Ours is a hobby fraught with nostalgic thoughts. When a gathering of pipe smokers occurs, I’m willing to bet that the single most common phrase uttered is “I remember when…”. This issue is only exacerbated when a group of older pipesters is interspersed among some twenty and thirty-somethings, and that’s when the stories begin in earnest.
Of course, there’s a lot of history in pipe smoking. Pipes made of meerschaum have been around since the 1700s and commercially available since the early 1800s. Briars started becoming more widely available in the mid 19th century. There are some brands that are still around today after more than a hundred years. The commercial history of pipe tobacco is similar, and collectors are always looking for examples of old tins and advertising material.
Nostalgia can be very specific. For example, there are a lot of pipe enthusiasts who will search for years trying to locate a birth-year Dunhill. Lots of people have fond memories of older Kaywoodies, Comoy’s, Barlings, Custom-Bilts, Charatans, and the list goes on and on.
Tobacco seems to evoke even more passion than pipes, in some ways. I guess that’s because people who might not have been able to afford an expensive pipe could probably still have handled the cost of even some of the pricier blends, at least occasionally. When the conversation goes in this direction, it’s not uncommon to see a faraway look in the eyes of someone talking about one of the Sobranies, John Cotton’s, Markovitches and so many more. Even more common blends like Tokay, London Dock, Revelation, Country Doctor, Lane’s Mountain Leaf and Irish Mead will be mentioned wistfully during some discussions.
But the most involved memories seem to come to the surface when the stories of old friends and smokeshops begin. I’ve sat around at pipe shows listening to stories about some of the characters who have graced the pastime and with every tale I hear, I find that five rush into my own mind. We’re really fortunate to have a hobby that has such a rich history with so many amazing people making it so intriguing and humorous.
An unfortunate aspect of the nature of the last forty years or so is that a lot of great establishments have gone by the wayside. Just about every area of the country has lost smokeshops with legendary reputations. In my own area of Albany, N.Y., there were stores that were mainstays for decades that just couldn’t keep up with untenable restrictions and usurious taxes. One example was Mel Feldman’s The Smoker, which was known for an amazing selection of estate pipes and tobaccos that were beloved not only in our region, but around the country. Mel’s singular personality made his shop a destination, but it was impossible to keep going in the present-day climate. At least we still have the memories and stories of that great store. Somehow, however, I doubt we’ve heard the last from Mel.
But that brings me to the other half of this story. In spite of all the obstructions, we have seen the birth of a new “golden age”. At each pipe show I attend, I’m seeing more and more new faces, and a lot of them are in their twenties and thirties. Many of them started as cigar smokers who have found that the cost of their favorites have become too high and have turned to pipes as a way to enjoy themselves and relax at a more reasonable price. They probably still find the time and wherewithal to have a stogie here and there, but pipes and tobaccos are a less expensive, and in some ways, more attractive alternative. Once they get caught up in the beauty and variety of pipes, and the broad selection and widely varied tastes of pipe tobacco, the love affair begins.
Beside that, there’s the lifestyle. The serenity that can be found in selecting the right pipe and the ideal tobacco for the moment is unmatched. This is something that can be shared with friends, as we see so often do at pipe club meetings or pipe shows all over the U.S., and the world, for that matter, or it can be a solitary pursuit at a lakeside, by the window in our homes on a snowy evening or while taking a leisurely stroll in the brisk autumn air.
Think about all of the great artisans crafting esthetically beautiful and amazingly functional pipes today. We’ve never seen such advances in engineering as we have recently. Pipes that have a more open draw, and ones with secondary chambers have revolutionized the hobby, delivering cooler, drier, more flavorful smokes than ever before. The craftsmanship found today is elegant, refined and incredibly attractive. We have beautifully grained pipes with stunning staining, deep, craggy sandblasts and remarkable feats of rustication, along with well-made factory pipes that deliver a great experience without breaking the bank.
In the world of tobaccos, we have tremendous variety as well. Beside the vastly varied choices by the large manufacturers, we are seeing a growth of finely crafted small-batch blends, offering a selection that has never existed before. It doesn’t matter what style of tobacco one enjoys, there are a lot of choices out there that are within the reach of every pipe smoker, and the options keep growing. In my own line, we started with six blends and over the last seven years have expanded to around sixty, and as long as people clamor for more, we all will keep working on developing new and interesting blends, as most pipe smokers today have more than one blend in their day-to-day lineups.
Even in accessories, there’s a growth. Tampers, tools, pouches and lighters continue to expand in variety, and the workmanship is exceptional. I never remember seeing such beautiful items that serve a function as I have in this area. Tampers used to be just serviceable; now they’re works of art.
Nostalgia still has its place, but the modern pipe and tobacco market offers a cornucopia of phenomenal products that only enrich the hobby. There are many things that I miss from the past, but I can’t wait to see all the great ideas coming to fruition. What the heck, if you’re still craving the classics, the estate market is strong as well. No matter what, we’re in a great position to enjoy ourselves with this wonderful pastime.
Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and www.pipesandcigars.com in Albany, NY. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1-800-494-9144 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm and Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm.