By G. L. Pease
When I first took up the pipe, and more specifically, the pernicious disorder known as pipe-collecting, I was counseled by a couple grizzled old guys, meaning they were then older then than I am now, that pipes were better back in the day. They patiently explained to me, the wide-eyed, enthusiastic youth, that in the old days, good pipes were made from prehistoric briar, constructed by craftsmen who began their apprenticeships in utero, and that modern pipes are no more worthy of their attention than a Starving Artist’s rendition of Cézanne’s Man With a Pipe bought out of the trunk of a beat-up Chevy in a Home Depot parking lot. They’d contentedly puff away at their ancient briars as they would tell me of the good old days, and how it’s too bad pipe smoking was a dying art, and that pipe making, real pipe making, was already dead, and just hadn’t had the grace to get buried yet, and how it was too bad that I’d missed out on the Golden Age. (I bet when they were kids, someone told them the same thing.)
One of the “old guys” steadfastly refused to smoke any pipe made after the start of WWII. When I asked him why, he told me that it was because of the quality of the mouthpieces. “See, for one thing” he’d begin, pulling a crusty, blackened old briar that reeked of the ages from between his teeth, pointing to a chewed up mouthpiece that looked like a materials-science project gone awry, “this old rubber tastes better when it goes green. The new stuff just doesn’t taste right.” I’ve kept my mouthpieces polished to a glassy shine ever since that particular lecture. “And, those plastic things? They just crack when you chew on ‘em. Look at this.” I did, trying to conceal any hints of revulsion. “This mouthpiece was made in ought-nine, and is still perfectly usable.” I didn’t tell him that it looked like a replacement to me. Did I mention the reek? I guess, along with acrylic stems, they didn’t make those newfangled pipe cleaners in ought-nine either.
Granted, my old friend’s position was probably a bit off center, and certainly extreme, but the idea that pipes made in the good old days were better than today’s is still often expressed, if a little more gently, by some of those who have been around the briar patch a lot longer than I have. The question remains, is there any truth the idea that old pipes were better?
I do have some very old pipes in my collection, one of the most ancient being a Dunhill prince from about 1918. It’s an absolutely wonderful pipe in every respect. It’s beautifully made and delivers a rich, cool, delicious smoke, but is it great because it was made when briar was “better?” Or, is it great because it’s been smoked for decades? Or, is it great just because it is?
Truth is, from here, it’s impossible to draw any rational conclusion along the lines of “pipes were better fifty years ago.” Unless we suddenly gain access to many unsmoked pipes from those allegedly halcyon days, all we have to base this opinion on is anecdotes and estate pipes, and both of these have their own set of problems.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to break in quite a few old pipes, and it’s been something of a mixed bag. A couple of beautiful GBDs from the 40s were very tough going, offering harsh flavors during the first dozen bowls or more, then finally settling down a bit, but never rising to the level of ‘great smoker,’ either because I haven’t smoked them enough, or because the briar wasn’t all that great to start with. In contrast, an unsmoked Parker from the 30s was brilliant from the beginning. In between these two extremes, an unsmoked Charatan (not a high-grade) from the 50s was quite good, but nothing to get excited about. I’ve also broken in quite a few French pipes, finished relatively recently from bowls originally turned the 30s, that have ranged from very good to excellent. But I don’t rate their taste as particularly ‘better’ than the best pipes of today. There are plenty more I could talk about, some good, some not so good. Obviously, this isn’t anything that could masquerade as a real study. My sample isn’t large, nor carefully selected, and any conclusions I might draw would be tentative, at best. But, if I were to state a verdict, one with any support at all, it would simply have to be this: Some old pipes were good, some weren’t. Conversations with quite a few other pipe collectors, some who have been around a lot longer than I have, have resulted in the same non-conclusion.
What about today’s pipes? I have somewhat more experience there to draw from, as well as stories from pipe smoking comrades, and the community at large. I’ve smoked everything from conservatively priced factory-made pipes to somewhat exotic high-grades. Some have been great, a very few have been terrible, and most have fallen somewhere between acceptable and very good. Statistically, some brands have produced a higher number of “keepers” for me than others, and that I’ve had very few bad experiences with pipes from low-volume craftsmen who select and age their briar carefully, and pay the most attention to construction details that can affect a pipe’s smoking characteristics. So, some great, some not so much; nothing conclusive here, either.
A couple of things have to be said about estate pipes, and why we can’t really use them to judge the relative merits of yesterday’s pipes with today’s. First, the most obvious thing; someone else did the sometimes painful work of breaking the thing in. As much as I enjoy the first bowls in a new pipe, they’re never the best. As the pipe is broken in, as the wood seasons, absorbing the oils and aromatics from the tobacco and displacing any saps that might remain from the boiling and curing, as a cake begins to form, a good pipe begins to get richer, cooler, more delicious. Simply said, the more a pipe is smoked, providing it’s taken care of, the better it becomes. But, there’s something possibly even more important to consider.
Fifty years ago, when pipes were almost as commonplace as hats amongst adult men, factories bought briar by the ton and produced millions of pipes each year. Even as late as the 1970s, few collected pipes as hobbyists; most just smoked them, filling them with tobacco, lighting them, puffing on them until they went out, and starting over. Pipes were a tool, and if the tool didn’t perform, they’d go in the bin. Think about it. Where are those tens of millions of pipes today? When we buy an old estate pipe today, we’re selecting from an inventory that’s already been culled, that’s gone through the purging of the decades. The good ones have survived, and, having been smoked for so many years, they’re likely to be pretty good, indeed. Let’s look at some other factors.
It’s true that fifty years ago, good, mature briar burls were likely much more plentiful. Pipe makers and briar cutters alike tell me that the good burls are harder to find, harder to harvest now, and there aren’t as many people willing to do the arduous work. But, the demand isn’t as great today as it once was, either. Fifty years ago, there were a lot more pipe smokers, and factories turned out millions of pipes every year to meet the demand. Given that sort of volume, it’s hard to imagine, though I’m only speculating here, that the briar could have been consistently selected with excruciating care, aged and seasoned perfectly, and then fashioned into exquisite smoking instruments by highly skilled artisans into uniformly superb pipes. Certainly, some factories took greater care with all aspects of production, others, less.
Today, with fewer than 1.5 million pipe smokers estimated in the US, and the largest factories turning out fewer than 100,000 pipes per year, the demand for briar is obviously much lower. Briar cutters can be more selective, and have developed greater skills and understanding of the wood. Pipes makers, too, are more sensitive to the wood they use, and how they use it. Because of lower volumes, they can select more carefully, and many have developed their own special curing and seasoning methods to increase the chances of a great smoking pipe.
Additionally, today’s pipe makers have learned from their predecessors, and many have raised the bar with respect to things like airway construction, chamber geometry, overall performance, and even comfort. I can say without hesitation that some of the more recently made pipes in my collection are the equal of any of the best pipes I’ve ever owned, if not even better.
So, are old pipes better than new pipes? It depends on the pipes, and probably on the pipe smoker, himself. Back to the same non-conclusion.
Another thought. In considering old pipes being “better,” we can’t neglect the influence that nostalgia might offer, especially amongst estate pieces. I’m the first to admit that I often am transported on waves of wistful reverie when I smoke my oldest briars, wondering about where those pipes have been, who might have smoked them, what the world was like when they first came into being. It’s a different form of pleasure, but one that, for many of us, can enhance the more objective experiences of taste and smoking characteristics. Old pipes, new pipes- all good pipes have the potential locked within them to be wonderful pipes. We do have to be careful of the sort of inadvertent elitism that might be cultivated by clinging too tightly to dogmatic beliefs. Doing so can rob of some wonderful experiences, and worse, can risk the alienation of those who don’t agree.
One thing is certain, though; as I mentioned in my last column, Getting Acquainted, the best pipes are the ones we enjoy enough to smoke frequently, and over a long period of time. New pipes, through use and the passage of time, eventually become old pipes, so the question may eventually be moot. Though, I suspect, fifty years from now, there will be those who insist that today’s pipes were better than those available to them. I wonder if they’ll be right.
Really, I don’t feel much like I’ve missed out by not being around during the “Golden Age” of pipe smoking. In the thirty years I’ve been a pipe smoker and collector, I’ve had the opportunity to own and smoke a lot of wonderful pipes, old and new, and have amassed a collection from both ends that provides me with immense pleasure. Today, I have the joy of friendship with pipe makers from all over the world, and have pipes that were made specifically for me. Maybe the average pipe was better then, maybe not; it’s interesting to think about and discuss with our comrades, but there’s nothing we can do to change the fact that time has passed, and things are different. Whatever side of the coin you find yourself on today, light up one of your faves, and enjoy the breadth of choice that has been given us through the combined forces of the long history of the briar, and the advantage of effortless world-wide communication and trade. It’s a great time to be a pipe smoker.
[Editor’s note: Opening photo is an Adam Davidson cutty, along with the original ancient clay that inspired it.]
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.
All photos copyright and courtesy G. L. Pease from his personal collection. Opening photo is an Adam Davidson cutty, along with the original ancient clay that inspired it.