The pipe smoking subtleties of a bygone era…

For some time now I have been musing on the fact that so much of the more subtle aspects of pipe-smoking have been lost, or are certainly well on their way to being forgotten. When pipe smoking was a part of our very culture leading up to the period around World War II, there was an unspoken language governing the way pipes were chosen, held, smoked and so on. These nuances spoke volumes about the person in question, but in a language that most of us would no longer understand. Rather like the subtleties involved in wearing a hat – it wasn’t just about the type of hat you wore, but also about the way it was tilted, the manner in which it was doffed, and under what circumstances it was removed. This helped define such intricacies as wealth, social standing and probably even class. Both were very much a part of the fabric of life of that era and gave very many clues about the incumbent. I wondered where I could immerse myself into this language to gain some understanding of how things were back then…

So it was with some delight that I came across the following article entitled ‘Pipes to suit faces and places’ in a pamphlet entitled ‘All About Pipes And Pipe Tobacco – A Handbook for Tobacconists’, which provides just a slight inkling as to the pipe smoking complexities and nuances that used to be a part and parcel of this bygone era. It takes the form of a recorded discussion, conducted by Bruce Woodhouse, between Frank Spellacy of Oppenheimer Pipes Ltd, and Alfred Sasieni of Sasieni Ltd, a pipe company that ceased trading I believe some time in the 1960s. Unfortunately the article is not dated but judging from the language and some of the forthright views expressed I believe it must have been written some time around the 1930s or 40s. I hope you agree it makes fascinating, and sometimes amusing, reading…

WOODHOUSE: To take first things first, does a smoker who favours a pipe acquire any sort of additional status?

SPELLACY: That depends what sort of status you have in mind. If you mean what can a pipe do for him, I would say it certainly enhances his masculinity.

SASIENI: And it gives him an air of reliability.

WOODHOUSE: Do you mind if I put out this cigarette and light a pipe? Now I feel terribly reliable.

SASIENI: There’s nothing new about all this, of course. For many decades lady novelists always made their strong, silent heroes smoke a well worn bruyere, especially in times of crisis.

WOODHOUSE: One famous novelist always made her heroes have pipes which gurgled until cleaned with a straw.

SPELLACY: Then she should have known better! A pipe should always be kept clean. But Alfred was quite right when he said a pipe gives the impression of reliability. Which is why no villain of melodrama ever smoked one. Just think how silly it would look to twirl your moustaches at the persecuted heroine with a large pipe stuck in your mouth.

SASIENI: True enough. The pipe smoker is always on the right side of the law. All the best detectives smoke one, as witness Sherlock Holmes and Maigret.

WOODHOUSE: Right. We have established that a pipe helps to give a man the impression of being a masculine, reliable sort of chap, but surely a lot depends on the type of pipe he favours.

SPELLACY: To take an extreme case, a fellow would look more than a bit of a clot if he smoked a churchwarden when replying to the toast at an important function.

SASIENI: Of course. Which is why it is so necessary to have the right sort of pipe for every occasion.

WOODHOUSE: Fair enough. But what general advice would you give to a young man buying his first pipe?

SPELLACY: Go first for comfort and practicability.

SASIENI: You can’t enjoy the best pipe in the world if you have trouble in holding it in your mouth. And by the same token it should be one that easily becomes part of your equipment, and equally easy to grip in comfort.

WOODHOUSE: Regarding the ques tion of comfort. How is a youngster buying his first pipe to judge whether it will suit his face? He can’t very well go into a tobacconist’s and stick new pipe after new pipe in his maw until he comes upon one he really fancies.

SPELLACY: It is not so much a question of faces as places. A man should have a pipe to suit various occasions. For example, a nice billiard shape when sitting behind his desk or a bulldog when out of doors.

WOODHOUSE: I assume size is another important factor. The big, husky man requires an outsize in pipes and the small man should go for a little one.

SASIENI: I don’t know what they should do, but you can take it from us that the reverse is usually the case.

SPELLACY: How right you are! If you keep your eyes open you will see how, time and time again, it is the diminutive chap who goes in for the biggest pipe and the front-row Rugger forward sort of man who prefers a small pipe.

SASIENI: I suppose it is a sort of natural compensation. The big pipe tends to give the little man an appearance of size which the hefty one doesn’t need.

SPELLACY: It is understandable enough. And it is not only where pipe smokers are concerned that you see that sort of thing.

SASIENI: Which is why so many big men write in a very small hand and vice versa.

WOODHOUSE: So you can’t lay down any hard and fast rules on the precise type of pipe any one man can be expected to buy.

SPELLACY: True enough. But there are so very many different designs of pipe on sale today that unless a customer wants something quite out of the ordinary he should have no trouble in getting suited.

WOODHOUSE: I once had a pipe elaborately carved to represent the Eiffel Tower.

SASIENI: Some people have no shame!

WOODHOUSE: It was the gift of a favourite aunt – at least, she was a favourite until she gave me that pipe. Why I mentioned it is because there seems to be a general idea that women cannot be trusted to choose a pipe for a man.

SPELLACY: I know there is an opinion abroad that they go into a shop, see a pipe that takes their fancy and think:

‘John is just the right type to go with that pipe’.

SASIENI: Or ask for one that will suit a red-haired architect who is left-handed. But just as the tyro manages well enough if he relies on the good offices of the salesman, so women can make out all right if they are content to do the same.

WOODHOUSE: I agree that it is always a sound policy to seek expert advice. But even so, you should have some basic ideas of your own regarding choice. Any suggestions on that score?

SPELLACY: In the past, it was a simpler matter than it is today. Nine times out of ten, a young man would choose a pipe that was similar to one of his father’s. He worked on the principle of ‘What’s good enough for the governor is good enough for me’.

SASIENI: Not nowadays, though. The youth of today are far too independent for that sort of thing. They prefer to select a pipe of quite another pattern, if only to prove to the Old Man that they are quite as good, if not better choosers than he is.

WOODHOUSE: That’s not a bad thing, I take it?

SASIENI: It certainly isn’t. A pipe is one of the most individual possessions a man has, and when it comes to buying your first pipe – or any other, for that matter – it is a sound idea to go for the pipe that appeals to you personally rather than choose one just because someone you know owns and enjoys another type.

SPELLACY: And as far as the nature of the pipe is concerned, I think you will agree that a good, strongly made one is the thing to aim for. All too often when a man, irrespective of what his age may be, starts to smoke a pipe there is a chance that he won’t treat it with the care and respect it deserves.

SASIENI: Yes. Pipes often have to stand up to far more bashing about than is good for them before their owners come to realize that they deserve to be treated with care and respect. A chap who bangs one out against a concrete lamp post or iron railings or slashes away at the inside of the bowl with a large penknife better suited for gutting rabbits should learn better and use the simple implements that are readily procurable for the purpose.

WOODHOUSE: By the same token, I suppose I’m right in saying that inferior tobacco should not be smoked in a good pipe.

SASIENI: Not necessarily. But obviously a good pipe is worthy of a good tobacco. On the other hand, the choice of tobacco is so much a question of personal taste that who can say what is a good tobacco?

WOODHOUSE: You’ve already made it clear that – to cite extreme cases – a character who sports a bushy, ‘Espresso – bar’ beard would be in danger of self-cremation if he smoked a pipe with a very short stem, just as a chap who traveled in the rush hour on the Tube with a very long-stemmed one could not hope to be regarded as everybody’s friend. But can you elaborate on the theme of pipes for places?

SPELLACY: I would say that the golden rule when choosing a pipe is to give quite a bit of thought to the circumstances in which you will be smoking it.

SASIENI: It’s a thing you learn as you go along, really. Now when I play bridge, I always fill a very large-bowled pipe just before the start of a rubber, so that I don’t have to hold up the game while I go through the motions of filling up and lighting it during the middle of the game.

SPELLACY: Poker players could carry that a few stages farther by smoking the largest pipe procurable so that their expression is hidden by a smoke screen when they draw four cards that give them a full house.

SASIENI: A fisherman, on the other hand, usually prefers a short pipe that will fit easily into the seaman’s pocket under his jersey.

SPELLACY: While a motorist does well to smoke any pipe of his choice because, traffic being what it is today, he knows that it will help him to keep cool, calm and collected in every emergency. You, Woodhouse, as a writer – what do you smoke when you are at your typewriter?

WOODHOUSE: Matches for the most part.

SASIENI: Then it’s about time you learnt how to fill your pipe. One correctly filled will remain alight until the tobacco is exhausted.

WOODHOUSE: Well, there does happen to be one way you can help me. What sort of pipe is best suited to a face that is unfortunately lacking in teeth? Other than those stuck on a dental plate, of course.

SASIENI: You’ve got a good point.

SPELLACY: Even if you haven’t a good tooth.

SASIENI: There are, of course, pipes made especially for people with dental plates. On the other hand, smokers who do not want to make it obvious that they wear dentures have been known to manage by holding an ordinary pipe a little farther in their mouth than they normally do, as this enables them to get a better grip on it.

WOODHOUSE: Thanks so much. I was only asking on behalf of – er – a friend.

SPELLACY: Of course!

WOODHOUSE: And what about pipes in the home?

SPELLACY: Many people find that a small, severe-looking pipe seems to go best with the early morning mood. Something neat but not gaudy that helps one realise that life is real, life is earnest.

SASIENI: As the day warms up, you can always graduate to a larger, cheery looking one that is more in keeping with the brighter feeling men seem to acquire round about midday.

SPELLACY: And a big pipe seems to fit better when a man is tackling some comparatively strenuous job such as gardening or washing the car.

SASIENI: Something appropriate to boys of the ‘bulldog’ breed.

SPELLACY: But when it comes to that last pipe before turning in, I am all for recommending the smallest one. The number of pipes that are left half smoked when people are going to bed must be terrific.

WOODHOUSE: To end, can you recommend a pipe that would be the best for me? What I need is one that won’t fill my eyes with smoke, will not drop ash when I lay it down in a hurry, but will enable me to carry on at my typewriter without interfering with my two finger exercise.

SASIENI: That’s an easy one, isn’t it, Frank?

SPELLACY: Quite simple. What you need is obviously a Hubble-bubble!

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6 Responses to The pipe smoking subtleties of a bygone era…

  1. avatar Duncan says:

    Frank Spellacy was my grandfather.
    What an excellent thing it was to chance upon this article this morning.
    Thank you very much for posting it.

    • avatar Marcus says:

      That’s fantastic Duncan! Thanks for letting us know. Do you have any information about him and his time at Oppenheimer you’d be willing/able to share with us? If so please feel free to contact me on It’s always good to try to keep the history alive…

  2. avatar Robert Bullington says:

    Very good read. I enjoyed the article very much, thanks! I have one of those Nording Aerospheres pictured on the front page. What the heck is “Bespoke?”

    • avatar Jenny says:

      Hi Robert, thanks for your comments on our article. The word bespoke means custom-made to the buyer’s specification.

  3. avatar Pete says:

    I have to agree with Frank so true.

  4. avatar frank says:

    very good and so TRUE

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