Russ Ouellette
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 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 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.

See our interview with Russ Ouellette Here


7 Responses

  • I’ve been a pipe smoker since Christmas, 1966, damn nearly 46 years, now. These days, more than half the reason I smoke my pipe is all the memories it evokes: people, places, occasions, and tobaccos. Nearly every one of my pipes has some memory attached, and they all come back when I light up. I like to think I’m not overly nostalgic, but when I remember I’ve already lived over half my life, those memories can be comforting.
    That’s not to say, of course, I don’t still look forward to new people, places, pipes and tobaccos.

  • Good article! It gives honor to the memories of the past while reminding the reader of the benefits to be had at the present. My nostalgic memories are of the delicious smells from long lost smoke-shops of my childhood.

  • Wonderful article, Russ. This is indeed the golden age of pipe smoking — all the more remarkable given the current climate of nanny-ism and government restriction. Despite the barriers placed before us, this hobby has grown thanks to the creativity and dedication of folks like you, and the new avenues of commerce opened to us by media like PipesMagazine

  • Back in the late seventies there were three tobacconists in Berkeley, over a dozen in San Francisco. And several blends (Dobie’s Four Square, as just an example) that were available everywhere. Now there are no tobacconists in Berkeley, only a few stores that sell pipe tobacco in SF. But on the other hand, there are things available now that back in 1978 I could not have dreamed of. These are the best of times. Well, except for smoking in public, that is. Earthmoms hate me.

  • Your articles are as fine as your tobaccos, Russ, and that is high praise indeed. I first started pipe smoking in 1969 and have never gotten more pleasure out of it than I have now. We are so fortunate to have the internet and all the fine merchandisers on it. I also think it’s a golden age for blenders; you, Greg Pease, Mike and Mary McNeil, John Patton, and the late Craig Tarler and Bob Runowski, R.I.P.
    It’s sad to see so many smoke shops fold up. I never had any close by as I lived in a small town in MO but I know a lot of other places have been hit hard. Right now to find one I have to go to Kansas City (100 miles), St. Louis (170 miles), or to my favorite, Just For Him in Springfield (160 miles). The internet has been a real blessing to me. Not just for products but for information. Thanks again for your wonderful article, Russ, and for your fantastic blends.
    Smokey Strodtman

  • I also began pipe smoking in 1960’s. Largely because My Dad and my Uncle smoked, and I loved the aroma, and the great pleasure they derived from relaxing moments with a pipe. To this day, memories linger in the aromas. I guess for me, it’s a way to stay in touch with them. I quit cigarette smoking back in the 90’s, so along with that went the pipe. For a couple years I dabbled with cigars. And, although they are fine, like Russ mentioned in the article, I just came back to pipes – where I am truly at home. I love to relax at the lake, in the desert, by the campfire or on the patio, and savor the taste, blow some smoke rings, and enjoy the memories. Long may your pipe smoke.

  • Russ
    Nice article. As I travel I enjoy finding the pipe shop or shops in the towns I visit; like The Country Squire (Jackson , Ms), Tobacco Corner (Memphis) or Ye Olde Tobacco Shop (Savannah). I especially like to listen to the old guys (older than my 54 years) talk and reminisce.