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.


  1. A couple of thoughts regarding points 2 and 3-
    The Persian slipper over the fireplace would be ideal in the UK climate, especially considering that that period in London was especially damp, with penetrating fogs. Even in today's Ireland, I have known summers in which snuff has soaked up enough moisture to become practically unusable, and drying out even non-PG pipe tobaccos by leaving them open to the air (that were too wet in the tin) is entirely impossible - they actually get wetter when left out. I often left pipe tobacco out by the fire to dry it enough to smoke pleasantly. A Persian slipper probably ensures some freshness, though not as much as a tin, and in days when tobacco was commonly stored in a leather pouch this a quirk, but not lunacy.
    The intensity of a bowl of pure dottle, which would remain fairly moist but very pungent in that climate, would put many people off, including myself, but it stands among Holmes's other tastes as an example of his immoderate nature and loathing for insipidity, which tends to enjoy extreme conditions, leading also to his cocaine habit.

  2. Thanks to both the author, and the commenter on March 11 above. I've often wondered about the Persian slipper; the notes about the damp climate ring true to my memory of trying to dry rain-sotted clothes overnight in Englaand - during a record drought, no less!