I rarely saw my grandfather with a pipe. My mother didn’t like him smoking around us kids, and he respected that. When he passed away, my family donated his pipes, thinking no one wanted them—which at the time was true. It would be three more years before a chance meeting with a friend at his favorite tobacco shop turned me, a few weeks after my 35th birthday, into a pipe smoker.
“A pipe fundamentally is piece of wood with a hole and a mouthpiece stuck in it. But you are talking about an object that, when well-made, can last a hundred years.”
Long gone, I only remember my grandfather’s pipes as bent-wood statues, silent in a cherry rack on his desk. When I light up, I can’t ache with a memory I never had of my grandfather smoking those pipes. Instead, I try to stop time, if only for a few moments, during what a fellow pipe smoker 10 years my junior called “the productive work of turning leaves into ash.”
Unlike napkins, diamonds, and golfing—traditions that Millennials have supposedly “killed”—pipe smoking is very much alive. In 2014, ABC News postulated that younger smokers and collectors were bringing pipe smoking, a hobby reminiscent of great-uncles and blazered villains of ’80s teen comedies, back into fashion. Nearly five years later, it’s largely agreed that pipe smoking’s youthquake hasn’t saved the industry or the hobby, either, but it has changed how pipe smoking appears in our minds: It’s unlikely that the image of an American smoking a pipe will be only associated with the dark-wooded dens of men in retirement ever again.
“I think people look at how sped up life is now, and in wanting to slow down, mistake pipe smoking for the feeling of a slower, simpler time,” says Kaz Walters, 28, pipe specialist at SmokingPipes.com in Longs, South Carolina, the world’s largest online retailer of pipes. Walters reports that about 60 percent of his colleagues are around his age or a little bit older, and the company’s marketing reflects that sensibility.
Like microbrews and third-wave coffee, pipe tobacco has also benefited from an elevated national palate. Pipes themselves are objects of craftsmanship, inherently collectible and showoffable in the age of Instagram. The cigar boom of the 1990s that seemed to leave pipes behind ultimately revealed their charms: an association with refinement and wisdom (see Sherlock Holmes, Albert Einstein, Gandalf); a pleasant, non-aggressive smell; and an inherently slow pastime in an overclocked age. (It is impossible to enjoyably smoke a pipe fast. You’ll overheat the tobacco and burn your tongue.)
The slow charms of pipe-smoking notwithstanding, everyone I spoke with was aware of the health hazards of the hobby: Even though it’s easier to smoke less at a sitting with a pipe than with cigarettes and cigars, the cancer risks are the same. But for pipe smokers, such risks are outweighed by the benefits.
“I used to sit in traffic for several hours a day commuting, and it would help me calm down,” says Tyler Thomas, a 23-year-old sound engineer in St. Paul, Minnesota, who picked up the hobby at age 16 after seeing hobbits enjoying pipes in “The Lord of the Rings” films.
However, testimonials do not equal trend lines. Greg Vickers, 60, membership-services manager of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association in Washington, D.C., says only, “I hear word-of-mouth from our pipe members that younger folk are coming in.” George Hoffman, 67, owner of Pipes by George in Raleigh, North Carolina, tells me that, unlike the cigar boom, pipe smoking has “been more gradual” to catch on. Mr. Hoffman estimates that about 35 percent of his customers now are between the ages of 20 and 30, as opposed to 5 to 10 percent a decade ago.
“Pipe smoking is seen as an old man’s pastime. But it is also a young man’s pastime,” says Marty Pulvers, 76, of Los Altos, California, who is co-producer of the annual West Coast Pipe Show based in Las Vegas. “Do I think this is a growing hobby? I’m hesitant to say that. It appears to be maintaining.”
The hobby’s growth aside, pipe smokers are getting younger. As a result of their interest, long-drawn lines between smokers, collectors, and pipe carvers have blurred. Women are also taking up pipe smoking in greater numbers.
“Initially, it was hard,” says Mary Walters, 25, who once worked in customer service at SmokingPipes.com, the company that also employs her husband, Kaz, as a pipe specialist. “At the time, most of our customers were older gentlemen. Some didn’t believe I knew what I was talking about.”
“This is a small enough hobby already” says William “Cliff” Nelson, 59, editor of Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine in Raleigh, North Carolina, on his industry’s seeming lack of room for women. “We could use more of their participation.”
In fact, that’s changing. Mary Walters now runs a photography business shooting for several (mostly male) pipe carvers. At this year’s Chicago Pipe Show, she was inducted into the Pipe Divas, a respected group of women smokers, collectors, and artisans. In November, one of the founding Divas, Silver Grey, became the first female carver to win Best in Show at the West Coast Pipe Show.
Over at the Gentlemen’s Pipe Smoking Society (a Facebook group where Mary Walters is one of the moderators), Michael Curcio, 41, a credit-risk manager from Wantagh, New York, who owns about 40 pipes, also has a side business selling new and “estate” (i.e. pre-owned) pipes. Brent Bowden, 34, a stagehand from Portland, Oregon, decided he could restore estate pipes as a cost-effective way to build his collection. For the last 14 years, pipe maker Steve Norse, 39, has run Vermont Freehand, a one-stop supplier whose “main objective was to cater to new pipe makers,” the majority of whom are in their 20s.
“I used to see a few new pipe makers on social media a year,” Steve Morrisette, 65, a 20-year veteran of the craft based in Nashville, tells me. “Now I see three or four a week. And over 90 percent of those new pipe makers are under 30.”
Nattily dressed in a necktie and fedora, Morrisette’s a fixture at pipe shows. His own pipes routinely command $400 to $500 and are as respected as his pointed yet fair assessments of the industry.
He explains that when he first started selling commercially, a well-regarded artisan could get anywhere from $500 to $900 for a single pipe. That price, he says, has been dropping as younger, newer makers enter the space and assume that by following the steps of instructional YouTube videos and posting their work to social media, they will see an immediate payoff.
What’s happened, Morrisette continues, is a saturated market and a focus on pipes as collectibles rather than precision instruments. At the same time, he says, the industry has done a poor job explaining the months and years of honing the craft behind fine pipes and educating customers about what they’re paying for.
“I think people look at how sped up life is now, and in wanting to slow down, mistake pipe smoking for the feeling of a slower, simpler time.”
“A pipe fundamentally is piece of wood with a hole and a mouthpiece stuck in it,” Morrisette tells me. “But you are talking about an object that, when well-made, can last a hundred years. You don’t get to know how to put the various parts of a pipe together in a way that will last until a few come back to you broken.”
A pleasurable smoke relies on many things—the thickness of the tobacco chamber’s walls, position of the drought hole where breath meets burning leaves, smoothness of the passage from tobacco up the shank to the pipe’s mouthpiece. Even minuscule sloppiness can make the experience clumsy, hot, or painful. A great-looking, badly engineered pipe is a knickknack.
The earliest-known smoking pipes were found in Native American burial mounds are at least 2,000 years old and look a bit like knickknacks themselves, palm-sized surfboards with animals figurines emerging from the board’s middle. Historians believe the animals represented spiritual presences in the communities that made these pipes, the act of smoking linked with religious ritual.
Pipe tobacco and smoking didn’t reach Europe until the early 1500s where, as an enormously profitable cash crop, it became both a method of relaxation and indelibly linked to economic might and power: Whole cities in Europe, like Bristol and Glasgow, grew rich on the import of tobacco from slave plantations in North America. Pipe smoking took its place in our collective tableaux of spaces imbued with the benefit of those riches—political war rooms, corporate executive meetings, and university supper clubs—exclusionary spaces defined by access acquired through race, gender, and economic status.
None of this kept African Americans from the hobby, even before the Civil Rights era: Legendary bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown marketed his own blend of pipe tobacco. The relative affordability of pipe smoking over cigarette or cigars (cigarettes/cigars are gone the moment you finish smoking; a tin of pipe tobacco can last a month) led to its working-class popularity as well. The ranks of famous women pipe smokers include such pioneering feminists as Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Davis. But say the word “pipe smoker” and, at least until very recently, the image brought to mind is probably an older white man in a sweater and a dark leather chair.
We’re several generations past the time when parents sent their sons to Yale with pipes and tobacco alongside a fresh toothbrush and new shoes. So it doesn’t feel quite right to say pipe smoking is going through “growing pains,” despite large shifts brought on by technology and culture. Maybe we’re talking about “inclusion pains,” as the hobby grows younger, more wired, and more diverse. Pipe smoking remains, as Kaz Walters put it, “like the wizarding world of Harry Potter. Everywhere, but hidden just below the surface.”
I am, at best, an adequate pipe smoker. I pack the tobacco too loose, puff too quickly, get frustrated re-lighting. At pipe-club meetings, I sit next to wiser members, ask versions of the same questions, thank them for their patience. They never seem to mind because we never feel in a hurry.
Younger pipe smokers often speak of this, of the hobby connecting them to a past they only know from movies and old photographs. They conflate nostalgia with the feeling it creates that time has stopped.
Perhaps memory of my grandfather would burn brighter when I smoke if I had known him that way. But when I select a pinch of tobacco, strike a match, and wait for it to ignite, I feel as if the years between my grandfather’s death and now have disappeared. For me, time is held apart from its turnings, and my fellows at the long table at the back the tobacco shop are here seeking the same sensation.
It’s a lie we tell ourselves, that we control the clock hands of our lives, but it’s at the very human heart of why we build homes, make art, or collect beautiful things: To order and mark a moment even when we know it will soon disappear like smoke.
Kevin Smokler is the author of the books “Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to 80s Teen Movies” and “Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books you Haven’t Touched Since High School.” He lives in San Francisco.