A Pipe's Tale

References to the humble pipe are scattered throughout history within musical, literary, poetic, and artistic mediums. There was a time when, for the aristocracy, pipes were symbolic of wealth, power, lineage, and accolades received; for the lower classes, they were intimate companions which provided warmth, comfort, and solace, through their gentle glow and the redolence of their aromatic and perfumed smoke. Needless to say, pipe smoking evolved into a practice of great social, cultural and historical significance; I would suggest that its current revival, centuries since its discovery, is a testament to this.    

We know that pipe smoking was common in many Native American cultures. The earliest known smoking pipes, recovered from Native American burial mounds, are almost two thousand years old, their carvings intricately depicting animals and deities. It is clear to us through such pieces that pipe smoking was a sacred ritual, observed socially, recreationally, medicinally, and contractually: the common misnomer “peace pipe” is derived from the practice of sealing covenants and treaties (most notably peace treaties) between two tribes by sharing a pipe.

It was not until the sixteenth century that tobacco was introduced to Europe, after which it spread rapidly throughout the world. The art of smoking a pipe became heavily associated with society’s intelligentsia: Ivy League students were given a new pipe and a tin of tobacco on their first day, whilst scientists, mathematicians, artists and influential literary figures were pictured with their briar companions whilst taking metaphorical leaps in their respective fields. 

The relative affordability of pipe smoking added to its growth in popularity across all socioeconomic paradigms; the pipe became a staple of society. Many recall seeing pipes in the weathered hands of grandparents, parents and uncles, whilst the smell of pipe tobacco opens the floodgates of memory and nostalgia. However, as these smokers aged, so did the perceptions of this time-honored ritual, and it quickly became associated with gray mustaches, Brylcreem, tweed jackets and leather couches. For all its popularity, the pastime was not passed down with great success.

Today, pipe smoking has been adopted by a younger crowd. Somewhat riding the coattails of the artisanal renaissance that has inspired Millennials and Gen Z, pipe smoking now finds itself as the subject of an elevated generational palate that looks to fine wine, craft beer, third wave single origin coffee, and gourmet food, with an eagerness so unprecedented that these are now considered to be staples of urban life. For this new wave of young smokers, satisfaction is found in the meticulous attention paid to the artisanship and skill of the pipe maker, and the observation of the timber grain’s captivating beauty; the experience is wholistically elevated by a detailed knowledge of tobacco, and an understanding and appreciation of the most nuanced elements of the experience offered by this timeless and humble pastime. 

Whilst interest in the hobby has been revived, I would not go as far as to say that pipe smoking is growing; if anything, it is being sustained. The niche nature of the hobby’s revival has seen it linked with a somewhat rebellious and non-conformist attitude. I would suggest, having met a lot of these ‘causeless rebels,’ that young smokers do not actively seek to break the boundaries of conformism at all. They are driven by a relentless, intellectual curiosity, following it wherever it leads, regardless of the perceptions their interests may generate. This intellectual nature is at the core of their experience: essential to their enjoyment is the attainment of knowledge, and total immersion in the hobby. Whilst also bettering themselves with these new experiences, these young smokers are illuminating and redefining the hobbies that they choose to explore.