I am presently attempting to read the 400 page novel Enigma by Robert Harris. I have previously read the history of cracking the infamous Nazi coding machine and thought a fictional account would be fun. Well the author goes into the finest detail setting scenes and describing characters and places. This always drives me nuts but Harris goes way overboard. I have however come to appreciate the need to set scenes and digress from a plot in order to lend continuity and credence to a story.
As I have rambled on in this series and, as I do in the one that follows, I trust you will be patient with me. There is always a need to set a scene but it is also my way of attempting to maintain a chronological order and, just maybe, hold your interest.
Barbara and I were living in Portland Maine. After finishing school and tying the knot, I had my first photography job. For seven or eight months of the year I was on the road all week photographing high school seniors across the three northern New England states. Then, there were studio portraits and weddings on Saturday and an occasional Sunday. After four years of this schedule we wanted to return to Massachusetts and hopefully a more conventional work week.
I walked into the reception room of the Framingham studio where the odor
of pipe smoke was very prevalent. It was a gentle and refined smell.
This was, as were many jobs over the next several years, short lived. I quickly learned his wife was active in the business and it became obvious early-on that she didn't think a manager was necessary. It became a daily struggle to do the job for which I was hired with she and I constantly bumping heads. I was let go.
We were expecting our first child and the pressure of finding work sat heavily. To add to that, Barbara stopped smoking the day we officially learned that a child was on the way and expected me to do the same. I tried with little success but did stop smoking in the small apartment we rented. Some years later I did stop smoking for a couple of years.
Being in Boston one day to interview at an employment agency, I again, after many years, visited Ehrlich's and purchased a "basket" pipe, some DPE and began pipe smoking in earnest if not exclusively. The old man making Meerschaum pipes was no longer in the window but the shop had changed little from the joy filled days when Dad and I would stop there.
I bounced from job to job improving our situation with each. In the meantime Betsy was approaching school age, my son Eric was born and we purchased a home in Whitman. I was suddenly and delightfully exposed to fellow pipe smokers. Several men at our new church along with the Pastor were puffers (unusual for a protestant minister). I was introduced to catalogs from the popular suppliers like Smokers Haven, Tinder Box, Iwan Ries, Owl Shop and the famous Wally Frank; although I had seen the fascinating Wally Frank ads in the Sunday paper for years. My tobacco education had begun.
Another tobacco product gained popularity in the sixties, the imported Turkish and Egyptian cigarette. Dad told me they were popular in the twenties but I had never seen them before. They were about two inches long and as I remember about three-sixteenths inch in diameter and tightly packed. Some had colored paper and some were gold tipped. The packages were brightly colored with Arabic or Turkish writing, usually in gold. They were strong to the taste with a pungent, almost incense, odor. I would think Leavitt and Pierce sell them even today.
I was working at a commercial and industrial studio on Lincoln Street when a highlight of those lean years occurred. I walked from the Lincoln Street studio to Filene's Store in search of a new shirt and tie. Those were the days when Filene's Basement store carried actual mark-downs from the regular store and top brand buy-outs from distressed companies. As I walked through an isle, my eye caught a very large stack of familiar cans – Ehrlich's DPE half pounds. I quickly made a turn and approached the counter with a sign stating "Insurance Consignment - Untouched by Fire – Water Damaged Labels". There was very little water damage so I figured water would never get past the tight fitting lid with a pry-up lever. I had read of the fire at the Ehrlich warehouse a week or so before my discovery. I quickly grabbed an arm full of cans marked fifty cents, making me somewhat short for the price of the shirt and tie and lunch. Along with the DPE were pipe cleaners and some cans of imported tobacco. I returned the next day and bought the last remaining six cans of DPE.
A couple of years and two disappointing jobs later I purchased a run-down family studio business in Brockton. Fortunately, I was able to rapidly bring in a large amount of repeat shoe catalog business; leading to sporting goods and clothing photography thanks to the word-of-mouth recommendations of a couple of catalog printers,
It was 1964 and it seemed pipe smokers were everywhere. The studio, if I weren't busy, was like a mini pipe club at times. New friends, salesmen and fellow photographers were always dropping in and, for the most part, smoked pipes. As would have it, they would sometimes congregate –usually on a Friday afternoon around a six-pack. The conversations always got around to the best pipe brand, a new tobacco or newly discovered shop or catalog. Happily I had a good ventilating system.
Favorite pipes of the day – and always under discussion – were GBD, Dunhill, Savanelli and Comoy. Prices of the time were fifteen to twenty five dollars for top of the line. An every day good pipe could be had for seven to ten dollars. These were in every shop by brand name or by the shop name. Then there were the Ropp cherry wood pipes from France (about three dollars). These were a great attention getter with the bark-on bowl and shank but they did smoke well. The cherry trees were of a particular variety grown only for making pipes.
There were far fewer tobacco manufacturers during the popular pipe smoking days. Large companies like Philip Morris did a huge private label blending business for shops and marketed their own "drugstore" brands. The stigma we find associated with today's "drugstore" brands wasn't present in those days. The fact is they were generally from top grade leaf and not hydrated with some sticky chemical. Some were flavored however. Volume sales made them inexpensive and one either liked them or not. The early version of Barking Dog was a good substitute for DPE when I ran out.
It is my understanding that cheap pound bags of tobacco, that stuff in all the drug stores today, and the upsurge of so many sticky artificially flavored brands came about with the decline of plug chewing tobacco. These plugs were made from low grade tobacco that was not acceptable for cigarettes, pipe or cigars. Economics demanded a new use had to be found for a product that incorporated this lower grade tobacco. This tobacco was then processed as pipe tobacco, heavily cased and flavored to disguise the poor tobacco.
Tobacco/pipe books, pipe accessories or tobacco became the norm as Christmas and birthday gifts. One year Barbara gave me a large Calabash with a stand accompanied by a large DPE from the kids. One Christmas friends stationed in Turkey sent me four Meerschaums of various size and style. One was a "saxophone", so called because of the near two foot long carved shank. The shank was extended and made of several small carved pieces held together by bone screws. This was eventually replaced by a standard stem.
Ocean Spray's filmstrip business took me to New York several times a year and I always managed to take in one or two of the high end tobacconist shops. Now these shops were not on a side street or hidden away on a third floor but smack in the middle of the high rent areas like Wall Street and Fifth Avenue. Names escape me but all were large with large inventories artfully displayed and suited clerks full of tobacco knowledge. I seldom purchased more than a small tin of an interesting import; but rather went just to look and marvel. Actually, over the years I tried new tobaccos – Tinder Box Sherlock's Choice – Ehrlich's Pemberton, a non-flavored rough cut Danish – Ehrlich's Cake Box, a steamed black Virginia. I even took a reasonable shot at some of the imported English blends. DPE remained my favorite.
I now had a couple of industrial consulting accounts and, thanks to honors bestowed upon me by the Massachusetts Professional Photographers Association, I was well into a thriving business. Soon Sylvania and HP were added to the photography accounts. The consulting came about with the introduction of video into industry as a training medium requiring lighting skills which were lacking in teaching personnel. I either taught the needed skills or did set lighting. As I interacted with more people in industry, at a time when smoking at one's desk was acceptable, I came across some desks containing pipe stands and humidors. A short discussion usually developed and unfortunately often ended in my courteously accepting to try someone's favorite tobacco. I quickly learned to carry a non-favorite pipe as not to muck-up one I cared about. As I recall, the most often seen tobacco brands lying on desks were Balkan Sobranie, Prince Albert, Captain Black and Amphora.
One day in early 1969 I received a call from HP to come and discuss a job. The job which I expected to be an advertisement or catalog was in fact an offer to take over management of and expand the in-house photography department. Ultimately, after a week of discussion and soul searching decided the offer, and a generally forty hour week, was too good financially to refuse. I accepted but retained the Brockton studio as a back-up; taking on a trusted freelancer to run things for me.
It wasn't long before men, mostly from the art department, started asking me about my tobacco (over the years I have heard the odor of DPE described as "burning garbage", Walnut tobacco and into the 1970's as "pot"). They wanted recommendations for pipes and tobacco. Pipes started showing up and the questions became more frequent and complicated causing me to start turning to my seldom read pipe and tobacco books for answers.
Somewhere along the way I was introduced to the Universal Coterie of Pipe Smokers, contacted Tom Dunn and joined. I devoured the Ephemeris whenever one was published.
So it was in 1971 or 72 that I decided to take a plunge and start a small mail order tobacco business on the side. Barbara and I attended the New York Pipe Show to see what was going on and hoped to find a way to start the adventure. I allocated two thousand dollars for the whole venture – a moderate but sufficient amount to get started at the time. I purchased four grades of pipes from a company in Brooklyn on a "return if dissatisfied" basis. They were mid range in price and came with great grain and not a bit of putty in the lot. I am still smoking some of them. I think tobacco came from a company in Richmond. I purchased five pounds of several blends and a modest amount of blending tobacco. A company in Needham supplied tools, lighters and pouches and a half dozen MGM Rock pipes along with a cheaper Gasparini called "Lord".
I spent several evenings photographing the pipes and accessories. Naming and writing descriptions of the blends proved a bit more difficult. I had decided on The Edwards Trading Company as a business name and a colonial look to the catalog. The thought was to expand into high end tea and coffee if successful. So, I went with nautical names for the blends. The catalog was produced with the help of a friend layout artist and another who worked in the print shop at HP. I now had 500 good looking catalogs and started searching for mailing lists – a discouraging task because no one guaranteed the list to be accurate. I sent a catalog to Tom Dunn along with a letter. He was kind enough to include a write up in the next ephemeris and catalog requests started pouring in. I kept several catalogs in my desk at HP and offered one every time a tobacco question came along. Several pipes were sold that way and a moderate amount of tobacco.
The greatest response to the catalog mailings was from people who said they occasionally traveled to Boston and others who vacationed on the Cape and wanted to know where the store was. Of course I had to inform them that it was strictly a mail order business. I never got an order from those inquires. It wasn't a complete bust though. Some orders came in from all over the country but not enough. Being concerned, I talked to a man at the SBA who told me it was almost impossible to build a mail order business for such individualized products without a store where a customer can have a hands-on experience.
Be sure to return next month for part 2
Copyright© 2010 Ernest Whitenack
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