Bowled Over No Longer
The Once-Ubiquitous Aroma of Fatherhood Is Fading Away

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.

And, of course, the kind of father who always knew best.

Puff of Wisdom

"I think the appeal of the pipe came from images in movies and pop culture," says Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine. "It was an image of intelligence and sophistication, like a martini."

Hefner, 79, is one of America's most famous pipe smokers, although he doesn't smoke anymore. He started in 1959, when he began hosting a TV show called "Playboy's Penthouse" -- "it was something to do with my hands" -- and he quit in 1985 after a stroke.

"I was very influenced by pop culture, which had certain symbolic images of smoking," Hefner says. "Cigars had the symbolic implication of a businessman or a politician. Cigarettes could be romantic or related to crime in a film noir, but the pipe had a different quality: It was both thoughtful and adventurous. I was a fan of the comic strip 'Terry and the Pirates,' which had a character named Pat Ryan who smoked a pipe. He was Terry's mentor and he was kind of a dashing hero. One of my influences was Sherlock Holmes. He smoked a pipe and he wore pajamas and a smoking jacket, which sounds kind of familiar."

Hefner laughs at his own famous fondness for wearing pajamas in public. "And then," he adds, "there's the pop cultural image of a pipe and slippers in front of the fire with a good book and your dog at your feet."

A pipe projects a calm, peaceful image -- except when it's clenched in the fiercely resolute jaw of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the only man in history who could make an oversize corncob pipe look like a weapon of mass destruction.

Many of the great thinkers of the 20th century puffed on their pipes while they pondered deep thoughts: Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung, Jean-Paul Sartre, William Faulkner, George Bernard Shaw and, of course, Einstein, who once said, "I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs."

For generations, young men entering college began smoking pipes as a signal that they were joining the high priesthood of knowledge. A.A. Milne, the pipe smoker who created Winnie the Pooh, wrote this about his college days: "At eighteen I went to Cambridge and bought two pipes in a case. In those days, Greek was compulsory, but not more so than two pipes in a case."

Even Sammy Davis Jr. took up the pipe when he lived in London, keeping a corncob in the breast pocket of his natty tweed suit, a look he found classy.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the pipe became a pop symbol of contemplation and relaxation. Detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret were towering intellects who smoked pipes and solved crimes through rational deduction. Bing Crosby exhibited his ease, his cool , by holding a pipe while he crooned.

And in the early days of television, sitcom dads like Robert Young in "Father Knows Best" and Fred MacMurray in "My Three Sons" were wise paternal figures who effortlessly solved all family problems while puffing calmly.

Now, however, contemplation and relaxation are pretty much passe in a pop culture that has come to prefer the quick and the dumb to the slow and the wise.

Today, detectives solve crimes with guns. Pop singers are more likely to bite the head off a bat than puff on a meerschaum. And Homer Simpson, the sitcom dad of our day, doesn't inhale a pipe and exhale wisdom. He sucks up vast quantities of Duff beer and belches out "D'oh!"

The pipe is a relic of those bygone days when dads wanted to look -- and act -- like grown-ups. These days, dads hope to remain young and hip, and they're likely to appear in public wearing sneakers, shorts, a replica of their favorite quarterback's jersey and a backward baseball cap.

You can't smoke a pipe wearing a backward baseball cap. It just wouldn't work. It would be like presiding over the U.S. Supreme Court while wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

Fiddle vs. Burn

"I started smoking a pipe in the Navy," says Berkebile of Georgetown Tobacco. "My father never smoked one, but my brother did. I used to smell the inside of it. He smoked a cherry blend and it smelled good. There was a lot of nostalgia with that odor."

Berkebile, 65, is sitting in his office in the attic above his store. He flicks a lighter and fires up a cigar. He stopped smoking a pipe years ago.

"I don't have the patience for it anymore," he says.

When Berkebile founded the store, back in the mid-'60s, well over half his business was pipes and pipe tobacco. "In those days," he says, "college kids came into the store in groups and started smoking pipes." Now pipes account for only about 10 percent of his sales.

"The pace of life today is much faster, and people don't have the time to smoke a pipe," he says. "They don't make the time."

Pipe smoking takes a lot of time and a lot of bother -- tamping and tapping and scraping and cleaning and lighting and relighting and re-relighting. It's fiddling-intensive activity. And maybe people just don't like fiddling anymore. Or maybe they'd rather be fiddling with their computer. Or they just don't have the patience anymore. Berkebile doesn't.

"Pipe smoking isn't convenient," Berkebile says. "You have to have tools. You have to have pipe cleaners. If you're on the go, you have to take all that stuff with you."

Walter Gorski, vice president of Georgetown Tobacco, wanders in. He sits down, takes out a pipe, fills it with tobacco and lights it up. Now 37, he started smoking a pipe back in college.

"It was one of the only things that kept my dorm room from smelling like a sewer," he says, laughing.

Inspired, Berkebile snuffs out his cigar, rummages around the office and returns with a pipe. He fills it with a pinch of Gorski's tobacco, tamps it down and lights it up. Aromatic smoke curls toward the ceiling while the two men discuss the differences between pipe smokers and cigar smokers.

"Pipe smokers are hobby people," Berkebile says. "They like to collect things, esoteric stuff."

"Touchy-feely stuff," Gorski says.

"Contemplative stuff. Antiques," Berkebile says. "They're fly fishermen -- and fly tie-ers. And chess players."

Cigar smokers are too cranked up for contemplation, Berkebile says. "They're faster paced. Hard chargers. Type A's. They're more interested in better cars and better clothing. They're entrepreneurs, CEO types."

Berkebile's wife, Sandy Brudin, walks into the room. He gets up to greet her, then he announces that she married her first husband because he smoked a pipe.

She smiles sheepishly and acknowledges that there's a germ of truth to that story.

"He smelled nice," she says.

Pop's Culture

There's something about the smell of pipe tobacco that brings back memories of fathers and grandfathers and, yes, even ex-husbands.

"I remember my father smoking a pipe," Brudin says. "I remember liking the smell. It was a sweet smell, a comfortable smell. . . . My father smelled horsy. He rode horses and he smelled horsy, leathery and pipey. He was charming. He was handsome. Movie stars smoked pipes, and he smoked a pipe. It was dashing, and I thought he was dashing."

Allen Haddox, 55, a librarian at the American Insurance Association, still recalls the smell of his father's favorite pipe tobacco -- Dunhill No. 21. "It had a very strong, spicy aroma, kind of on the acrid side," he recalls. "Sort of like that smoky scent of the fall but sweeter."

His father worked at the State Department, and Haddox remembers the smell of his office. "I would visit him as a kid in the '60s and early '70s," he says. "That was the heyday of pipe smoking. My father worked in a room with at least 40 people and nearly everyone smoked a pipe. It was like going to the bazaar in Istanbul -- you get all kinds of different aromas. It was very exotic."

In America, we've pretty much obliterated aromas from our public places -- supermarkets smell about the same as airports these days -- but you can't deodorize the human memory.

Sara Newcombe, 25, a recent graduate of New York Law School, recalls the unmistakable smell of her father's pipe. "It was a really good smell -- vanilla and cherry and chocolate," she says. "I just remember it smelling really, really good."

Like a dad in some ancient New Yorker cartoon, her father would smoke his pipe after dinner, sitting in the den with the family dog curled up at his feet.

"It was just a very relaxed time," she says. "He'd be sitting in his den, in his study, and he would give us wise advice. My dad is very wise."

A passing whiff of pipe smoke on the street can bring back the memory of that scene, she says.

But these days, she adds a little wistfully, "it doesn't happen very often."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company