Portrait of Mark Irwin by Artur Lopes
Our pipe-smoking hobby is filled with impressive individuals. We have tobacco blenders and people involved in the tobacco side of the industry. We have independent artisan pipe makers and other artisan makers who contribute to the production of larger workshops; we have accessories makers who make everything from custom artisanal tampers to pipe furniture to leather tobacco and pipe pouches; we have bloggers and those involved in maintaining the sites that we all enjoy; we have collectors who have spent lifetimes gathering information about particular brands and displaying them at shows for the education of all interested, and photographers who expand the visual enjoyment of examining pipes remotely, as well as experimenters who explore every facet of both pipe and tobacco production to improve the smoking experience from every angle. They are all dedicated, enthusiastic, and more often than not, brilliant. They gravitated to working in their given fields in conjunction with the hobby, because they love pipes, and that affection accelerates the evolution of pipe smoking.
Scholars are another group who do much to help us all appreciate what we have in this hobby. The more we know, the more we can appreciate, and the work of authors and researchers is of inestimable value. If you're able to find when a favorite pipe was made or by whom or what years particular models were manufactured, or the early history of particular pipes, it's because of the work of these scholars. They are people like Tad Gage, Fred Hanna, William Serad, Jan Andersson, Neill Archer Roan, Ben Rappaport, Rick Newcombe, Fred Brown, and many, many others.
One such scholar is Mark Irwin, whose work with Peterson pipes has been exemplary. His website/blog, Peterson Pipe Notes, continues to be the most important informational site on the brand. In addition, his The Peterson Pipe: The Story of Kapp & Peterson is, in the opinion of many, the most impressive single-brand investigation in book form ever produced. Even before writing that astonishing book, however, Mark was involved in the hobby to an extent that many may not recognize.
Motivation for Pipe Smoking
Mark's pipe enthusiasm began with J.R.R. Tolkien. His father occasionally smoked Half & Half in a Kaywoodie, but even so pipe smoking wasn't on his mind until reading The Lord of the Rings. A bout of mononucleosis kept him home during his freshman year of high school, and he passed the time by reading, especially gravitating to Tolkien and becoming intrigued by all of the pipe smoking found in the trilogy. "It became immediately apparent," he says, "that I was going to have to be a pipe smoker."
He appropriated his father's pipes: a Kaywoodie Bulldog along with another Kaywoodie, a bent White Briar. "It was a matter of hours before I was down at Ted's Pipe Shoppe in Tulsa, OK, buying some really awful cherry tobacco, which we all do. The shop was run by a little Irish lady, Beth Kanaley, a real fiery redhead about five feet tall. She ran that shop for over 50 years, very knowledgeable and just as mean as hell to me because she thought I was one of the worst pipe smokers she'd ever met, but she was my mentor and I adored her."
Mark's first Peterson came later at the behest of a horror-novelist friend who saw him smoking a basket pipe. "You don't know about Peterson," said his friend, and Mark agreed; he did not know about Peterson. It was the last time he'd be able to truthfully utter that sentence; he would later become one of the foremost Peterson experts in the world. His friend explained that Peterson was the Thinking Man's Pipe, and since they both thought of themselves as thinking men, they and their wives got in the car and drove to the Tobacco Barn in Oklahoma City on a quest for Petersons.
"You don't know about Peterson," said his friend
"I bought a 309 with horrible grain that very day," says Mark. "But it was the one that spoke to me. I still have it and smoke it."
He found that it smoked exceptionally well. "It really was a lot better than the basket pipes I was smoking. When you're 19, you don't know much except whether you like it. The coolness factor was readily apparent with the Thinking Man and the P-Lip. They showed me other pipes, including artisan straight grains. That was a time when you could buy what today would be a spectacular $2,000 pipe for $300." Even so, Mark didn't think that those other pipes could compare with Peterson. "I mean, they were cool. They were really pretty, I loved the grain, but the Peterson with the nickel mount was very distinctive."
The Thinking Man theme resonated with Mark, himself a particularly cerebral individual. His undergraduate work was in religious studies with a minor in literature, followed by seminary and then two Master's degrees, one in English and the other in Theology. "Then I put those together in a PhD at University of Virginia before I did a brief teaching stint at Southern Methodist University and kind of realized I couldn't make any money as an associate in a broom closet."
It's true. Tenured professors and administrators can make a fair wage, but non-tenured and adjunct professors are egregiously underpaid, generally compensated less than those in virtually every other university position, from chancellors to custodians. Those adjuncts teaching our children at universities earn less than the support staff, usually without benefits of any sort. Education is not a path to comfortable living, despite the long years, accomplishments, and multiple degrees.
Still, Mark pursued his intense education, all the while becoming more interested in pipes, and during those university years he and his horror-novelist friend began publishing their own magazine, Pipeman's Quarterly (1980-1987). "Of course Peterson was in the first or second issue because we were both crazy about that brand. And in graduate school that magazine's contributors expanded to include a later winner of Yale's Younger Series of Poets, an artist who became a pastor, and a guy who eventually became a big real estate developer in this part of Texas."
It was interesting that the success of Pipeman's Quarterly was supported by Tom Dunn's Pipe Smoker's Ephemeris. "It seems like all of us in my generation," says Mark, "got our start through Tom." When Pipeman's Quarterly was announced in Dunn's publication, subscriptions and interest grew.
When Pipeman's Quarterly was announced in Dunn's publication, subscriptions and interest grew
Two early subscribers were especially important to Mark: Eugene Umberger and Ben Rapaport, who would both, like Mark, become Doctors of Pipes. Gene and Mark continue to maintain correspondence. "Ben Rapaport thought my magazine was the craziest, stupidest thing he'd ever seen, which is hilarious. I love to tell the story, and I'm not telling it against Ben, but he said it was O-to-the-three: Odd, Obtuse, and Off the wall.
"It was hilarious that he took the time to handwrite a letter to tell me that. And the reason I love that they were subscribers was that Gene had Pipeman's Quarterly placed in the George Arents Tobacco Collection in the New York City Public Library. And Ben has been so incredibly active, and of course they're both Doctors of Pipes."
It was becoming disappointing for Mark that no one had written a book about Peterson, and he began to think about it. He decided that it wasn't a project for him but that he might act as a liaison for the right people to contribute. "I was initially very successful in locating people to create the book, but then they all started dying and that was very discouraging." He was looking at a long process. His academic background had prepared him, and he knew it would take several years to gather the information necessary for a comprehensive approach to Peterson.
Portrait of Gary Malmberg by Myles Donnovan
He had a silent partner in the project: Chuck Wright. Chuck was a trucker who was devoted to Peterson pipes and had gathered a great deal of information as he criss-crossed the country. Mark decided to look at all of the material that Chuck had collected over the years. "I was a little bit shocked, kind of like if you've ever gone back and actually counted your pipes or started digging through your tobacco and wondered where it all came from. I mean, you just stick it in a drawer, you stick it in the closet, and you think, okay, I'm going to smoke that. But I was about ankle deep in the Peterson ephemera that I had collected over the decades apart from the wealth of material Chuck sent me." He realized that the project could be done but that he would need the help of the Peterson company. He contacted Tom Palmer, the director of Peterson at the time, who invited Mark to visit the factory and explore everything they had.
Gary Malmberg had agreed to co-author the book, and he went to Dublin with Mark and Marie, Mark's wife, who was handling all of the graphics, layout, and design. She's the reason that The Peterson Pipe is so visually attractive and practical to use, and she probably put in as much time as Gary.
The project would have been doomed without Mark's experience with the Pipeman's Quarterly and with writing his PhD dissertation. "I wouldn't have had the organizational schemata to think about undertaking a book like it."
He started gathering materials and authors in 2011, and was amused at one comment from his future publisher: "Who would want to read a book about Peterson?"
"Who would want to read a book about Peterson?"
"I think that comment really points out the fact that Peterson has always been and will always be an outlier in the pipe world. It's not English, it's not known for fishtails stems, it's not built on a high-grade reputation. It's not light; it's heavy and masculine. And people tend to really love the Irish or they have very little use for them."
The same publisher who wondered about the readership for The Peterson Pipe ended up publishing the book in 2020, laughing about that initial reaction to the idea. The book was so well written and laid out that it won an IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award), and stands as what is probably the best book on a single pipe brand ever compiled.
"A lot of people in the Baby Boomer generation and earlier," says Mark, "never gravitated to Peterson pipes." "I think it has to do with the divide between the modern and postmodern eras. For example, it's the postmodernists who discovered or played authentic performances in music. And it's those postmodernists, I think, who first started going crazy over what they called nostalgia in the '70s and '80s, rediscovering actors like Keaton and Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. And so my generation dotes on these connections with the past. That may be one reason why so many of the people that I talk to on the blog love Peterson."
That blog website, Peterson Pipe Notes, was launched in 2014, primarily because Mark had too much material to fit into the Peterson book. "It goes into the pipes and the pipelines; it's just far too detailed to ever be suitable for a book publication, and there are a lot of copyright issues that you can comfortably work around when you're dealing with a non-monetized blog site. You can take pictures off eBay or nab a photo from somewhere and nobody's going to care if you provide credit. But the website makes it easy to connect with others and learn a lot about the brand through other collectors. So that's kind of where it is today, with a post every week about something that's of interest to me. And it's especially great that I can connect with people in Sweden, Denmark, South Africa, and Korea, wherever. There are Peterson smokers all over the globe, and they all seem to be able to find the blog. So that's really fun to be able to connect with all of those people and get their ideas and their insights, and sometimes get phenomenal photography and phenomenal stories — really fascinating stuff that I would never have had access to without the blog."
... the website makes it easy to connect with others and learn a lot about the brand through other collectors
Peterson Pipe Notes is a single attribute of the scholarship that Mark has contributed. He's written or collaborated on seven pipe books so far, including the aforementioned The Peterson Pipe, Pipes of Middle Earth, Peterson's Patent Pipes, The Pipes of Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, and his latest, a graphic-novel style work illustrated by Larry Gosser called Of Pipes and Men: An Illustrated Gallery of Legendary Men and their Amazing Pipes, which is as fun to read as it sounds and includes 24 biographies of famous pipe men. Also of interest is A Pipeman's Handbook of Really Useful Information; it's convenient, contains loads of truly helpful tips, and is free. "I wanted it to be a kind of pipe-smoker's Bible three or four years before I got interested in the Peterson project. I compiled everything I could find on the internet as a kind of idea of what such a book would be because I felt there were a lot of experts out there." Mark put it all together in a convenient single volume.
"I talked to all the people that I knew, and nobody was interested in doing that. So I just took what I had gathered, which was all internet stuff, put it together as a PDF under a pseudonym on the various forums. And it's interesting. You can find reviews of it today, and not too many people have connected it with me, but some have. The fun thing about that book is a lot of that information is no longer on the internet, but people still refer to it. It has a lot of classic information from the Alt.Smokers.Pipes (ASP) posts and elsewhere. So that was sort of dipping my toe into the water. And then I did Pipe Smoking in Middle Earth in 2012."
He had written a series of articles for Luca di Piazza of neatpipes.com and compiled them into a volume titled The Five Laws of Pipe Companioning. "Physically, it's a small book, four-by-five inches. Di Piazza gave them away as Christmas presents to his clients. And I had the good fortune to have Rick Newcombe write a critical piece, kind of reacting to what I'd said, which gave some depth to the conversation." Anyone with an interest in pipe culture, Peterson pipes, or smoking techniques, will find something in that work to entice and entertain.
Collecting and a Secret Code
Caricature of Irwin, Peterson, Malmberg by Larry Gosser.
Of course, Mark collects Peterson pipes and has found historically significant examples. Peterson is his primary interest, after all. "Everybody's collection is always evolving, but now that I'm retired, mine's settled down to Peterson and J.T. Cooke, so I really just have two interests. The Peterson interests are driven by research and what I acquire and what I keep, because it's a smoker's collection. I don't have very many pipes that I just look at and go, gosh, this is beautiful. If I don't smoke it, then I usually pass it along after I've written about it or photographed it. And then I discovered J.T. Cooke; he's my undoubted favorite pipe maker in the world. And I just try to keep a pipe coming from him every few months because they're so beautiful and such incredible smokers.
"But I wanted to circle back to Peterson: The Thinking Man slogan has been around since 1907, and I have the strongest belief that they came up with it because of Charles Peterson himself. He was such a polymath. He was quadri-lingual, and he was an engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur. I haven't talked much about it on the blog, but I've come to a conviction that the Kapp & Peterson company's identity is secretly hidden in plain sight on the nickel mount marks that were on every system pipe from 1891 to 1963."
"The Thinking Man slogan has been around since 1907, and I have the strongest belief that they came up with it because of Charles Peterson himself'
Silver mounts include assay marks, but nickel mounts do not. However, Peterson during that time frame stamped its nickel mounts. "Charles Peterson wanted to put these three little marks that people sometimes think of as faux marks. They're not really hallmarks, but nobody ever looks and thinks about them. I think they're the key to the company's identity."
Peterson's Nickel Stamping (1891 to 1963)
The three marks are the Shamrock, Wolfhound, and Tower. "The wolfhound is the world's largest dog. It's the world's oldest breed. It was both a war dog, and a protector of home and hearth — as Sersi says in Marvel's The Eternals, 'to love and protect,' right? The Irish Woldfhound is both of those, deeply loving and fiercely protective. I think the Irish like to think of themselves as equally dedicated to home and hearth, as fierce fighters, and as great enjoyers of good pipes, good beer, good brew, good food.
"The second mark is the Shamrock. We all think of it because of the St. Patrick's Day parade, but Charles Peterson, remember, was a Free Thinker. He was not a Catholic, he was not a Protestant, but I think he saw in that symbol the complexity of the unity of Ireland. As human beings we are programmed to think dualistically. It's kind of how we're wired. But in the Shamrock there's what Christian Trinitarian theology would call unity of consciousness. So there's the Trinity, and the Trinity isn't two, it's three. Well, when you have three, you have a conversation and you have unity. I think for Charles Peterson, it was a non-dualistic way to express his love of Ireland. It's not the either-or of North Ireland and the Republic, of Protestants and Catholics, but of everything about Ireland that went before and what still endures. And you can see that in the company's history; during the opening salvos of the Great War, they sent thousands of pipes to the Irishman who were fighting on behalf of Great Britain."
"... they sent thousands of pipes to the Irishman who were fighting on behalf of Great Britain"
There has to be a reason for Peterson to send thousands of pipes to enemy forces. Mark believes that Charles Peterson was more concerned about his Irish countrymen than whether they were Protestant or Catholic, pro-Britain or Home-Rule. "He himself was pro-Home-Rule to the point that when de Valera, the eventual president of Ireland, was on the run, one of his hideouts was in Annie Peterson's home after Peterson's death."
The Round Tower mark is something more mysterious. "In Irish, it's Cloigtheach or 'bell tower.' But that's only a descriptive suggestion. These towers are Ireland's unique contribution to architecture, some 120 of them built from the 6th to 12th century and about 50 surviving today. Some say they were in fact monastic bell towers, some that they were defensive lookout posts against the Vikings, and some say they are pre-Christian Pagan sites co-opted by the Celtic Christians. But anyone who's seen one in person or even in photos can recognize their power. Whatever the explanation, the towers are numinous—mysterious, spiritual, religious presences. Charles Peterson got around Ireland, he saw the sights and drank deeply of the culture. Maybe he chose the round tower to express the rootedness of Ireland, its unity in the collective unconscious, just as he chose the Shamrock to express its diversity and the Wolfhound its love of home and hearth."
The Wolfhound, Shamrock, and Round Tower marks indicate quite a lot. "When you think about Peterson as a brand, they are an every-man brand at one end, but at the other end, they seem to attract people who don't mind a little extra effort and a little extra thinking on how to smoke and use their pipes. It's kind of weird because one might think of people in ivory towers as not necessarily rugged and individualistic outdoors types, but Peterson himself designed these pipes to be as rugged and durable as possible, utilizing the army mount and then making it even tougher with his space-fitting stem, now on the Deluxe System, which makes them virtually indestructible." That space fitting refers to the gap between the face of the mortise and base of the stem, where a graduating tenon guarantees a tight fit even after some wear has taken place.
"I think that Charles Peterson just sort of discovered who he was and reveled in helping other people by helping himself. He wanted to be successful, but he wasn't interested in being a millionaire; he always took a ridiculously low salary; he didn't seem interested in financial compensation."
Research in Sallynoggin, Ireland, 2013
Mark is currently collaborating with a Latvian journalist on a biography of the Peterson family. "She's an expat who has lived in Dublin for 20 years; she was very instrumental in helping us make The Peterson Pipe book what it is. She connected us with a lot of people from the Latvian embassy to Charles Peterson's descendants and heirs. Her Latvian biography was published in 2019, and I immediately said to her that those who speak English will need to read this too. So the initial translations have been done, and I'm massaging the text into idiomatic English. That's a big project this year."
He's also been working for years on a comprehensive book about pipe smoking and the contemplative lifestyle. "I've finished the first draft, but I'm sure it's a couple of years out still. It's been a lot of fun. It's kind of a meta-fictional narrative, kind of like a Thomas Pynchon novel or Izaak Walton's The Complete Angler — a sort of systematic look at the ways pipe smoking intersects with mindfulness and awareness."
Perhaps most exciting, Mark is getting close to finishing the revision of and reprinting one of his most popular books, Pipe Smoking in Middle Earth, and expects to bring it to the Chicago pipe show this year, complete with a new layout courtesy of his wife Marie, as she did for The Peterson Pipe book.
Whatever projects Mark may take on, he always returns to Peterson. The appeal of the pipes is too inviting. "There's been a huge boom in the Peterson estate market since the book came out, and my co-author Gary Malmberg said this would happen. I'm glad that I have most of the Petes that I want because I can't afford to buy them anymore. It's a bad thing, but it's a good thing. But I think the appeal for today's pipeman is very different from the appeal for many other brands. Every brand and maker has its own cache whether it's Dunhill or Castello or J. Alan or whoever we talk about. But I think the people who smoke Petersons, they're interested in its historicity, and because they're interested in its historicity, they love to be able to identify their pipes. When was it made, where was it made? Anything they can find out about it. And behind Dunhill, Gary Malmberg argues, and I agree with him, it's the second most identifiable pipe because there's so much information now." Most of that information is thanks to Mark and Gary. Their book is a remarkable achievement.
"There's been a huge boom in the Peterson estate market since the book came out"
"Affordability is a factor," says Mark, "but there's also its sheer quirkiness. I think that's part of the genius of the hobby. St. John of the Cross says, 'God leads everyone by a different path.' And I think the genius of the hobby as a whole is reflected in part in Peterson. It is a different path and there are a lot of people out there who really identify with what it can offer."
What the brand offers appears to be expanding and improving. "I'm thrilled with the direction that Laudisi Enterprises has taken Peterson. I get a kick out of talking to Jonathan Fields and Jason Hinch and Giacomo Penzo because I think they're happier than they've been in 40 years. Josh Burgess, the managing director, has orchestrated that harmony and keeps on improving the results they get. The guys in the workshop like being given the power to innovate and make the best pipes they can, and to be part of a collaborative team. I think that's Laudisi's vision as a company: that type of intense collaboration and teamwork. It's not a top down model like Peterson experienced under previous administrations. This type of collaborative process is important to the guy who's out there sanding or filling or staining or blasting, and I think it motivates and inspires the craftspeople to achieve their best."
When the people of Peterson are happy, Mark Irwin is happy. He feels a profound attachment to Peterson pipes, as his pipe career attests. He's contributed enormously to truthful information about Peterson's history and the pipes that they craft, decreased the misinformation, and helped to make the brand more interesting for those who like to know the details behind their favorite pipes.
He's pursued his hobby, and we have all benefited. An author, researcher, blogger, and endless source of information, he shares his passion and his work, and those who love Peterson pipes have struck sterling silver to have Mark among their ranks, while the ongoing dialog about pipes is improved thanks to the quality and expansive quantity of his contributions.