I visited my parents earlier this month, and my father gave me a number of his old pipes. He rarely smokes them any longer, so was pleased to pass them down. One pipe stuck out, and not just because of its mustard yellow color. It was a pipe marketed under the name “the pipe”. Click here for an image. My Dad tells me that these were all the rage in the 1970s (something of a climax in the popularity of pipes in America), but remembered few details about it. I brought it home, smoked it a few times, and did some research on it.
The first and most immediate thing I discovered about “the pipe” is that it is not a very good smoking pipe. The smoke ran hot in it and it seemed rather harsh. Perhaps I should not give up on it so quickly, I recall seeing my Dad smoke it quite often when I was a kid so it must not be that bad. I have read that you have to pack “the pipe” much looser than a regular briar pipe, so perhaps my problem is that I packed it too tightly. Anyway, it made me wonder what the story was with this thing?
As best as I can tell it was an ill-fated effort to bring advanced technological materials and engineering to a practice (pipe-making) that is best done through time-proven artisan practices and materials. Most of “the pipe” models were made out of plastics and various composite materials. Its development began with a guy who was working on composite and carbon materials for nuclear power plants. In particular, he was making some kind of plumbing part made of pyrolytic graphite. He noticed that the cups he was molding were about the size and shape of a pipe bowl. So he tried it out, and with some testing found that the liner apparently added a venturi effect that seemed to reduce tars in the smoke. It had other alleged benefits in that it did not need seasoning (letting a “cake” develop in the bowl), it was easy to clean, and it did not require a cooling period so you could smoke the same pipe every day.
"the pipe" sold between the mid 1960s and the late 1970s and for a while sold quite well. Incredibly, somewhere between 2 and 3 million sold overall. My Dad tells me that in the 1970s it was incredibly popular, particularly among new pipe smokers and as gifts that women would buy men. It was marketed quite aggressively, and variations carried the names "the pipe", "the smoke", and "Venturi".
Ads called it "a space-age gift for that man of yours" that came in various “heroic colors” that “clash with gray beards”. It was perfect for the “Emancipated Male” who did not want to be bogged down by the rituals and traditions of pipe smoking. One ad I found boasted that it was made of the same material found on the nose cones of “space missiles.” Look at this ad, which brags that you could clean “the pipe” by simply sticking it in your dishwasher. One ad made sure the message of the new generation chic of “the pipe” was not missed, noting that “any similarity between this by-product of the Space Age and the conventional pipes is purely a matter of shape.” And so it was, then, the promise of technology in the modern age – out with the old and in with the new, science and tech applied to make life better, etc etc.
Alas, almost all serious pipe smokers, guys who were used to briar pipes, agreed it was a lousy smoke. The fad passed. And so, despite the ongoing insistence by enlightenment types who think that the passage of time equals progress and that everything science produces improves the human condition, there are in fact some things that are not made better with newfangled materials and techniques. Tradition matters because it is embedded with wisdom, and this is as true in philosophy and culture as it is in pipe smoking. You might say that "the pipe" was modernism in a nutshell: reduced, scientistic, commodified, industrialized, technological, and hostile to tradition.
Regular readers of this blog will know, then, how I feel about “the pipe” and the chances of my regularly smoking it. Unfortunately for the makers of “the pipe”, a lot of the allure of pipe smoking is the tradition and the ritual. I don’t want to do away with my tamper, with the ritual of the “false light” before you get the pipe really lit, etc. I don’t want my pipe to be a piece of “standing reserve”, ready to be smoked at any time as if new. I want to enfold my humble practices into the great tradition that precede them. So I think I will stick with the old briar pipe, tried and true as it is.