Making it Real     March 6th, 2011

By G. L. Pease
Pipe smoking today is often a solitary affair. We are too frequently accompanied only by a good book, good spirits, and our thoughts when striking the match, putting flame to leaf. But, it wasn’t always this way.
It’s not hard to conjure ancient visions of taverns or club rooms, filled with smoke and jovial camaraderie; places where men would gather, filling long, unwieldy clay pipes with the strong tobaccos of the time, and spending their smoking time in the company of like-minded fellows, at least as regards their enjoyment of the pipe. We can easily find antique wood-cuts, paintings, and prints to reinforce these romantic images of the smoking life of the distant past.

Even much later in the pipe’s long and colorful history, we can read tales of good fellowship, spent in the company of briar, meerschaum or clay and some fine leaf. In the 1930s and 1940s, arguably the zenith of pipe smoking, approximately 40% of adult males, at least in the U.S., the U.K., and many countries in Europe, stoked their briars as a matter of custom. The pipe, for many, was as much a part of their daily wardrobe as a was a good hat. Even as late as the 1970s, though well into its decline in popularity, the pipe was still a public thing, and pipe smokers were a fairly common sight.

How times have changed. Today’s hurried and disposable lifestyle, coupled with increasingly draconian regulations and legislations, has forced the pipe smoker into caverns of relative seclusion, and you almost never see one on the streets. Though there are still places where the social nature of the pipe is celebrated - Egyptian tea houses, for instance, tables surrounded by men tending the octopus-like tentacles of hookahs, with strongly flavored, locally produced tobacco smoldering in their brass bowl, and, where not outlawed, the hookah bars in the western world, or the smoking lounges of tobacconists’ shops - the culture of pipe smoking in most countries has been eroded and increasingly threatened with extinction. Or has it?

See, it just isn’t possible to keep pipesters from sharing the passion and enthusiasm of our pastime. In April of 1994, when we could still smoke on the streets in most cities, and in those few remaining pubs and bars that didn’t have "No Pipes or Cigars" signs posted, something extraordinary happened in Cyberia; a fellow named Steve Masticola sent the following message to the configuration tzars of USENET, creating the alt.smokers.pipes newsgroup:

The Pipes Mailgroup provides a forum for discussing the moderate use and appreciation of fine tobacco, including cigars, pipes, quality cigarettes, pipe making and carving, snuff, collectible tobacciana, publications, and related topics. The mailgroup is lightly moderated to prevent flame (except for the purpose of lighting up.

 



 

It wasn’t the first on-line group for pipe enthusiasts. Prior to this, there were AOL groups, and some bulletin boards, but ASP, as it came to be known, was the first of its kind that was so widely available. Anyone with an internet connection and a news reader could participate freely, and the group grew rapidly. In the beginning, there were perhaps 30 or 40 regular readers and contributors, and the post count was low, but within a few years, it became hard to keep up with all the traffic, and new members joined regularly.

Over time, as USENET’s utility began to be upstaged by the newcomers, chat rooms and internet forums, ASP had to share the spotlight, and participation gradually waned. But, it’s that very proliferation of the various avenues for the virtual gathering of pipe enthusiasts - the web pages and blogs, the social media groups, not to mention the wonderful on-line publications, like the one you’re reading - that serves to demonstrate just how strong the desire to share our enthusiasm is. You can lock us in our closets, but you can’t keep us from gathering, one way or another. Today, we have a very rich on-line culture, a world-wide community that thrives despite, or perhaps because of the marginalization of smokers in our society, and the decrease in the number of venues for in-person interaction. It’s perhaps not as satisfying as sitting in a room with others, exchanging fills of our latest tobacco discoveries, showing and telling of our latest pipe acquisitions, or simply bench racing, but, one way or other, we’re determined to express our inherent need to share in a fellowship of smoke with like-minded, thoughtful souls.

We convene in the peace of our respective smoking dens, and discuss the subtleties of grain, shape, drilling, stem materials, or the type and variety of tobacco that "works best" with specific brands or shapes. We can learn about tobaccos we’ve never heard of, and organize "tasting parties." We share photos of our favorite pipes. At the stroke of a few keys, questions can be asked and answered, and opinions traded. In fact, never before has the pipe smoker had so much information so readily at hand.

The internet has given the pipe smoker other boons, as well. Our choices are broader, more varied than ever before. We can view the work of pipe artists from Denmark, Sweden, England, Italy, Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Russia, Japan, and North America, South Africa, and beyond, and even those makers with the most limited production now have easy access to a global community of collectors who buy and enjoy their work.

And, while we are often singing sad songs over the departure from the shelves of the great blends of yesterday, all of those that have either disappeared from the market, of have been transmogrified into something now unrecognizable from the original, our tobacco choices, now, have become far more diverse, and less limited than ever before. No longer are we exposed only to blends our local tobacconists chose to stock, or those blended, either skillfully or haphazardly on premises. We now have almost unlimited access to a world of choices unavailable to the smoker only a few decades past.

Things are certainly different today than they were in the 1700s, or the 1940s, and though we may rightly lament the passing of our public rituals of smoke, and fight those who endeavor to deny us our rights, we should also take a few moments to reflect on the positive side of what we have, and to acknowledge the power of the pipe to preserve itself in the lives of its comrades, those who share its joys with others all over the globe.

The culture of the pipe is persistent, and its heart still beats in each of us, though perhaps more abstractly than in times past. We are the stewards of that culture. When we light our pipes and share in our communities, we speak, write, act on the pipe’s behalf. We are its ambassadors, and take any who show interest in our pastime under our collective wing to lead them into the fellowship. Our enthusiasm is contagious, and it’s the sharing of that enthusiasm that gives substance to the abstract, that keeps the culture alive, that makes it real.

Your turn.

-glp
 

Since 1999, Gregory L. Pease has been the principal alchemist behind the blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos. He’s been a passionate pipeman since his university days, having cut his pipe teeth at the now extinct Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California. Greg is also author of The Briar & Leaf Chronicles, a photographer, recovering computer scientist, sometimes chef, and creator of The Epicure’s Asylum.

See our interview with G. L. Pease here.

 

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26 Responses to “Making it Real”

  1. krgulick said:

    Another great Article Greg.

  2. bowhatchie said:

    Wow… well said! Mr.Pease your mastery of the written word is well noted and on display within the page of this article..Great read and certainly something for all to ponder.

  3. oldjazzlover said:

    This was a wonderful article, I really enjoyed reading it. I would also say that you were absolutely right when you said, that we hace it better today then in years past. The world of tobacco blends is just a click away.

  4. Collin Dow said:

    Ah, thank you for making me feel this afternoon, right after I broke my helicopter!

  5. marmal4de said:

    Excellent article! It will have me thinking over my pipe and the forums here!

  6. oldtom said:

    Yes. Another great article!
    Thanks, Greg!

  7. fred said:

    Bravo Greg! What a bright spot in the seemingly adversarial
    world many Pipe smokers find themselves in today.

  8. cortezattic said:

    Your essay develops, with wonderful style, the nature of the transition pipe enthusiasts have undergone from real to virtual camaraderie — the irrepressible, inexorable drive to share the joys of our tobaccos and pipes. I get the feeling that, somewhere in the realm of the id, we’re hard-wired for it. Too, I appreciate the role you’ve played in creating a marvelous body of work to that end, what with your blends, photography, and considerable body of written work.

  9. classicgeek said:

    Ten out of ten. Much truth here. I would not be surprised to find a continued Renaissance in pipe smoking, and among younger practitioners, with the enthusiastic community which has formed on the Internet. What I wouldn’t give for some real face to face camaraderie, but the folks here do their best to try break down the barriers.

    Simon

  10. Tommy said:

    Another enjoyable read. Thanks Greg.

  11. Briar Bully said:

    Brilliant, thanks for that uplifting read.

  12. OleFattGuy said:

    Excellent article, Greg! You do have a mastery of words that is enviable, and it shows in every article from you that I have read.

    I think we do well in considering the change in culture globally that Internet has brought us, for good and bad. Just the very fact that I can share my opinion with one of the leading tobacco blenders of the world, and that a multitude of highly interested pipe smokers will take part and possibly have their opinion expressed is something that 15 years ago would have been mere science fiction!

    On the other hand, 15 years ago I could probably light up my pipe and have a tankard of ale in front of the fireplace of pretty much any pub or bar in the world…

    It’s swings and roundabouts.

  13. glpease said:

    Thank you all for your kind words. It’s a true pleasure to write for such an appreciative audience. I’m really glad to have landed here.

    -glp

  14. sparroa said:

    Excellent writing, sir. I rely upon this online community more and more each day to share my burgeoning interest in pipes and tobaccos, which fascinate me increasingly with the passage of time. This interest is considered eccentric and unthinkable to some of the people I live and work with; I consider myself lucky to have venues such as this on the internet to converse with and learn from like-minded souls in an era where my curiosity is met with hostility and ignorance. I think that sites and forums like PM.com will allow our pastime to flourish once more, if in smaller and more private circles than before. I hope that in spite of unfair laws and unfair taxation, we will be able to stick together and help each other make way through the mire.

    Thanks again!

  15. Kurt Simmons said:

    I’ve noticed that the pipe smoker is the most respected tobaccco user in society today.
    A man may be seen as rich and stylish if he smokes a cigar, but a pipe smoker is universally recognized as the thinker in the group.
    They may be trying to get rid of us, but they still have their lingering respect.

  16. thezman said:

    Another thoughtful and well written article. Thankyou Mr. Pease.

  17. Andrew said:

    Great article. One thing that also bears mentioning is the outreach the internet has provided to younger smokers. I first started when I was very young. Any and all questions I had were answered on the internet or my tobacconist. That is a big step away from how it used to be when a young man learned from his father or grandfather. Pipe smoking among young men is on the rise. I would wager that the internet has played a large part in the creation of this new generation of pipe smokers.

  18. Bill Dawkins said:

    Nice Job Greg, very enjoyable article.

  19. seakayak said:

    Thank you, Greg, for yet another fine article. I have an old friend who routinely enjoys a good cigar. A local restaurant near my office (Gander Mountain) still allows smoking at an outdoor area. Several times each month we meet for lunch and coffee…he with a fine cigar and I with a favorite briar. We were immediately reminded of the serene fellowship that exists among those of us who continue to celebrate this ancient ritual. Now, even as Florida attempts to clamp down on this practice, we should all remember that some simple pleasures are well worth fighting for. Hang in there, gentlemen. We know something about life, leisure and camaraderie that the they will never understand.

  20. Rick Newcombe said:

    What a fascinating commentary! Well written and very insightful.

    Great job, Greg!

  21. randy931 said:

    Very good article yes we need to be heard.

  22. glpease said:

    Thanks again for the kind words, gentlemen!

    -glp

  23. drwatson said:

    Ahh so right! Here in Ohio if often feel like the lone piper. I often long for the candle light smokey tavern were treason and conspiracy can play out with a pint of ale. Great read thanks

  24. bdrewing said:

    You can still smoke on the streets of most cities.

  25. hothog said:

    Made me think of the missing local pipe-smokers but then we have gained more than we have lost, because the whole world is our neighbour, thanks to the internet.
    And added to that you can call up multitudes of pipe shapes and makes.

  26. kashmir said:

    Mr. Pease, what a great article detailing the transition from old smoke rooms of yore to the present virtual reality of pipedom! I, for one, am grateful, however, to live in the current age, as, contrary to popular belief, I think we have it better today from several perspectives. More artisanal tobacco blenders, such as yourself, for example, and perhaps a greater selection of pipes as well. I am aware of course of the Golden Age of Tobacco, as documented in, say, the BBB catalog (No. XX) from 1912, put out by Briar Book Press. And I am aware of the great selection of pipes and tobaccos available back then. But looking back over the past hundred plus years or so, today the estate market allows one to dip into any age of pipe manufacture to “sample” the past. Back then, our past was their present, and perhaps we are more fortunate in having all that history to study and appreciate, that they, while living it, perhaps could not. Someone living in 1920 could not appreciate having a pipe rack containing on the one hand a 1926 Dunhill PO Shell, and, on the other, a Paolo Becker or a JT Cooke pipe (not that I have the latter two). Thanks for, once again, a great read.





 

 


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