New Sherlock Holmes Makes Pipe Smoking Cool … Again

… But we already knew it was cool …

By Ethan Brandt
Imagine that there is a chain gun blasting away about 20 feet in front of you. Its target: You. How do you respond?
By lying down and calmly smoking a pipe, of course! At least, that’s what you would do as Robert Downey, Jr.’s rendition of Sherlock Holmes.

Naturally, this is quite a new situation for Sherlock Holmes, as is easily recognizable by even the most casual of fans. However, no matter which Sherlock Holmes we are discussing, whether he be portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr., Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, Benedict Cumberbatch, or even if he is simply a character on a page, we can be sure that he will have a particular item: a pipe. The pipe, even more than the hat, coat, and magnifying glass, is a signature of Sherlock Holmes. It defined him. The question that is rarely asked, however, is how did Holmes define the pipe?

A great many people, particularly pipe smokers, are familiar with the written works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the eccentric character of Sherlock Holmes. Even in these early stories, the pipe was a frequent player. As master blender Russ Oullette recently explained [in his article; "The Great Detective and His Pipes"], Holmes had three pipes of which he was fond: a briar, a cherrywood, and a clay. Each of these pipes had a different place in the arsenal of Holmes, but it was almost without doubt that they were primarily lit during times of contemplation and relaxation.

This trend continued throughout the vast majority of interpretations of the quirky detective. When he would be lounging in his armchair, perhaps idly bowing his violin, he would have his pipe lit. Most frequently, he would strike a match and light up when he was having to do some serious thinking about a new case.

This is the first and one of the most important ways that the character of Sherlock Holmes defined pipes. To this day, pipes are linked with thoughtfulness, contemplation, and intelligence. It is hard to believe that this is in no small part due to their role in the mysteries solved by Mr. Holmes in the early stories and movie depictions.

As a major figure of English literature and, later, film, it really isn’t surprising that the character of Sherlock Holmes had a lasting impact on everything he touched, from the style of his hat to the magnifying glass to the pipe. Even such minutiae as a particular style of pipe, namely the calabash, that an actor portraying Holmes on stage decided to smoke had a lasting impact. To date, it is nearly impossible for a layman to see a calabash and not think of the Great Detective.

With it firmly established that former incarnations of Sherlock Holmes have helped to define the pipe, it is worth inquiring what impact, if any, Robert Downey, Jr.’s version will have.

A little after I saw the first movie, I started hunting for the pipe that Downey, Jr.’s Holmes smoked throughout the entire film. It turned out to be a black Dunhill billiard, sandblasted, with a saddle-bit, if you are interested.

While hunting, I stumbled across a piece in the New York Times’ Men’s Fashion blog entitled "Puff Piece: Sherlock Holmes, Piping Hot". In the entry, the author said that this new Sherlock Holmes was "poised to do something that hasn’t been done since Hugh Hefner lounged on his rotating bed while puffing a Dunhill: Make pipes cool."

I remember being offended when I first read those last three words. In my head, pipes were already cool and they still are. But the word "cool" here is meant differently and, with that new definition, the author is quite correct. Robert Downey, Jr. does make pipes cool with the way that he plays Sherlock Holmes.

His Holmes is different from most other portrayals. While the majority of versions have acknowledged the eccentricities of Holmes, this newer Holmes seems to emphasize the dichotomies inherent within the character.

One of the best ways that I have heard this Holmes described is as a combination between Indiana Jones and James Bond, if Bond were to do all of his own inventing instead of leaving that to Q. This Holmes is suave, yet uncouth; he is stylish, but often disheveled, often wearing a three-piece suit, while sporting a 5 o’clock shadow and a napkin tucked into his shirt; he is logical and intelligent, but not afraid to get down-and-dirty, getting into bone-crunching, knuckle-cracking, mano y mano fights; he is systematic, yet is prone to drunkenly experimenting with explosives and poisons.

This is the type of "cool" that Downey, Jr.’s Holmes brings to pipes that has never really been seen before. Other incarnations gave pipes the titles "contemplative" and "smart" and "thoughtful", but not cool. Not this type of cool.

Allow me to say that there is nothing wrong about the notion that pipes are signs of mental agility. In fact, it is sometimes quite nice to be told that I look professorial when smoking a pipe.

The problem arises when people think that this is all that pipes represent.

Many of us know someone who does not necessarily fit this stereotype, or, at minimum, embody a different image even better. Some of these people smoke their pipes while doing intense physical labor or while plowing their fields; some are known for their sex-appeal (such as Hugh) and some for their physical prowess, such as Babe Ruth and Neil Armstrong.

These members of the pipe community have been woefully neglected, discarded in favor of the easy stereotype formed by the early Sherlock Holmes. While a mentally pleasing stereotype, it represents just one part of the culture.

This is something that the new Sherlock Holmes can potentially remedy. Not only do these films have the potential to spark more interest in pipes, but also to reshape the image of pipe-smokers. Yes, we are intellectuals, but we are also cool, rough, and eclectic.

So, the next time a chain gun is aiming its barrels at you, smoke a pipe! After hiding behind something, perhaps.


Ethan Brandt is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in Religious Studies and English with a Pre-Law focus. He picked up his first pipe his Freshman year in college and never looked back. Recently, he has start up a pipe-focused blog called Pipe School.

19 Responses

  • Great Movie! I saw it two nights ago. I’ll have to watch out for chain guns and make sure to have my pipe at the ready. It was a different pipe in that scene. Small with a windcap. Great article btw!

  • Really nice article. Can’t say I like the new Downey Holmes movies. I guess I am of the demographic that just prefers the classic portrayals of Holmes.

  • Thanks for a great article describing how the role of “The Great Detective” is being reinterpreted (yet again). I don’t think I’ll ever completely accept departures from the stereotypes popularized by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, but I welcome modern takes on the storied personalities. Through all of this, yes, the pipe will remain “cool”.

  • Good Article about a movie which imo does not deserve to carry the name “Sherlock Holmes”. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is alright on its own, and if it improves the repuation of us pipesmokers, this would be a nice side effect.
    But in my opionion the movie strays to far from the literary figure, and shamelessly uses the established name / character to sell tickets & dvd’s.
    As a pseudo-victorian steampunky action Movie: 4 stars ot of 5
    As a SH movie: 1 out of 5 !

  • Things change – and thank God for it!
    We’d be dying out if it wasn’t for this new type image and guys like Ethan’s evangelism.
    Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

  • Sad to be the one to point it out, but the current TV incarnation of Sherlock, Dominic Cumberbatch does not smoke a pipe.
    In the first episode it is revealed that his addiction to nicotine is sated with those horrid patch things.
    Good to see Mr Downey upholding a grand and rewarding obsession of mine and many others.
    Long live the Briar.

  • Thank you. I was very much wondering what kind of pipe he was smoking. Hmmm, wonder what kind he is smoking with a wind cover? Haven’t seen the new one yet.

  • David, that is a good point! But, due to the Sherlock Holmes stereotype, he is still expected to have it. The fact that he doesn’t has to be explained away within the first episode. Interestingly, the patches explain why he wouldn’t smoke cigarettes, but, since pipes are not for the nicotine, it doesn’t explain why he doesn’t have a pipe. 🙂

  • Although Basil Rathbone will forever be the iconic Holmes in my mind (the way Connery is the iconic Bond), I’ve embraced the new Holmes films as a sort of well done “alternate universe” iteration. The films are really very good, so it’s difficult to fault them, and Downey’s performance is exemplary. When I’m in the mood for classic Holme’s I turn to the Rathbone films. But when I’m in the mood for a good romp, I find myself turning to the recent films.
    Interestingly enough, Jude Law’s Watson is probably closer in physical description to the literary version than Nigel Bruce.

  • Great article. I’ve seen both Sherlock Holmes and A Game of Shadows and loved them both. I love how Holmes and Watson are a lot closer to the characters in the stories. Both fit and in shape, in their late 20’s early 30’s, not afraid to show off their combat skills when need be. Makes the movies as fun as the stories. Also I think by “cool” he was going for the idea of the rough and tough bad boy hero kind of cool. I’m okay with it if it’s putting pipe smoking in a positive light. As long as it doesn’t start a barrage of trend followers who make my favourite blends get back ordered lol.

  • I was a Basil Rathbone fan until I belatedly watched the Jeremy Brett series in it’s entirety.
    To say that he lived and breathed the part is a dramatic understatement, this is recorded and sometimes visible in his obvious decline in health, brought on in no small part by his obsession with the role.
    A remarkably close portrayal, when compared to ACD’s writings, and Watson is absolutely as characterized in the original stories.
    If you haven’t watched them (I’m sure many of you have) please give them a shot.
    BTW, I thought that both Sherlock films and the new TV sroots are very good, but the Brett series is like reading the Strand magazine.

  • I was a Basil Rathbone fan until I belatedly watched the Jeremy Brett series in it’s entirety.
    To say that he lived and breathed the part is a dramatic understatement, this is recorded and sometimes visible in his obvious decline in health, brought on in no small part by his obsession with the role.
    A remarkably close portrayal, when compared to ACD’s writings, and Watson is absolutely as characterized in the original stories.
    If you haven’t watched them (I’m sure many of you have) please give them a shot.
    BTW, I thought that both Sherlock films and the new TV sroots are very good, but the Brett series is like reading the Strand magazine.

  • I have the complete re-mastered series of the Basil Rathbone original 14 episodes of Sherlock Holmes. I never tire of watching them. However, I did enjoy the first movie with Downey and am looking forward to seeing the new one. What are the chances that he might be smoking Captain Bob’s Blend? (Probably not too great!) I do wonder what blend he is smoking, though!

  • Being a confirmed Sherlockian and a pipe smoker I always enjoy reading articles about the pipe smoking Holmes. Downey actually smokes two pipes in the first movie..a straight sandblasted saddle bit Billiard as mentioned in the article, but when he leaves the jail and when he is diving out of the government office into the Thames he has a slightly curved stem pipe which is IMHO a Savinelli shape 408,which sadly is no longer being produced. It was mentioned on another pipe site the straight pipe is a Savinelli feather-lite-weight (?)straight saddle Biliiard. I mention this, not for arguement’s sake but for another opinion. We pipe smoking Holmes fanatics do uncover some rocks. I’m still trying to determine the churchwarden Downey smokes in the latest film. I have seen it before but just haven’t done the research to find out the exact model and make. Was amused to see him smoking a cob as a Gypsy..can’t wait for the next edition of Downey’s Holmes. perhaps watson will be partaking of some Arcadia or Ship’s…Great article..keep them coming…!!

  • P.S. the first pipe was mentioned elsewhere as being a Savinelli sandblast 127 shape. Funny how an English detective was smoking an Italian pipe…perhaps from his Great Hiatus as Siegerson the famed violinist?? Told you we were nuts….

  • I’m glad you liked it! It was a very fun article to write.
    Funn, the closest thing I have to seen to the most recent churchwarden is a Peterson brandy churchwarden. I have to see it again to examine it, though!

  • just had to say that because my four year old little girl saw a girl smoking a pipe in the movie, that she now wants a plastic pipe!! Also she wants to smoke a pipe when she grows up!

  • I have never into Sherlock Holmes but how Robert Downey Jr played made me look foward to the 3rd sequel (if there’s any) and made me smoke pipe again. The pipe shown in the SH: A Game of Shadows seems to be closed with Peterson Churchwarden Dublin but with short Stem, I would say 6-7 inch long and could not find it even in Peterson’s catalogue as all churchwarden only with long stem @ 10 inch.

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