Saturday, January 31, 2009

Featured Pipe Smoker (Fictional): Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes (art by Sidney Paget)

There are several pipe-smoking actors who portrayed Holmes which I intend to profile here, and I have already covered William Gillette. Before I do any of the others, I thought I should talk about Holmes himself.

First, a little about Sidney Paget. Paget (1860-1908) was from a family of artists, and he was a very well known Victorian artist who worked for The Strand magazine, providing them with numerous illustrations, many of them illustrations of Sherlock Holmes. It is thought that he may have based his portrayals of Holmes on his own brother, Walter Paget. It was Sidney Paget who first portrayed Holmes wearing his now-famous deerstalker hat and trench coat. Neither of these items were ever mentioned in any of the canonical Holmes tales.

Sherlock Holmes is, of course, a fictional character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Volumes have been written about this character, by people who are much more knowledgable on the subject than I, who am merely a simple fan of the stories.

What else can I say about him? He is easily one of most famous fictional characters of all time. He was a brilliant detective, and a character of many curious idiosyncracies. He was also a pipe smoker, and several of his idiosyncracies extended into his pipe smoking habits. Here are some thoughts on Sherlock Holmes, the pipe smoker.

1. Shag tobacco. Watson mentions at least once that Holmes smoked shag tobacco. The term "shag" is not a reference to a particular variety or flavor, but to a method of cutting the leaves. In Victorian times, the vast majority of cigarette smokers still rolled their own, and the tobacco makers had not yet learned the (odious, in my opinion) technology of stoking their weed with chemical accelerants to keep the thing burning, regardless of the smoker's puffing. The best they could do was to cut the tobacco into very fine, narrow "leaves" so that it would burn more easily. Holmes was also a cigarette smoker. I think that his preference for shag was not so much due to its flavor or burning characteristics, but more due to him simply not wanting to have to keep two different kinds of tobacco on hand.

2. The Persian slipper. Holmes was said to have kept his tobacco stored in a Persian slipper atop his fireplace mantel. To many readers this might seem only to be another odd Holmesian quirk. To the pipe smoker, this sets alarm bells ringing. What this means is that Holmes kept his tobacco stored in an open container in the hottest, driest part of his house. Most pipe smokers will go to great lengths to do exactly the opposite. Even tobacco that is expected to be smoked relatively frequently should be kept in a closed container of some sort, and if possible, is usually kept in an area where there is little heat to prevent premature drying of the leaves. In Holmes' time, the tobacco makers had not yet learned the (again, odious) technology of saturating their leaves with propylene glycol--a humectant that is used in modern, lesser-quality tobacco to keep it artificially "moist." (Your humble blogger does his best not smoke any of these PG-treated tobaccos, by the way--but alas, it's almost as hard to avoid entirely as MSG is in food). As mentioned in item #1, Holmes already smoked a tobacco that burned more easily than the usual pipe tobacco. Keeping such tobacco in an open container atop his mantel must have meant that his tobacco probably burned like kindling.

3. Plugs and dottles. Watson also mentions that Holmes' first pipe of the morning "consisted of all the plugs and dottles of the previous day," or something similar. When tobacco is burned, it releases the natural oils within. These oils have to go somewhere, and gravity insists that they go down to the bottom of the pipe bowl. The leaves in the bottom will often become too moist to smoke. This is natural, and is to be expected.* "Dottle" is the term used for these unburned leaves that are dumped out when the pipe is finished. I suppose a "plug" is just Watson's term for a clump of dottle that sticks together when dumped out. (Unless he's refering to the "plug" of ash that results. This doesn't make sense to me, because once it has become ash it can't really be burned again). Apparently, Holmes liked to start his day by smoking all these leftover unburned bits from the day before. Some might think this is only taking the Delayed Gratification Technique** to the extreme. I think it is simply a sign of Holmes' miserliness. I must say that the thought of doing this kind of turns my stomach. Taking into account items #1 and #2 above, it seems likely that Holmes' pipe loads would have burned down to nothing but ash, and he wouldn't have had much in the way of plugs and dottles to salvage.

4. Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos. Holmes admits to being guilty of several monographs, one of which discusses the differences between no less than 140 different varieties of tobaccos. Holmes says:
In it I enumerate a hundred and forty forms of cigar, cigarette, and pipe tobacco, with coloured plates illustrating the difference in the ash. It is a point which is continually turning up in criminal trials, and which is sometimes of supreme importance as a clue. If you can say definitely, for example, that some murder had been done by a man who was smoking an Indian lunkah, it obviously narrows your field of search. To the trained eye there is as much difference between the black ash of a Trichinopoly and the white fluff of bird's-eye as there is between a cabbage and a potato.
In a time when tobacco use was almost as common as eating, it was probable that a perpetrator smoked something. Holmes' expert knowledge of tobacco ashes helped him to solve a mystery on several occasions.

Conclusion: If you're going to hang out and smoke a pipe with Sherlock, bring your own tobacco. And take it all in stride if he wants to examine your ash when you're finished.

*But this is not always the rule. Sometimes, when the right blend, the right pipe, the right smoker and even the right weather and climate all come together, the tobacco can be smoked right down to nothing but ash. I call this "being in the zone."

**DGT, or Delayed Gratification Technique, is a term made up by someone (probably on alt.smokers.pipes). It means that you light a pipe but only smoke part of it, usually no more than half, before you set it aside and relight it later. Later could be any time from a couple of hours to a day (or whatever the smoker prefers). Some do this because something interrupts their smoke and they find it necessary to finish it later. Some do it because they claim it enhances the flavor. The times I've done it are usually because of the former reason. Care must be taken when DGTing certain already robust tobaccos. I've done it several times with my favorite Bayou Night, which is already a very strong smoke, and I must say that DGT'd Bayou Night packs quite a wallop, although it is not unpleasant. Texas gubernatorial wanna-be Kinky Friedman also expresses his enjoyment of doing this with cigars in his book A Case of Lone Star.
I was on my second cup of coffee and slightly past the midway point of the cigar I'd lit after I talked to Bill Dick. I didn't usually like to smoke a cigar past the midway point. I liked to store them for a while in the wastebasket and fire up the remaining portion at a later date. In the manner of a fine wine, you had to let a half-smoked cigar age a bit. Had to let it breathe. A lot of people didn't understand this, but I didn't understand a lot of people.

I smoke as many as ten cigars a day and I expect to live forever. Of course I don't inhale. I just blow the smoke at small children, green plants, vegetarians, and anybody who happens to be jogging by at the same time that I'm exhaling.

You have to work at it if you want to be a good smoker. Especially today with all the nonsmoking world constantly harassing you. It's enough to make you drink. I poured a shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey into a third cup of coffee and I sat down at my desk.

I thought of what Charles Lamb, the renowned British essayist, had said when someone asked him how he could smoke so many cigars and pipes. He said: "I toil after it, sir, as some men toil after virtue." Not bad, Chuck.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Vintage Ad (1894): Yale Mixture

Izaak Walton (1593-1683) was an English biographer best known for his book The Compleat Angler. I must say that in this ad, his garb appears anachronistically Victorian, to me.

Anyhow, this original version of Yale is no longer made (as far as I know), but there is also a blend made with this name by Cornell & Diehl, and it is quite good. Once it was my favorite blend; since my tastes have turned more toward Perique mixtures, I can say that it is still my favorite Latakia blend.

Yale is a mixture of Latakia and Virginia, and for my palate it is blended in perfect balance. This was my "gateway" blend. I had previously been smoking various aromatics, and not really been happy about any of them, so I asked Mr. Tarler of C&D for advice on trying an English blend. This is what he recommended. The subtle play of smoky Latakia and sweet Virginia opened up a whole new world for me, and I never went back.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Does anyone have, or know of, an illustration of Captain Ahab with a pipe? Even a photo of an actor portraying him is good, if he's holding his pipe. If you do, leave a url in comments or email me a graphic. Thanks.

blogonomicon (at) blazeisp (dot) com

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Featured Pipe Smoker: James Thurber

James Grover Thurber (1894-1961)

"It is better to have the ring of freedom in your ears than in your nose."

James Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio. As a child, playing with bows and arrows with his brothers, he was hit in the eye by an arrow, and became permanently blind in that eye. The sight in the remaining good eye deteriorated throughout his life.

He attended Ohio State University and was excused from the Army during World War I because of his poor eyesight, but he did serve as a code clerk in France during that time.

He became famous for his short stories and cartoons that were published in the New Yorker.

His poor eyesight contributed to his signature cartoon style, in which he drew the cartoons on very large sheets of white paper with a thick black crayon. Here is one of his most well-known cartoons.

He was also the author of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which is perhaps his most well-known story.

Personally, one of my favorite books is the slim volume of short stories he wrote called My Life and Hard Times. The first sentence of the first story in this collection is:
I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio was the night the bed fell on my father.
That pretty much sums up his style of understated absurdity, which I might say is my favorite kind of humor. This collection also includes another of his most popular stories, The Night the Ghost Got In.

Thurber suffered from a thyroid condition later in life, and died at age 66 in New York City, due to complications from the removal of a brain tumor.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Vintage Ad (1946): LHS Sterncrest

I had this exact pipe for a short time, as part of an estate lot that took a few hours work to bring back to decent smoking condition. Has a screw-in stem so it can be disassembled during the smoke for a quick swab with a pipe cleaner, if necessary. Nothing at all wrong with this pipe, but straight pipes aren't really my thing, so after trying it for a month or so I sold it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

You may be interested in...

This post on my other blog. A movie review that focuses mostly on pipe smoking. Click to read The Hound of the Baskervilles, 2000.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Featured Pipe Smoker: Samuel Clemens

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910)

"When angry count to four, when very angry, swear."

Born and raised in Missouri, Clemens began work as an apprentice printer at the age of 11. By 16, he was writing humorous articles and short sketches for the newspaper. At 18 he left Missouri and worked in some eastern cities at various newspapers, then returned to Missouri when he was 22 and worked as a riverboat pilot.

When the War Between the States began, he joined his brother in Nevada (who was serving as secretary to the territorial governor) and tried his hand at mining silver. He failed to strike it rich, and began working at another newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada.

Clemens is, of course, also known as Mark Twain, and was the author of several highly influential books such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I must say that his Tom Sawyer was a very great influence on me personally. It was almost the bible of my childhood. An aunt of mine gave it to me for Christmas when I was 6 years old. By the time I was 12, I had probably read it a dozen times.

Huckleberry Finn is still one of the most banned books in the United States, or at least, one of the books most attempted to be banned. Clemens was a master of accurately portraying colloquial speech; he was against slavery, and he wanted to portray slavery for the atrocity it was. His portrayals of speech during his time were perfect; he pulled no punches to show the injustice of racist attitudes. It is because of his writings that some people who don't actually read the book, or perhaps who just aren't paying attention or just need something new to scream about, attempt the ban the book itself as the writings of a racist. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Clemens was considered by some outrageous, an iconoclast and a curmudgeon. He was certainly the most famous and well-known celebrity of his day.

He was born, and he died, in the years of Halley's Comet.

As for his pipe smoking, I have read that he once remarked that he enjoyed cleaning his pipes, and that he usually cleaned them "with the last clean pipe firmly clenched in my teeth." He also enjoyed smoking cigars. The photo above shows him smoking a large and stately calabash.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Vintage Ad (1970s): THE PIPE

In checking back through my archives, I discovered that I have not yet posted a vintage ad for THE PIPE. Please forgive me for what I am about to do.

click to enlarge

So there it is. The most egregious, atrocious, horrific excuse for a pipe that ever existed. The ultimate gimmick pipe. THE PIPE was made from phenolic resin, with an inner bowl liner of pyrolytic graphite. It was available in every color imaginable, and many more hues unlike any known colors of the normal spectrum (avocado green?--hoark!). THE PIPE could be cleaned with soap and water. Or you could just remove the stem and blast it clean with a blow torch, since it could survive temperatures at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

I don't have an exact year for this ad, but with the Fillmore poster font at the top and the "what's your sign" theme, I think we can safely say: 1973, about 8 minutes before disco was invented.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Featured Pipe Smoker: William Gillette

William Gillette (1853-1937)

There are plenty of pictures of various people who portrayed Sherlock Holmes through the years, all of who can legitimately be refered to as pipe smokers: Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing, Basil Rathbone. But before them all there was William Gillette.

Gillette was born (and died, by the way) in Hartford, Connecticut. There were two men to portray Holmes on stage before Gillette, but they both did it only once and they are pretty much forgotten now (their names were Charles Brookfield and John Webb). However, Gillette was, and is, considered the definitive "Holmes on stage."

He was not only an actor, but a playwright and stage manager. Arthur Conan Doyle, after writing the final Holmes tale in 1893, decided to make more money by taking Holmes to the stage. He wrote a five-act play and took it to some producers who wanted to change the Holmes character too much (they wanted to introduce a love interest--typical). So he turned them down and went looking for someone else. Eventually he connected with Gillette.

Gillette did change Holmes somewhat. He portrayed a Holmes that was much more open and less emotionally repressed than the story-book Holmes, but he didn't go so far as to actually have him in a relationship. He re-wrote Conan Doyle's original play as a shorter four-act version, and in modern parlance, it was a smash hit--although it was not particularly praised by critics of the time (again--typical). He continued to perform the play Sherlock Holmes - A Drama in Four Acts for the rest of his life, putting on some 1,300 shows during the course of 34 years.

It was Gillette who originally introduced the apocryphal and non-canonical phrase "Oh, this is elementary, my dear Watson," which was later shortened to the familiar "Elementary, my dear Watson" in numerous movies. Gillette was also responsible for the erroneous image of Holmes with a calabash pipe. He had to use a curved pipe rather than a more authentic straight pipe because it was easier to speak with it. A curved pipe has a lower center of gravity and hangs more comfortably, and is easier to "speak around" without removing it from the mouth. The deeper the bend, the lower the center of gravity. A straight pipe will tend to bounce around somewhat uncontrollably while speaking.

The original script for his play was destroyed in a fire, but he re-wrote it again from memory. He also served as the model for numerous illustrations of Holmes used in periodicals of the time. In 1916, he starred as Holmes in a film version of his play. Of course, it was a silent movie. His play was filmed again in 1922 starring John Barrymore as Holmes. Gillette last portrayed Holmes in his play's final performance in 1932, five years before his death.

And based on what I have read of him, he was a pipe smoker off-stage, as well. Notice the smoke in the above photographs.

Gillette was also known for his enormous castle on the Connecticut River, which he patterned after an ancient Norman castle. It took five years to build, and when it was completed in 1919 it had cost 1 million U.S. dollars (the equivalent of more than 12 million dollars today). He also had a train with a three-mile track that circumnavigated the estate. The castle is now part of Gillette Castle State Park. One of his frequent guests was fellow pipe smoker Albert Einstein. He was also very fond of riding his motorcycle.

William Gillette died of a pulmonary hemorrage in 1937.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Vintage Ad (1946): Royalton Pipes

Another weird gimmick that probably sold a bunch of pipes. "Adjustable flow regulator," indeed.

Notice "exact amount of smoke for your taste and throat." This "throat" thing has always seemed odd to me, because I don't inhale (no, really). I just sip and puff. I've always wondered what the ratio is of pipe smokers who inhale to those who don't.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Featured Pipe Smoker: George Hayes

George Francis "Gabby" Hayes (1885-1969)

I am always hesitant to post a picture of someone smoking a pipe taken from a movie and call him a pipe smoker. At one point, very early in my days of collecting these photos, I had decided to make a rule for myself never to post movie stills, because merely seeing an actor with a pipe in a movie didn't make him an actual pipe smoker. Later on, I decided to discard this rule.

Born in Wellsville, NY, to a large family (one of seven children), George Hayes worked in a circus and played semi-pro baseball as a young man. In his teen years he ran away from home. Several years later he met and married Olive Ireland and they became popular in vaudeville. He decided to retire while still in his forties, but lost all his money in the financial crash of 1929, and went back to work.

I might say, "and the history," but that wouldn't be much fun.

Hayes ended up playing the eternal sidekick to the eternal western hero, whether that hero be Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Randolph Scott, or John Wayne. Although he started out playing mostly non-sidekick roles (sometimes playing the "co-hero" and sometimes even the villain), eventually he essentially played the same character no matter who he sidekicked for, and no matter what his character's name was: grizzled, bewiskered, weathered, with a battered hat that often had a hole in it and his speech slightly slurred in what was later parodized in Blazing Saddles as "authentic frontier gibberish."

He might have come to be known as "Windy," for the recurring character that he played in many Hopalong Cassidy movies, but when he left in a salary dispute he was prohibited from ever using that name again.

Thus was born Gabby. Hayes appeared in not quite 200 movies and television episodes during his career, leaving show business again in 1950 and devoting the rest of his life to his wife and his investments. Unlike many Hollywood stars, Hayes was married only once in his life, to Olive Ireland, from 1914 until her death in 1957.

The photos included here are screen captures from the 1933 film Riders of Destiny. The pipe he is smoking is clearly not merely a stunt pipe. It is actually loaded, smoking and being smoked. And he appears to be geniunely enjoying it.

For a light-hearted synopsis of this movie, you may wish to read about Riders of Destiny on my other blog.

Other links: imdb, wikipedia.