weird for me. There were other pipe oddities that were for sale in our store: the Century Briar Company’s filter pipe, with the underside, screw-in glass bottle; the Pavey Pipe Company briar with its air-cooling chamber insert; the Spiral-Kool Company briar with a composition piston on the end of a plunger to scrape tars and juices from the metal stem; the James King & Company briar with a tamper-spade mounted on the pipe’s shank; and some of the oldest stock that never sold, a few Vogel and Bohn-Dri pipes made specifically for the “wet smoker.” For sure, all these smoking apparatuses and contraptions have long been forgotten.

— Story by Ben Rapaport

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Category: Feature Article, Pipe Articles, Spring 2011

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