Bowled Over No Longer

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 19, 2005

It smelled like cherry or chocolate or chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Or leaves burning in the back yard in those long-ago autumns when you were still allowed to burn leaves in the back yard.

In those days, pipe smoke was a man's signature scent. It was the incense in the Church of Dad, a burnt offering to the god of domesticated masculinity, a symbol of benevolent paternalism.

A passing whiff of your father's or grandfather's brand -- Erinmore Flake, say, or Royal Yacht Mixture -- can summon vivid memories even decades after his death. Smell is a key that unlocks the vault of memory, and the rich aroma of pipe smoke conjures up a lost world of armchairs and ashtrays, humidors and dark-wood racks holding pipes with WASPy names like Dunhill and Ferndown and Hardcastle.

It was a world of wise, contemplative men who sat and smoked and read serious, leather-bound literature, as well as a world of rugged outdoorsmen, canoeists and fly fishermen and clipper ship captains who puffed their pipes as they pored over nautical charts before sailing 'round the Horn.

It was a magical world, part reality and part myth, and now it has all but disappeared, fading like smoke.

"A lot of pipe smokers have died and new ones aren't coming along," says David Berkebile, owner of Georgetown Tobacco.

"The decline has been persistent and unrelenting," says Norman Sharp, head of the Pipe Tobacco Council.

Sharp rattles off the statistics: In 1970, Americans bought 52 million pounds of pipe tobacco. In 2004, they bought less than 5 million pounds. "That's a decline of 91 percent," he says.

In a 2003 survey, the Department of Health and Human Services calculated that there are 1.6 million pipe smokers in America. The same survey revealed that there are 14.6 million pot smokers and 600,000 crack smokers, which means that if an American is smoking something in a pipe these days, it's more likely to be dope than Dunhill's Mixture 965.

But the evidence of the pipe's decline goes beyond statistics. Fifty years ago, nearly every male movie star who wanted to be taken seriously posed for PR photos smoking a pipe and looking contemplative. These days, about the only pipe smokers found in the movies are the hobbits in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Pipe smoking is going the way of the shaving brush, the straight razor, the fedora, the Freemasons, the liberal Republican.

Maybe that's good, considering the risks of mouth cancers. But there's something charming about pipe smoking -- an appealingly retro air of reflection and relaxation, a uniquely masculine mystique that's somehow large enough to include tweedy professors and Maine hunting guides, detectives and novelists, Santa Claus and Gen. MacArthur, Albert Einstein and Popeye the Sailor Man.

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