Collecting Pipes

September 9, 2011

Collecting smoking pipes is a fine old hobby… the older the pipes, the finer the hobby. When philately was young, it was ancient.

The requirements are near to non-existent: own more than one pipe. Smoking them is optional; owning them is enough, though owning and smoking them is best. And the agglomeration need not be out-sized, or costly: though hand-worked meerschaum may command hundreds of dollars in shops, an elementary briar is nothing to sneer at.

One benefit of collecting pipes, instead of other ephemera, is that pipes remain useful once collected. Unlike postage (once you use a stamp – that is, lick it and attach it to a letter – it leaves your assemblage, likely for good), pipes can be used and re-used, yet the collection remain whole. Indeed, use can even improve the timbre of the cache considerably. There is no interest in new pipes, save the interest of breaking them in. The stories belong to older pieces.

Most pipe smokers turn collectors, though not by intent: they begin with one pipe, add a second, and two quickly becomes five. The scale is manageable, but the collection is born. Collecting pipes is a natural, pleasurable consequence of smoking them.  True, not every pipe can be smoked; some are too old, too dry, too fragile. Those tend to be too expensive, also, for the tyro. For collectors of means, however, pipes fall within one of two categories: those collected for beauty, history or value, and those collected for smoking.

Per the costlier specimens, time is money: the older the pipe, the more murderous to bank balances. Still, meerschaums with forty or fifty years’ history on them can be had reasonably at most antique and curio shops, in addition to the porcelain pipes so popular in central Europe a century ago.

This is not to discourage the purchase of new pipes: collectors on the make should purchase whatever modern pipes suit their tastes and budget. They can be smoked regularly, not just admired, and such interaction with pieces of the collection will increase the pleasure of collecting itself. Afterall, everything new will one day be old. It will have its own history. In terms of your pipes, their history might as well be yours.


Bill Millin, War Piper, Dead.

August 21, 2010

The Scottish bagpipes, because of their inspirational properties in war, were outlawed in their native Highlands centuries ago. Though the ban faltered after, it was resurrected by the English after World War I because of great losses suffered by British soldiers following the pipes into battle.

“Ah, but that’s the English War Office,” Lord Lovat, hereditary chief of the Fraser clan, told bagpiper Bill Millin on the eve of D-Day. “You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”

Bill Millin at Edinburgh Castle, 2001.

Bill Millin was born in Glasgow to a policeman in 1922, and first played the pipes for the 7th Batallion of the Highland Light Infantry. He volunteered for the British commandos in 1941 and met Lovat while training at Achnacarry, north of Fort William. The Scottish Lord took Millin on as his personal piper and, when Lovat’s men disembarked later at Normandy’s Sword Beach, Bill played them ashore. From The Telegraph‘s obituary:

“Millin began his apparently suicidal serenade immediately upon jumping from the ramp of the landing craft into the icy water. As the Cameron tartan of his kilt floated to the surface he struck up with Hieland Laddie. He continued even as the man behind him was hit, dropped into the sea and sank.”

The piper, bearing nothing in the way of arms save a ceremonial dagger stowed in his kilt, kept it up along the beach all that day, fielding requests from Lovat for different tunes. When the brigade moved further inland, Millin piped along the road to Benouville. Lovat’s men took sniper fire along the way and stopped their march long enough to stalk and kill the shooters. Returning from a field with the corpse of one, Lovat told Bill, “Right, piper. Start the pipes again.”

“I shall never forget hearing the skirl of Bill Millin’s pipes,” said Tom Duncan, some years later. Duncan had been wounded contemporaneous to the invasion and heard Millin play later, in a field hospital. “It is hard to describe the impact it had. It gave us a great lift and increased our determination. As well as the pride we felt, it reminded us of home and why we were there fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones.”

German prisoners later told Millin, whose pipes sustained shrapnel damage at one point but who was never himself harmed, that they hadn’t shot at him because he seemed to have “gone off his head.”

Millin took a job on Lord Lovat’s estate after the war, but was soon bored and left to tour and play with a theatre group. He returned to play the lament at Lovat’s funeral in 1995.

Bill Millin died on August 17, 2010. He was 88 years old.

Pipe Dreams

June 26, 2009

In 2005 the venerable Washington Post published Peter Carlson’s “Bowled Over No Longer,” an ode to pipe smoke and antiquated masculinity. The original is re-printed here, below, hopefully none the worse for space-saving snips.

It smelled like cherry or chocolate or chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Or leaves burning in the back yard in those long-ago autumns when you were still allowed to burn leaves in the back yard. In those days, pipe smoke was a man’s signature scent. It was the incense in the Church of Dad, a burnt offering to the god of domesticated masculinity, a symbol of benevolent paternalism.

The Sasieni Warwick.

The Sasieni Warwick.

A passing whiff of your father’s or grandfather’s brand — Erinmore Flake, say, or Royal Yacht Mixture — can summon vivid memories even decades after his death. Smell is a key that unlocks the vault of memory, and the rich aroma of pipe smoke conjures up a lost world of armchairs and ashtrays, humidors and dark-wood racks holding pipes with WASPy names like Dunhill and Ferndown and Hardcastle.

It was a world of wise, contemplative men who sat and smoked and read serious, leather-bound literature, as well as a world of rugged outdoorsmen, canoeists and fly fishermen and clipper ship captains who puffed their pipes as they pored over nautical charts before sailing ’round the Horn. It was a magical world, part reality and part myth, and now it has all but disappeared, fading like smoke.

“A lot of pipe smokers have died and new ones aren’t coming along,” says David Berkebile, owner of Georgetown Tobacco. “The decline has been persistent and unrelenting,” says Norman Sharp, head of the Pipe Tobacco Council. Sharp rattles off the statistics: In 1970, Americans bought 52 million pounds of pipe tobacco. In 2004, they bought less than 5 million pounds. “That’s a decline of 91 percent,” he says.

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.

But the evidence of the pipe’s decline goes beyond statistics. Fifty years ago, nearly every male movie star who wanted to be taken seriously posed for PR photos smoking a pipe and looking contemplative. These days, about the only pipe smokers found in the movies are the hobbits in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Pipe smoking is going the way of the shaving brush, the straight razor, the fedora, the Freemasons, the liberal Republican.

Maybe that’s good, considering the risks of mouth cancers. But there’s something charming about pipe smoking — an appealingly retro air of reflection and relaxation, a uniquely masculine mystique that’s somehow large enough to include tweedy professors and Maine hunting guides, detectives and novelists, Santa Claus and Gen. MacArthur, Albert Einstein and Popeye the Sailor Man.

And, of course, the kind of father who always knew best.

Puff of Wisdom

“I think the appeal of the pipe came from images in movies and pop culture,” says Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine. “It was an image of intelligence and sophistication, like a martini.”

Hefner, 79, is one of America’s most famous pipe smokers, although he doesn’t smoke anymore. He started in 1959, when he began hosting a TV show called “Playboy’s Penthouse” — “it was something to do with my hands” — and he quit in 1985 after a stroke. “I was very influenced by pop culture, which had certain symbolic images of smoking,” Hefner says. “Cigars had the symbolic implication of a businessman or a politician. Cigarettes could be romantic or related to crime in a film noir, but the pipe had a different quality: It was both thoughtful and adventurous. I was a fan of the comic strip ‘Terry and the Pirates,’ which had a character named Pat Ryan who smoked a pipe. He was Terry’s mentor and he was kind of a dashing hero. One of my influences was Sherlock Holmes. He smoked a pipe and he wore pajamas and a smoking jacket, which sounds kind of familiar.”

Hefner laughs at his own famous fondness for wearing pajamas in public. “And then,” he adds, “there’s the pop cultural image of a pipe and slippers in front of the fire with a good book and your dog at your feet.”

A pipe projects a calm, peaceful image — except when it’s clenched in the fiercely resolute jaw of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the only man in history who could make an oversize corncob pipe look like a weapon of mass destruction.

Many of the great thinkers of the 20th century puffed on their pipes while they pondered deep thoughts: Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung, Jean-Paul Sartre, William Faulkner, George Bernard Shaw and, of course, Einstein, who once said, “I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.”

For generations, young men entering college began smoking pipes as a signal that they were joining the high priesthood of knowledge. A.A. Milne, the pipe smoker who created Winnie the Pooh, wrote this about his college days: “At eighteen I went to Cambridge and bought two pipes in a case. In those days, Greek was compulsory, but not more so than two pipes in a case.”

Even Sammy Davis Jr. took up the pipe when he lived in London, keeping a corncob in the breast pocket of his natty tweed suit, a look he found classy.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the pipe became a pop symbol of contemplation and relaxation. Detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret were towering intellects who smoked pipes and solved crimes through rational deduction. Bing Crosby exhibited his ease, his cool , by holding a pipe while he crooned.

And in the early days of television, sitcom dads like Robert Young in “Father Knows Best” and Fred MacMurray in “My Three Sons” were wise paternal figures who effortlessly solved all family problems while puffing calmly. Now, however, contemplation and relaxation are pretty much passe in a pop culture that has come to prefer the quick and the dumb to the slow and the wise.

Today, detectives solve crimes with guns. Pop singers are more likely to bite the head off a bat than puff on a meerschaum. And Homer Simpson, the sitcom dad of our day, doesn’t inhale a pipe and exhale wisdom. He sucks up vast quantities of Duff beer and belches out “D’oh!”

The pipe is a relic of those bygone days when dads wanted to look — and act — like grown-ups. These days, dads hope to remain young and hip, and they’re likely to appear in public wearing sneakers, shorts, a replica of their favorite quarterback’s jersey and a backward baseball cap. You can’t smoke a pipe wearing a backward baseball cap. It just wouldn’t work. It would be like presiding over the U.S. Supreme Court while wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

Fiddle vs. Burn

“I started smoking a pipe in the Navy,” says Berkebile of Georgetown Tobacco. “My father never smoked one, but my brother did. I used to smell the inside of it. He smoked a cherry blend and it smelled good. There was a lot of nostalgia with that odor.”

Berkebile, 65, is sitting in his office in the attic above his store. He flicks a lighter and fires up a cigar. He stopped smoking a pipe years ago. “I don’t have the patience for it anymore,” he says.

When Berkebile founded the store, back in the mid-’60s, well over half his business was pipes and pipe tobacco. “In those days,” he says, “college kids came into the store in groups and started smoking pipes.” Now pipes account for only about 10 percent of his sales. “The pace of life today is much faster, and people don’t have the time to smoke a pipe,” he says. “They don’t make the time.”

Pipe smoking takes a lot of time and a lot of bother — tamping and tapping and scraping and cleaning and lighting and relighting and re-relighting. It’s fiddling-intensive activity. And maybe people just don’t like fiddling anymore. Or maybe they’d rather be fiddling with their computer. Or they just don’t have the patience anymore. Berkebile doesn’t.

“Pipe smoking isn’t convenient,” Berkebile says. “You have to have tools. You have to have pipe cleaners. If you’re on the go, you have to take all that stuff with you.”

Walter Gorski, vice president of Georgetown Tobacco, wanders in. He sits down, takes out a pipe, fills it with tobacco and lights it up. Now 37, he started smoking a pipe back in college. “It was one of the only things that kept my dorm room from smelling like a sewer,” he says, laughing.

Inspired, Berkebile snuffs out his cigar, rummages around the office and returns with a pipe. He fills it with a pinch of Gorski’s tobacco, tamps it down and lights it up. Aromatic smoke curls toward the ceiling while the two men discuss the differences between pipe smokers and cigar smokers.

“Pipe smokers are hobby people,” Berkebile says. “They like to collect things, esoteric stuff.”

“Touchy-feely stuff,” Gorski says.

“Contemplative stuff. Antiques,” Berkebile says. “They’re fly fishermen — and fly tie-ers. And chess players.”

Cigar smokers are too cranked up for contemplation, Berkebile says. “They’re faster paced. Hard chargers. Type A’s. They’re more interested in better cars and better clothing. They’re entrepreneurs, CEO types.”

Berkebile’s wife, Sandy Brudin, walks into the room. He gets up to greet her, then he announces that she married her first husband because he smoked a pipe. She smiles sheepishly and acknowledges that there’s a germ of truth to that story. “He smelled nice,” she says.

Pop’s Culture

There’s something about the smell of pipe tobacco that brings back memories of fathers and grandfathers and, yes, even ex-husbands. “I remember my father smoking a pipe,” Brudin says. “I remember liking the smell. It was a sweet smell, a comfortable smell. . . . My father smelled horsy. He rode horses and he smelled horsy, leathery and pipey. He was charming. He was handsome. Movie stars smoked pipes, and he smoked a pipe. It was dashing, and I thought he was dashing.”

Allen Haddox, 55, a librarian at the American Insurance Association, still recalls the smell of his father’s favorite pipe tobacco — Dunhill No. 21. “It had a very strong, spicy aroma, kind of on the acrid side,” he recalls. “Sort of like that smoky scent of the fall but sweeter.”

His father worked at the State Department, and Haddox remembers the smell of his office. “I would visit him as a kid in the ’60s and early ’70s,” he says. “That was the heyday of pipe smoking. My father worked in a room with at least 40 people and nearly everyone smoked a pipe. It was like going to the bazaar in Istanbul — you get all kinds of different aromas. It was very exotic.”

In America, we’ve pretty much obliterated aromas from our public places — supermarkets smell about the same as airports these days — but you can’t deodorize the human memory. Sara Newcombe, 25, a recent graduate of New York Law School, recalls the unmistakable smell of her father’s pipe. “It was a really good smell — vanilla and cherry and chocolate,” she says. “I just remember it smelling really, really good.”

Like a dad in some ancient New Yorker cartoon, her father would smoke his pipe after dinner, sitting in the den with the family dog curled up at his feet. “It was just a very relaxed time,” she says. “He’d be sitting in his den, in his study, and he would give us wise advice. My dad is very wise.” A passing whiff of pipe smoke on the street can bring back the memory of that scene, she says.

But these days, she adds a little wistfully, “it doesn’t happen very often.”

Hart, on Tobacco

April 30, 2009

Jeffrey Hart is Professor Emeritus of English at Dartmouth College, and a cultural critic, essayist and columnist. He holds an A.B. and Ph.D. from Columbia University, both in English literature, and formerly served four years with U.S. Naval Intelligence. During his more active teaching tenure, professor Hart often made a point of nettling colleagues: while they protested the price of gas, he drove to school in a Cadillac limousine. Professor Hart is still a Senior Editor with National Review, and a founder and adviser to The Dartmouth Review.

Below is Professor Hart’s 1992 essay on tobacco.

Smoking is politically incorrect these days, but have you ever wandered into a good pipe shop?

These are male environments, of course, which surely makes them objectionable, but pipes are works of art. A pipe shop has its own ambience, yes, a male ambience.

These smoking instruments often are beautiful, selected for the grain of their wood or the gracefulness of their design.


"A pipe shop has its own ambience, yes, a male ambience."

There are times when I like a slim little pipe, but other times when I like a massive blockbuster. I have a pipe that was smoked by a general on the Boer side in the war against England. It’s a huge thing. That general was only a bit over five feet tall, and the pipe must have rested on his chest as he smoked it. It has a metal lid, so that he could smoke it while the clouds were raining down upon him, along with the British bullets. The general died in old age in Ohio.

I also have a beautiful briar churchwarden pipe, about 18 inches long. I don’t know why this particular design is called a “churchwarden.” I enjoy that pipe, and indeed use it as a prop while lecturing to college classes. (Of course, the sign over my head says “No Smoking.”)

I have another favorite pipe, a Peterson model from Ireland, which my wife bought in a pipe shop in Harvard Square. She had a silversmith inscribe in silver my class numerals in the front of the bowl: 1951.


"There are times when I like a slim little pipe, but other times when I like a massive blockbuster."

The tobacco I favor comes from that same pipe shop, and it’s a mixture called “Black Gold.” Years ago, I favored “Balkan Sobranie,” which is very good, and some of my former students still smoke it, but now I lean to “Black Gold.”

That pipe shop in Harvard Square has a wall covered with old photographs of Harvard football games, people wearing handlebar mustaches and so on, and the place smells like rich tobacco. It even stocks marvelous cigars, not now Havana cigars, but when we finally get rid of Castro we will have Havana cigars again.

A few years ago, a friend of mine tried to smuggle a load of Havana cigars into Miami, but they were discovered and confiscated by the Customs. Too bad. He asked the officers what they were going to do with these good cigars. Their answers: “Burn them. Very Slowly.”

There is only one very good pipe store left in midtown Manhattan, down from four or five 10 years ago. Yet it remains a fine pipe store, full of beautiful pipe objects. Some of them are antiques purchased at estate auctions. The atmosphere in the store is redolent of tobacco, and the manners are relaxed and masculine. The clerks and the customers discuss blends and mixtures of tobacco, what cigars are being imported, what new or old pipes are available. This store is sort of a club. A piece of civilization that is perhaps vanishing.

"There is only one very good pipe store left in midtown Manhattan, down from four or five 10 years ago."

"There is only one very good pipe store left in midtown Manhattan, down from four or five 10 years ago."

 Can anyone think of Sherlock Holmes without his pipe – not to mention his “quick Watson, the needle”? (Morphine?)

Presidents were often nominated in the famous “smoke filled room,” cigar smoke I suppose. There is good and bad cigar smoke. I can hardly wait for Castro to disappear.

Some of the very best pipe stores are in London. They have mahogany counters, glass cases, and even brass spittoons. I would not be surprised to hear that some of the pipes were designed by Rembrandt.

Yes, yes, yes, I know all about lung cancer.

But, more and more, it seems that if you want to avoid cancer of one sort or another you have to stop living.

Now that is something of a contradiction.

Pipes have now been banned at the regular meetings of college facilities. Mr. Chips and Sherlock Holmes would have been shocked, shocked. This is one among many reasons I myself do not attend faculty meetings anymore.

There is an ideological contradiction involved here. The American Indians, who are Politically Correct these days, introduced tobacco to the Europeans through Sir Walter Raleigh. Tobacco is Politically Incorrect. We’ll have to work that one out.

Are women behind all of this Puritanism? Maybe. The only woman I ever met who smoked a pipe was the wife of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, a charming and witty lady. Some women do smoke cigars, diminutive and “feminine” ones, but not the big and glorious variety.

I have a sign in my office in the Dartmouth College English Department that reads: “Thank You For Holding Your Breath While I Smoke.”


“Thank You For Holding Your Breath While I Smoke.”