A map maker and seafarer from Dieppe recounts that: “Yesterday I met an old friend, a mariner that I had not seen for years. While we were enjoying some good wine from Brittany, at a certain point he pulled something out of his bag…”. The mariner had taken out his long-stemmed clay pipe, but the map maker had never seen one before and mistook it for an “inkwell and quill”. At the sight of the mariner filling the pipe bowl, lighting it and starting to “blow smoke from his mouth”, the map maker and seafarer from Dieppe must have been amazed! At that time, in 1525, pipes were extremely rare in Europe, while everyone was familiar with the inkwell and quill, even those who did not use them. Thus, aided by the fact that the two devices were similar in aspect, a 16th -century account marked the fleeting intersection of two different tools and practices, two worlds that have little in common, or so it would seem. Yet, writing and smoking could be compared on several levels.
Pen, ink, the medium used to write on, the contents of the text, and the emotions of the person writing and reading are all bound together. Similarly, there is a close link between tobacco, its growth and curing, the pipe, its manufacturing stages, the rituals and the smoker’s emotions. Human activities and the tools that are used have always gone together and mutually influenced each other since the invention of the tools themselves. It takes just an accidental discovery or invention, sometimes a mistake, to start off a habit, a lifestyle, a means of expression and action, a way of solving major and minor problems. The habit goes on for months, years, centuries or millenniums. Sometimes it disappears, or else is refined and becomes so common as to be deemed “essential”, and so too, are the objects linked to this habit, which are increasingly improved and thus develop into a recognized form. Objects and habits that were previously for the privileged and powerful few gradually become accessible to everyone.
If we skim through the history of writing we can find styli, paint brushes, quills, and fountain pens; clay, papyrus, parchment, paper, ink, natural and plastic material; scribes, high priests, copyists, traders, bookkeepers, politicians, scholars, sharpeners, copywriters and the average person. If we scan the history of smoking, we can find ceremonial fires, straws, calumet pipes, stone, clay, porcelain, meerschaum, briar, witch-doctors, shamans, explorers, seafarers, monarchs, pirates, sailors, traders, politicians, scholars, confectioners, and the average person. Two parallel histories, similar to other objects, but not all other objects. What smoking and writing have in common is their ancient origins, the aura of legends surrounding them, some aspects of their evolution, their vast social and economic impact, their symbolic and emotional worth, and the complex role of the objects linked to these practices, at first “public” but then gradually linked to the individual user.
When Columbus arrived in North America, the clay pipe was probably already personally used by some Native American tribes. However, public and ceremonial smoking was still dominant. It was the voyage and change of continent that altered its use, privileging the private pipe smoker with his pipe. Nevertheless, if we consider how controversial this new fashion was in 17th-century London, if we observe how frequent “smoking together” has been during different eras, we could say that the public and ceremonial aspect of smoking has survived until today. By Shakespeare’s time individual writing was fairly common, and today almost everyone can write. However, its public, official and ceremonial aspect is alive and well.
There is also another aspect that cannot be ignored, indeed, should be considered the most important: the relationship that is established between the object (whether pipe or pen) and its user. The relationship seems to become closer as the object changes from a work tool to a personal one, although this is not always so, especially when the work tool is also personal. Consider the witch-doctor’s or shaman’s pipe, the Mayan priest’s tube-pipe, as well as the Egyptian scribes frayed reed pen which he made himself, or else the trimmed quill feathers used by copyists. These were both traditional work tools and cherished objects with which their users identified themselves. Ownership was a distinguishing feature, also because most of the time this implied a choice of some sort. On the other hand, nobody became fond of the anonymous chalk pipes handed out to the regulars of London taverns, just as no-one would have dreamed of clinging to the identical quill pens to be found in early 18th century offices. It can be true to say that the object’s relationship with the owner grew closer when it was owned exclusively by an individual and used privately. This happened with the pipe in 17th-century London, whereas the pens remained largely public and therefore not personal, only gradually becoming personal objects much later on (although we do have some exceptional examples of personal use in antiquity).
It was the impact of the Industrial Revolution that modernized objects, including pen and pipe, by introducing new materials, technology, markets and a new vision of life, thereby dramatically altering life and commerce. The object-user relationship began to resemble the modern notion of ownership and use of personal items.
Although the main writing instrument throughout Europe, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries quill pens had started to decline, and other solutions were sought. After various experiments a relatively simple solution was found by James Perry in Birmingham in 1830, who created interchangeable pen nibs made from rolled sheets of cast steel that could be attached to a holder. Meanwhile, the Swiss French-speaking Jura region was a pioneer in wood-turning. Craftsmen in Saint-Claude, the capital, had been producing wooden pipes and parts for thirty years, although pipe bowls were rarely produced as wood was not suitable. Thus, pipe makers preferred to import German ceramic bowls which were then attached to the wooden stems. With the introduction of briar in 1854, the craftsmen were able to exploit its excellent characteristics and were soon making high-quality pipes with their machinery and artistry. Around 1862 a single worker could produce 14 pipes simultaneously with the help of the new 3D pantograph machine, so pipes began to be manufactured on an industrial scale. In the meantime in America ingenious inventors sought a new way to introduce ink into the pen. Amongst the various patents issued, the most convincing and efficient was the simple solution developed in 1884 by Lewis Edson Waterman. Thus, in the late nineteenth century, both pipe and pen were greatly improved in a similar fashion although different in function.
It was soon realized that briar pipes and fountain pens were the long-awaited solutions in each field, becoming coveted objects. In the early decades competition between manufacturers was above all focused on perfecting techniques, as well as aesthetic values. In World War I trenches, those who smoked a briar pipe or wielded a fountain pen were the envy of those who did not, and this fact determined the popularity of both objects after the war in the emerging consumer society, a golden age in which material, convenience, style and colour were perfected. Manufacturers offered briar pipes and fountain pens to suit all tastes and pockets, but there was no alternative for those who wished to smoke or write efficiently. Then suddenly everything changed. During World War II filtered cigarettes, hitherto uncommon, became widely popular, while in the 1950s the low cost, efficient Bic ballpoint pen was introduced, the result of many trials to perfect its design. Now alternatives were available and the time was ripe for their use.
A time associated with fast change, filled with practical and “disposable” objects . What close relationship could be built up with a cigarette or Bic? Yet, everybody rushed to buy them. The first object to feel their impact was the fountain pen, whereas quality pipes managed to hold fast until the 1970s, just when fountain pens were being rediscovered. Then pipes also went into decline, to reemerge about ten years ago.
Nowadays the pipe and fountain pen are again enjoying a revival, thanks to a more discerning section of the public who has got over the headiness of innovation, and bored by the dreariness of disposable items is again seeking more complex objects to identify with, to experience more intense sensations. Accessories to be worn, essential items that are part of a person’s own image that also accompany emotions, setting off moods and multiplying the senses.
The senses involved are:
Touch: essential for writing. The pen is gripped and guided, and like a “seismograph” reveals the feeling of a rough or smooth sheet of paper. Likewise, handling a pipe awakes tactile sensations, as filling the bowl with tobacco involves feeling with our fingers, the wonderful sensation of running them through our favourite tobacco. Sight: essential for writing and reading, for smoking it is closely connected to the beauty of our pipe, to the motley-coloured tobacco, to the cloud of smoke that gently rises. Hearing: only loosely connected to writing, but if you use a fountain pen, the quivering nib or the subtle click of the cap on the pen provide sounds in the background. Similarly, the pipe produces subtle sounds in silence, when it is smoked or cleaned. Smell and taste: these are fundamental for smoking, but less evident for writing. Yet, those who use a fountain pen can appreciate the unmistakable smell of ink, and those who have the nasty habit of chewing on the end of their pen can tell what it tastes like.
So, now tell me: what are the sensations and emotions generated by a cigarette or ballpoint pen?
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