The Existential Pipe

Fred Brown

Our pipes are more than simple pieces of wood designed to hold a certain amount of tobacco,
which is then set on fire. Pipes can be an intellectual pursuit, a reflective moment in the day, an old-timer sitting on the back of a wagon after a hot day in the fields, or a time on the deck, all to one’s self.

We think of our pipes as friends who bring us memories from the past and the promise of good times in the future.

For many smokers, pipes are an existentialist experience: I am a pipe smoker, therefore I take responsibility for my actions and thoughts. I am willing to suffer societal issues that bring an increase in anxiety that I might one day lose the personal authority to smoke my pipe, which I would not accept.

For pipe smokers, these are the best of times, the worst of times, as Dickens wrote in 1859. "It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. . . ."

Pipe smoking is not necessarily a solitary endeavor. There are times pipe smokers want to be around their brothers of the briar. We are known for gathering around a table and chairs, with a little libation, and discussing the issues of the day. And, of late, we have had a lot of issues to take up our time.

Despite the darkening skies, I would like to offer this notion: We are in the best of times, and not inescapably the worst. Here’s why: In my 40-plus years of smoking a pipe, I have never seen such innovation in pipe designs and tobacco blends. It is a time of glittering richness in tobacco blends, and both genius and extraordinary talent in pipe creations.

We will not go into the current unpleasantness with federal regulations. Those issues have little meaning in our existential world really. We are pipe smokers, therefore I smoke my pipe.

There is more than enough pipe tobacco on the market today that is bound to keep most of us happy for the next few years. And, simply stated, how much tobacco can one smoke in a day? Pipe smoking is not a device for the habitual smoker. It is, as Einstein said, ". . . . pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs."

If you but look around you in tobacco markets, you will find so much variety that it is difficult to choose.

I am a traditionalist when it comes to pipe concept. Basically, billiards, bents, bulldogs, Dublins, and an occasional Avant-garde piece will catch my eye and empty my wallet.

When it comes to tobacco, again, I am more traditionalist than adventurer: Virginia, perique, burley, (some latakia and Orientals), and precious few aromatics.

But the thrilling beauty of our current picture is that we are blessed with the best pipe carvers and tobacco blenders the world has ever seen. This is a magnificent time in our history and I refuse to believe that it will be crushed and wiped out simply through federal (or feral, if you prefer) regulations.

Onerous laws of past epochs were eventually overturned. Take the case of alcohol, branded as demon rum in a constitutional ban that halted the production, the transportation and sale of alcohol from 1920 to 1933.

The law met its end with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment Dec. 5, 1933, with the votes of 36 states approving the overturning of the Eighteenth Amendment, which set prohibition in motion in 1920.

What was the catalyst that overturned the anti-whisky law? As usual, it was a drop in federal revenue. Losing 14 percent of the tax-fueled revenue produced by the sale of alcohol in the teeth of America’s Great Depression began to give lawmakers other thoughts than purifying the nation.

Prohibition does not work. People will find a way around the law every time. It is human nature, after all. Think of the response when you are told you can’t do something that you really enjoy.

The great pundit H.L. Mencken, one of the nation’s most popular newspaper columnists of the time, wrote that prohibition had not come close to doing what it set out to do.

In the five years Prohibition had been in effect, Mencken said it had "completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs (which loosely means using someone else’s property for gain and profit) that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished."

There you go. History on the way to repeat.

American citizens are not good at bowing to authoritarianism. History is replete with examples, with one of the most prominent being the Revolutionary War. Told to pay allegiance to a distant king and to pay outrageous taxes, the colonies decided to take matters into its own hands and to change things.

Tobacco has played a key role in the nation’s history. It was a cash crop, funding not only federal, state and local government entities, but also farm families, who counted on the leaf to help with land taxes, or new farm equipment, or to help with the purchase of shoes for a new school year.

So, the existential view is that we may well be anxious at the moment, but being responsible for our own actions and thoughts, we will prevail.

And why, you might ask, will that be?

As Willie Nelson once wrote in song about a doctor telling a patient he was killing himself with evil drink and to quit before he met his end. The patient, or maybe Willie himself, refused to even consider abstinence, singing this quintessential line: "There are more old drunks than old docs."

We have enough pipe tobacco and pipes to outlast this prohibition.

And, after all, there are more old pipe smokers than regulators. We will be here smoking our pipes long after the tobacco bans have been overturned.

You don’t think we are going to give up our pipes and tobacco, do you?

That would not be existential!



Fred Brown
is a journalist who lives in Knoxville, TN. He will write this column for monthly. He can be contacted at


12 Responses

  • Hmmm, pipe smoking not habitual? I ask myself every morning, “how much can I smoke today?” Ha ha, and being the self driven heathen that I am, I tend to meet my goals. Unfortunately, I set lofty goals.
    Great article. Character is not revealed in pleasant times. It’s in the face of a challenge that true character reveals itself. I’ve never been a hand-wringer or worrier. I just make a plan, and see it through. Since, I’ve been on this forum, no one has ever said that tobacco would get cheaper. In fact, we’ve heard from tobacconist, companies, pipe makers, fellow smokers, over and over for years that “today” was coming. We were prodded to cellar deep and wide. Buy our favorite pipes. And, buy in the here and now, because today is coming. It has been written, and so it has come to pass. It’s all how we have reacted, planned, and prepared… but yes, I think that there will still be blends to chose from. There will be beautiful pipes. It’s just the framework that is getting weird, and getting weirder. I like your quote selection, Best of times, worst of times. So be it…

  • I won’t take my usual contrarian position! It’s a nice piece of writing with an upbeat message. Nothing wrong with that! In fact I find it a healthy outlook.

  • Life is sometimes hard. People often talk about the “light at the end of the tunnel”, my wife says, you’d better learn to love the tunnel.

  • I agree with everything you said in this article except this — “Pipe smoking is not a device for the habitual smoker. It is, as Einstein said, “. . . . pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.”
    I am and have been an habitual smoker for over 40 years. First cigarettes and then the pipe- picking it up about 10 years ago. I am a dyed in the wool nicotine junkie!
    I am not a hobby smoker and I know quite a few others who, like me. smoke like freight trains ! I burn on average about 1 1/2″ ounces of tobacco everyday.
    I love my pipes and not just for the nicotine hit they give me. I love the fact that we have a hundreds of blends to smoke although I smoke mostly Carter Hall. I can just sit and stare at the grain in a pipe,even though I have stared at that same pipe probably a hundred times. I can also just sit calmly while smoking and think objectively about life.

  • Will tightened regulation make pipe smoking more expensive and more trouble than it’s worth? Or will the regs inhibit new blends and discourage one crop of pipe shops and retailers but give rise to others that base their business on adapting to the new market. If pipe smokers can’t enjoy the delightful new blends that come out every month or two now, they can make an infinite number of home mixes as they do now every time they use up a couple of blends by mixing them together, or add a little cigar leaf to something else — or Turkish, Oriental, Cavendish, Lat, Per, dark-fired, etc., all of which will remain available in one form or another. Pipe smoking is still the least expensive form of smoking, so there is a buffer between when the prices rise and when the price is simply too high. And finally, most pipe smokers are not nicotine dependent, so many could cut their bowls per week in half and still be in the game. The deeper questions of how much meddling, even in the name of health and wellbeing, institutions should be doing in individual private lives. Thanks for a glimmer of optimism Fred. I’m not euphoric, but I’m not in mourning either.

  • @ejames: But that is my point. We need to slow down. Enjoy what we have. I’m no Dali Lama, but the idea is to push back against smoking so much.
    Hey, I know I’m talking to the choir. Once when I ran a small newspaper in Arkansas, I smoked a pound a week. In fact, I was on steady order with Edward’s Pipes and Tobaccos in Atlanta. In between, I smoked the old Marsh Wheelings. Whoa, that was hard core.
    I have since tried to calm my smoking and worked hard to not let my pipes moking rule me. Instead, if I find now that I am smoking too much now, I hold off for a couple of days.
    I know how this sounds. I’m no nanny. I love my pipes. I’m just sayin’ try to enjoy more and smoke less and enjoy the process.
    Jeez. I do sound like the Dali Lama

  • Thank you as always. Nice to look on the brighter side sometimes. Care to offer some insight on the 2? pipes pictured in this installment?

  • Although the latest FDA regulations may have a stifling impact on the wonderfully robust creativity in new blends we have enjoyed, I would agree there are more blends that will survive the regulation than most of us will have time to sample. BUT I would suggest we all review the voting record of our representatives and cast the appropriate vote this election year. If for no other reason but to send the message, “I’m not happy with your representation”.

  • The picture of the new pipe looks remarkably similar to the one Einstein is holding. What are they? How did you find such a close match?