I have a book of quotes – it’s yellowed like an aging smoker’s hair and smells like an old book should. A few nights ago I found this sterling thought from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“The high prize of life, the crowning fortune of a man, is to be born with a bias to some pursuit, which finds him in employment and happiness.”
Writing has brought me employment and happiness. And while smoking a pipe never brought me a job, it has brought me hours of calm joy. I would expect to hear the same from famous authors who, with the same hands they scribbled out story ideas, held a pipe as the sun crept down to tired horizons. I suppose that's why I love pipes. It's more than the thick smoke – when I look down the vulcanite stem and follow the curve of the shank up the bowl, I join their ghosts.
Emerson, Milton and Tennyson
In his biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes noted that Emerson was a cigar man. “Mr. Emerson generally smoked a single cigar after our mid-day dinner,” Holmes wrote. But in the biography Holmes also touches on Milton, and how his “quiet day seems to have closed regularly with a pipe… and after a pipe of tobacco and a glass of water went to bed.” Milton’s penchant for a bowl of tobacco is well-documented throughout other pieces of literature, though nobody offers up any information about what type of pipe and tobacco he preferred.
Lord Alfred Tennyson was a pipe man as well, but, like Milton, we know more about his habits than we do about his smoking hardware. “Tennyson used to dine at the Old Cock, near Temple Bar in London, and the perfect dinner for his taste, says his son, was ‘a beefsteak, a potato, a cut of cheese, a pint of port, and afterwards a pipe,’” an old copy of American Druggist and Pharmaceutical says.
Ernest Hemingway is as legendary a pipe smoker as you can find: the embodiment of American grit and simplicity puffing, thinking, and writing. One of my favorite photos of the man shows him with a billiard pipe turned downward as he sits in an old wooden chair, literally staring off beyond rooftops. The billiard is a great choice for a first pipe – it's traditional, straightforward, and handsome. Some of them have a silver ring between the stem and shank which adds a certain formality to the piece, like a tie pin or pocket square. Hemingway wore it well.
Before Hemingway, there was Twain, and with Twain there was always a pipe made of a hollowed-out corn cob. The corn cob pipe is a classic choice for a beginning smoker. They’re cheap, utterly American and forever associated with Twain. As for his tobacco, we know Twain endorsed Player’s Navy Cut, a brand that still exists today. Rudyard Kipling, in writing about a visit to Twain’s home in the late 19th century, said the writer packed Turkish tobacco into his corn cob.
One of the best descriptions we have of the man's pipe and tobacco comes from an 1892 copy of The Idler Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly. Twain, it was said, carried with him a long silk and rubber sack in which he stored his tobacco and pipe bowl. The stem would go in his pocket after a smoke, much like a pen. As the bowl of his pipe tumbled around in his tobacco bag, it would inevitably fill on its own without Twain having to pack it.
Reporter Luke Sharp journeyed with Twain on a boat to France to get the story. “When he wishes to smoke again (this is usually five minutes later) he fishes out the bowl, with is now filled with tobacco, inserts the stem and strikes a light,” Sharp observed. Twain brought with him a box of cigars, too. When Sharp asked him if he was going to smuggle his stash past customs officers, Twain replied, “No sir… I will say to the Customs officer, ‘Tax me what you like, but don’t meddle with the tobacco.’”
Tolkien and Lewis
These two fantasy writers met often at Oxford’s Eagle and Child Pub to discuss their manuscripts and story ideas, and, no doubt, light up their pipes amid the banter. From what I can tell, Tolkien was fond of a thick-bowl billiard. Photos of the Lord of the Rings author show him happily puffing a straight-stem pipe with a blackened rim. I’ve also seen photos of him smoking a pipe with a rough-hewn bowl, a “rusticated” pipe.
Tolkien’s most famous pipe, however, is the one he never smoked. Gandalf’s pipe of choice was his equatorial-long churchwarden. These pipes have lengthy, bent stems that, by themselves, stretch out beyond six inches. The bowl varies in shape, but Gandalf’s favorite seemed to be a small apple. You can’t pack a lot of tobacco in Gandalf’s go-to pipe, but what you lack in smoking time is made up by the absurdity of your fairy tale smoker.
Lewis, on the other hand, smoked a long-stem billiard, among others, and Illinois private school Wheaton College is home to two of Lewis’ pipes on display in the college’s Marion E. Wade Center special research room. Pipes Magazine once featured a photo of one of them: the briar (a strong, hard wood used for pipes) is a beautiful dark brown, the rim has heavy char, and the stem is long and black, showing a little oxidation closer to the bit (mouthpiece). The bowl looks to be somewhere between a billiard and a large apple.
Lewis experts say two of his favorite tobacco blends were Gold Block and Three Nuns. Both tobaccos are now defunct, though forums are home to spirited inquiries about modern tobacco blends that approximate the original formulas.
We’d all be mistaken if we thought these great authors practiced pipe monogamy. Twain burned through cigars like a fiend and Lewis was a heavy cigarette smoker at one point in his life, and their arsenals likely went far beyond the pipes mentioned here.
Whatever blend or tool they used, smoking a pipe, like writing a respectable story, takes a lot of tinkering, adjustment and patience. But the work is worth it: ideas are unlocked, disputes are settled, and thoughts are ordered. I like how Scottish playwright Sir James M. Barrie put it in his book My Lady Nicotine: A Study in Smoke. Writing about the arrival of smoking to England, he said:
“The glory of existence became a thing to speak of. Men who had hitherto concerned themselves with the narrow things of home put a pipe in their mouths and became philosophers. Poets and dramatists smoked until all ignoble ideas were driven from them, and into their place rushed such high thoughts as the world had not known before.”
I couldn't agree more.