Ben Rapaport: Tobacco Literature and Antique Pipe Expert

For 50 years, Ben Rapaport has contributed impressively to the literature of pipe smoking and has collected pipes since 1959. He's the author of nine books and countless articles, and a collector of antique pipes, as well as a purveyor of tobacco-related books and ephemera. He's also delivered a multitude of seminars, including for the opening of museums and at the Chicago pipe show. He's advised auction houses and museums around the world. When there's a question about antique tobacciana or literature, Ben is the apex source and perhaps the most prolific champion of pipes and pipe smoking that our hobby has seen. His contributions work behind the scenes and he is largely unrecognized by most, but his expertise has been globally acknowledged by experts in the field of antique pipes.

In 1985, he was inducted into the International Academy of the Pipe; in 1989, he became a member of Confrérie des Maîtres-Pipiers de Saint-Claude; in 2004, he was conferred the prestigious Doctor of Pipes honorary degree by the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors. For the past 10 years or so, he's been saying that he's going to stop writing about pipes, but he's not been able to. He keeps finding subject matter that ignites his passions and he can't help himself. He keeps writing, keeps researching, and keeps contributing to the pipe-smoking community.

Some of his book titles include A Tobacco Source Book (1972), A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes (1979 and 1998), The Global Guide to Tobacco Literature (1989) Collecting Antique Meerschaums: Miniature to Majestic Sculpture, 1850-1925 (1999), and Tobacco and Smoking Among the Blue and Gray (2014).

This year has brought his ninth book, An Intimate History of the Tobacco Industry, 1850-1920: From the Briar Pipe of Saint-Claude to the Cigarette in the Trenches of World War One. It combines his decades of research experience and writing acumen for a detailed look at that intense time period for tobacco. Anyone interested in the history of yesterday's tobaccos and pipes, particularly in the U.S. and Great Britain, will be infatuated with the complex information that he has so meticulously gathered and compiled.

He doesn't consider his first book, A Tobacco Source Book, as something terribly important. "It was just a bunch of information that I had collected over the years," he says, "about where to buy antique pipes and information about the few books that I listed. And that was the extent of my knowledge then."

But in 1979, when he retired from the Army, his interests evolved dramatically and he published A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes, perhaps his most well-known publication.

"There was a small company in Pennsylvania called Schiffer Publishing," Says Ben, "which is still alive and well, larger today than it was then. They contacted me and asked, 'To the best of your knowledge, has there ever been a book written about antique pipes?' I said, 'Not to my knowledge.' They replied, 'Okay, let's do it.' They came to my house in Virginia and took pictures of all of my collection, and I had some black and white pictures of other people's pipes. And my wife and I put the book together on a manual typewriter. I did the talking, she did the typing, and we sent the manuscript off."

He liked the process and started thinking, "What else can I write? I wanted to fill more voids about the whole history of tobacco and pipes."

"I wanted to fill more voids about the whole history of tobacco and pipes"

He was already well educated in writing, having attended the one of the oldest high schools in the country, Boston Public Latin, established in 1635. It provided a focused classical education. "No courses on automotive repair or welding, no economics, no philosophy. It was two languages chosen from Latin, English, French, German, and Greek. You were obliged to learn those languages and chemistry, physics, and a couple of other classical courses. I started in the ninth grade. It was amusing to me that they gave out numerical rates, not alphabetical grades. I graduated with a cumulative of 92.5 and was in the lower third of the graduating class." From there he went on to earn a master's degree in International Business.

Ben started smoking at an early age. "My parents owned a mom-and-pop grocery store in Boston. I worked there after school, and I could reach out and get a package of cigarettes for free. Both my mother and father smoked, so they had no problem with me smoking. I started at 14, but right down the street was a store called David P. Ehrlich. Much has been written about David Ehrlich. He had some antique pipes on display but I bought only modern briars and smoked pipe tobacco then, the first of them from right there."

He smoked pipes through college and in the Army, and after he'd traveled around the world a couple of times and seen a wide variety of pipes, he started to become curious. "I thought, 'gee, that's an interesting hobby.' It was an easy transition from pipe smoker to pipe collector."

"It was an easy transition from pipe smoker to pipe collector"

Antique pipes started to interest Ben while he was in Germany during the Berlin Wall Crisis. "I had some free time and went to a few antique stores to pass that time. I started buying antique pipes, and the collection just started to broaden and expand and enlarge. And then I started making contact with other collectors around the world and visited them after I retired, and I got smarter and saw more, bought more. The collection started to become large, almost unwieldy. Now I'm shrinking that collection and getting rid of them because my son isn't a pipe smoker. I don't want the collection to burden my wife when I pass."

The idea for his new book originated with the Peter Jackson film, They Shall Not Grow Old. "In that movie," he says, "Jackson colorized black-and-white film from the First World War. There were all of these soldiers in the trenches, smoking pipes and occasionally cigarettes and cigars. That was interesting."

He started digging, did research, and contacted a few museums until he was able to describe where these WWI soldiers got their tobacco. "So I started building on that basis. And the result of that is this book. I trace the path from previous pipe mediums to the primary use of briar and explain the evolution of the U.S. tobacco industry and the British tobacco industry. I didn't focus much on the French or the Canadians but transitioned into the second part of the book, which is about soldiers and smoking. That's why I ended it in 1920, rather than bringing it into World War II, because I said the inspiration was Peter Jackson's movie, which is not really a movie. It's a documentary film."

The first part of the book involves an explanation of tobacco companies. "I also do some name-dropping about Dunhill and other companies and talk about tobacco funds, which were established to generate money to buy tobacco products for soldiers overseas. The Brits did it and the Americans did it. The French didn't do so much. The Canadians and New Zealanders did some."

"... tobacco funds were established to generate money to buy tobacco products for soldiers overseas..."

Ben printed only a few dozen copies of the new book. "There isn't much demand for tobacco books these days. I think people would rather invest in pipes than books. But I wanted to get it off my chest. I knew that it would appeal to only a small number of people. I wanted to get it out there for those who are interested in World War I history from the point of view of the tobacco industry, and from the point of view of the tobacco smoker. I wanted to make that information available."

As far as tobacco books are concerned, even professionals tend not to have them or even acknowledge their importance. Ben has worked with antique houses in Great Britain, for example, because he is so well known as an expert. "They send me a picture of a pipe now and then and ask, 'What is this thing?' And I say, 'Don't you have any books in your reference library?' They have books on china and jewelry, guns and coins, but no books on pipes." It's unfortunate because mistakes are made and items are misidentified when a few reference books could solve everything.

For someone who loves books the way Ben does, it's hard to understand the resistance to the wealth of information provided in books. He's provided rare tobacco books to his own newsletter recipients for decades. Called Antiquarian Tobacciana, it was an email letter with commentary from Ben, news on antique auctions and sales, and developments in the antique community. Each issue listed titles available, and some very interesting titles they were, such as Books, Manuscripts and Drawings Relating to Tobacco from the Collection of George Arents, Jr. (1938), Tobacco in Song and Story (1896), Tobacco: Its History, Varieties, Culture, Manufacture and Commerce (1875), The Bryant and May Museum of Fire-Making Appliances. Catalogue of the Exhibits (1926), Supplement (1928), A History of Smoking (1931), and The Book of Pipes and Tobacco (1974) by Carl Ehwa, an excellent book that every pipe smoker should own and one that's particularly difficult to find.

This is but a random sampling and it's doubtful that there's a more comprehensive collection anywhere. Ben undoubtedly knows more about the publication of tobacco titles and their history than most could imagine; he's been studying the subject and been intimately involved with the industry longer than most of us have been alive.

Ben no longer maintains the regular distribution of Antiquarian Tobacciana. Most of us find our information online these days, and the internet is certainly convenient, but it's sobering to realize the enormous resources available through books that will likely never be downloadable or viewable through a website, especially regarding antiques.

There is wisdom in books, and Ben Rapaport has followed that wisdom and shared it worldwide, in the process garnering the appreciation of thousands and reaping awards from every corner of the pipe world. He's contributed more than we can fathom and understands the history of tobacciana beyond the dreams of most. "There are books out there that I bet you don't even know exist. Most people don't, but I've been following this field for almost 70 years." Even so, he doesn't slow down. He keeps working, sharing knowledge, and elevating our community.

Category:   Makers and Artists
Tagged in:   Estate Pipes Pipe Culture Tobacco


    • Rick Newcombe on December 26, 2021
    • Ben Rapaport is a legend among pipe collectors. He has written so many interesting books and articles on the subject that it is hard to keep track. My personal favorite was his book about pipe smoking during the Civil War. I just bought his newest book and am excited about reading it. Ben is also a very nice person who is eager to help other pipe smokers.

    • Joseph Kirkland on December 26, 2021
    • Chuck, another great article. I look forward to reading his books in the new year.

    • Matt Guss on December 27, 2021
    • Great article Chuck! If anyone deserves to have someone write about him, its Ben Rapaport. He has given so much to our community and the literature we treasure.

    • Hutch King on December 28, 2021
    • Chuck, another great article! I know I have brought this up several times but, here it is again. I wish you would do an article on Henry "Smokey" Yunick. Smokey was a genius inventor who contributed much to today's automobiles and their safety. Smokey helped to launch NASCAR racing to where it is today. He built cars for the greatest of drivers, like, Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner, Mario Andretti and many others. His cars won the Daytona 500 several times as well as many other famed tracks. He was a real character!! Smokey was hardly ever without his Stetson hat or his pipe!! He was a real ambassador for our hobby, pipe smoking. Please give it some consideration. Thanks, Hutch

    • Smokebacca on January 2, 2022
    • What a wealth of knowledge Ben Rapaport must possess. Love the article, Chuck. Towards the end, with all the talk of lost or forgotten books, all I could think about is how Ben had to have read all of them. And, if he read them, he may own a copy of each. As the expert in the knowledge accumulated in these volumes, he more than anyone should know the importance of his private book collection. He should set up a reference library of his personal copies of these rare books, perhaps as a portion of a larger tobacciana museum before he pairs his pipe collection down too much, so that his resources and examples will not become lost with his passing. While his comment to the antique houses in Great Britain, "Don't you have any books in your reference library?" is hilarious, it's not quite and funny when you realize we could all ask the same of Ben. My guess is he has already considered this and made arrangements, but there was no mention of such in the piece? In the meantime, thank you for including the book titles you've given. Anyone who didn't know about these books (like myself) now has a wellspring in one article from which to begin their own searches.

    • Helen Schachtet on January 12, 2022

    • Helen Schachter on January 12, 2022

    • David Scott on January 22, 2022
    • I have 2-3 dozen books by my brother-in -law (Bob Winans) that might be of use to you. You had purchased some in the late 90's. Bob passed away in 1986 and I found the books in cleaning my sister's house. Dave Scott

    • ben rapaport on January 25, 2022
    • David Scott: I was associated with Bob Winans for many years, and your sister was kind enough to continue to supply Bob's book to me after he passed away. I do not use this website for personal communications, so if you want to discuss the books that you found, please contact me at my email address: [email protected]

    • Dan on February 6, 2022
    • Just listened to Bob Rapaport on the Pipesmagazine Radio Show #122. Still playing catch up. Wow, what an education and history lesson. I didn't know meerschaum pipes were made out of cuttlefish, lol. Amazing! A great article and podcast on a great guy doing great things for the hobby.

    • Dan on February 6, 2022
    • *Ben Rapaport. I really should stop commenting while being 3 sheets to the wind.

    • ben rapaport on February 9, 2022
    • Dan: I can handle your three sheets to the wind. You've managed to use your keyboard rather soberly. Am still writing and publishing until the brain gives out. There is still so much to research about this very arcane and misunderstood hobby.

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