Mark Twain: Unrepentant Tobaccophile
Portrait of Mark Twain by Artur Lopez

Portrait of Mark Twain by Artur Lopez.

Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens' pseudonym, is possibly the most recognizable pen name in literature, and the man himself is an irresistible historical figure for pipe enthusiasts, not only because he was instrumental in shaping an authentic American literary voice, but because he evidently smoked more than any other human being. He bought cigars by the barrel and corncob pipes by the gross. "I smoke a good deal," he wrote in 1891, "that is to say, all the time."

His grandniece, Jean Webster, referred to him as "a human furnace," and, "the smokiest man alive." His longtime friend, author and editor William Dean Howells, commented, "I do not know how much a man may smoke and live, but apparently he smoked as much as a man could, for he smoked incessantly."

Even as a boy of seven, he was a tobacco enthusiast. His boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri, was a tobacco town, with its own tobacco factory. "Poverty itself was able to purchase tobacco," he said, and "... there was no other youngster of my age who could more deftly cut plug tobacco so as to make it available for pipesmoking."

In 1850, when he was 15 years old, Sam stopped smoking so he could wear the bright sash and participate in the parades of the local chapter of the Cadets of Temperance. He quit in disgust. "I had not smoked for three full months, and no words can adequately describe the smoke appetite that was consuming me."

In his most famous novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he revives the tribulations of smoking in his youth through the voice of Huck:

Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn't. She said it was a mean practice and wasn't clean, and I must try not to do it any more. That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don't know nothing about it. Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff, too; of course, that was all right, because she done it herself.

Mark Twain in front of his boyhood home in Hannibal

Mark Twain in front of boyhood home in Hannibal (1902). Missouri History Museum.

Twain's family gave him a hard time about his smoking even when he was an adult, and almost unrelentingly at first. Before his marriage to Olivia Langdon, she and his future in-laws tried to convince him to stop drinking and smoking. He sincerely tried and was able to cut down to one cigar a day, but when he found himself searching out larger and larger cigars for his daily smoke until he was smoking gargantuan, custom cigars that lasted hours, he returned to non-stop smoking and regular daily cocktails.

It was a challenging time for Sam Clemens. Olivia and her distinguished family disapproved of his unrestrained profanity, his slouching around with his hands in his pockets, his drinking, his smoking, and even of his profession as a humorist. Humor was considered a low form of writing by the elite of the time, and by Olivia in particular. "Anyone who would convince her that I was not a humorist," he wrote, "would secure her eternal gratitude. She thinks a humorist is something pretty awful."

His manners were not genteel, yet he sought to enter American gentility, trying hard to extinguish the coarse mannerisms he had acquired while piloting riverboats on the Mississippi and mining for silver and gold out west. Even when he failed to secure a fortune in precious metals and turned to journalism, manners were different in the west than in the east, with rival newspapermen insulting each other in print, indulging in fist fights, and even fighting occasional duels. Olivia and her family were wealthy and well-established socialites in upstate New York, and western speech was unrefined and tactless in their ears.

The family sought references before approving of the marriage, and the references Clemens could offer did not come back as he expected. A San Francisco clergyman wrote, "Clemens is a humbug, a man with talent, no doubt, but will make trivial use of it." Another letter made the prediction that Clemens would "fill a drunkard's grave."

"I don't live backwards," Twain said, insisting that his character was improved and that it was his future, not his past, that should be weighed. He charmed the Langdons into accepting the marriage, partially by agreeing to give up hard liquor, a pledge he upheld for more than a year before returning to his usual habits. However, he was able to reduce his swearing. He stopped slouching with his hands in his pockets, temporarily, and started attending church with the Langdons. He even flirted with the idea of quitting smoking, probably because it was what Olivia wanted to hear, writing to his fiancée, "I am reasonably afraid you will stop me from smoking, some day, but if you ever do, you will do it with such happy grace that I shall be swindled into the notion that I didn't want to smoke any more, anyhow!"

In a wry mood, Clemens later said, "After all, what does tobacco matter? Let's have another chapter of Deuteronomy." But he grew tired of the harassment after a time, and wrote, "There's no argument that can have even a feather's weight with me against smoking."

Mark Twain with Calabash pipe

Mark Twain (1907). Underwood & Underwood. Library of Congress.

His smoking certainly caused discord. After a disagreement about his tobacco use, Twain wrote to Olivia about their continuous squabbles on the subject. "I am sure it has caused us both more real suffering than would accrue from smoking a million cigars."

It was after his visit to and a series of humorous newspaper letters about the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) that Twain discovered his monumental talent for live performances on the lecture platform. Lectures by interesting people with interesting experiences were a significant form of entertainment in the 19th century, and Twain was brilliant, enormously popular, and successful. During his engagement he continued lecturing but despised the travel, and often the accommodations. He was happy to sleep just about anywhere he could smoke but was often a guest in the homes of prominent people on his lecture route, and the house rules of those prominent people sometimes irritated him. "I had the hospitality of Mr. Ames ... inflicted on me, and it is the last time I will stop in a New England private house. Their idea of hospitality is to make themselves comfortable first.... No smoking allowed on the premises ... I hate Mr. Ames with all my heart."

He experienced that disappointment often. Today we think that smoking regulations are strict, but the upper crust of society 150 years ago was intolerant of the pastime, as Twain wrote: "At the hospitable mansion where I am a guest, I have to smoke surreptitiously when all are in bed, to save my reputation, and then draw suspicion upon the cat when the family detect the unfamiliar odor. I never was so absurdly proper in the broad light of day in my life ... so far, I am safe; but I am sorry to say that the cat has lost caste."

Twain was unyieldingly convinced that he could not write without tobacco. It was integral to his process. When he was writing The Innocents Abroad in hotels while on tour, shortly before his marriage, an unidentified reporter from the New York Evening Post visited and observed Twain's writing process and its evidentiary trail:

And there was Mark Twain in a little back room, with a sheet-iron stove, a dirty, musty carpet of the cheapest description, a bed, and two or three common chairs. The little drum stove was full of ashes, running over on the zinc sheet; the bed seemed to be unmade for a week, the slops had not been carried out for a fortnight, the room was foul with tobacco smoke, the floor, dirty enough to begin with, was littered with newspapers, from which Twain had cut his letters. Then there were hundreds of pieces of torn manuscripts which had been written and then rejected by the author. A dozen pipes were about the apartment, on the washstand, on the mantel, on the writing table, on the chairs, everywhere that room could be found. And there was tobacco, and tobacco everywhere. One thing, there were no flies. The smoke killed them, and I am now surprised the smoke did not kill me too. Twain would not let a servant come into his room. He would strip down to his suspenders (his coat and vest, of course, being off) and walk back and forward in slippers in his little room and swear and smoke the whole day long.

In February, 1870, Clemens married Olivia Langdon, the love of his life, whom he had first fallen for when seeing a photograph that her brother showed him. As a wedding gift, his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, gave the couple a mansion in Buffalo, and Clemens purchased part-ownership and became editor of the newspaper, the Buffalo Express.

During his 17 months in Buffalo, Twain wrote 60 columns, but this was a period of little substantial writing and he considered his obligation to the newspaper a crushing distraction. Jervis Langdon continued his efforts to improve his son-in-law's decency by offering him $10,000 (today's value: $187,000) to quit drinking and smoking, and Twain rejected the temptation, though it motivated him to reduce his smoking to Sunday afternoons only.

Photo portrait of Mark Twain by A.F. Bradley (1907)

Photo portrait of Mark Twain by A.F. Bradley (1907). Library of Congress.

In 1871, Twain jettisoned all the rules and conditions that he felt had been placed on him in Buffalo. Jervis had died the year before of stomach cancer, and Livy's and Sam's infant son, Langdon, was sickly and needed a new climate. Twain sold his interest in the newspaper and moved his family to Hartford, Connecticut, and began work on Roughing It, a novel about his western adventures. To do so, he had resumed constant smoking, and drinking to his own standards. Later, in 1876, referring to the dark period of trying to fit his habits into the expectations of others, Twain said, "If I had sold myself, I couldn't have written my book, or I couldn't have gone to sleep, but now everything works perfectly well."

By then he was world-famous, a respected, best-selling author, popular lecturer, and he lived in a fabulous mansion in Hartford with a beautiful wife and infant son. He was entering his most powerful years as a writer. As in all lives, though, things got complicated, and Twain's famous cynicism started to become more evident, perhaps magnified by personal tragedy.

His infant son Langdon suddenly died. His had been a premature birth and he was a sickly child, living only 19 months. Twain blamed himself because he had taken Langdon for a carriage ride and upon returning home discovered the baby's blanket had slipped off. Medical arguments to the contrary failed to alter his opinion. Olivia became gravely ill, requiring constant nursing care, and he was permitted to see her only minutes a day. Her health was problematic for the rest of her life.

Even so, the couple added three daughters to their family, Susy, Clara, and Jean. (Clara would, in the 1960s, donate Twain's Peterson pipe to the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, where it rests today, horribly burnt down the side and all over the rim. Twain was not careful with his pipes). Twain's third-floor study in the Hartford house contains a desk and a billiard table, and its ceiling is decorated in the corners with paintings of cigars and pipes. It was while he lived in Hartford that his major works were written, though most of his writing took place while visiting Olivia's sister and her family during summers at Quarry Farm in Elmira, NY.

Photographs of Mark Twain's pipes, taken at the Mark Twain museum in Hannibal

Assorted photographs of some of Mark Twain's pipes, taken at the Mark Twain museum in Hartford, Connecticut.

Tobacco is integral to many of Twain's works. Smoking has thematic, plot and character implications in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Roughing It, Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, well, the list would take a while. Read Twain and you'll find tobacco.

In Connecticut Yankee, for example, the protagonist, an industrial shop foreman from modern times, finds himself in King Arthur's court and eventually on a knight's quest, on horseback, in full armor. Amusing interactions proceed on the two occasions in the novel when he lights his pipe and sends smoke billowing out of his helmet.

Twain's shorter sketches and tales are redolent with the aroma of tobacco as well. In one particularly amusing piece, called "The Facts Regarding the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," the plot is centered on the physical arrival of a small deformed caricature of the protagonist, his actual conscience, who nags incessantly about tobacco. He is defeated when the narrator receives additional admonitions from a favorite relative until the conscience is lethargic from overuse and able to be destroyed, freeing the protagonist forever from guilt.

This period of literary success is also when Twain's desire to accumulate enormous wealth motivated poor investments, including in the Paige Typesetting Machine. Twain was convinced it would revolutionize the newspaper industry, but it was too delicate, too fragile, and even after years and years of fidgeting, the inventor couldn't get it to work. Twain had invested everything he had and more, and was financially ruined. He was bankrupt.

Mark Twain with Peterson pipe

Mark Twain with Peterson pipe (c. 1906). Steamboattimes.com.

His creditors offered to accept repayment of 50 percent, but Twain refused. He went back on his hated lecture tours, this time around the globe, to pay 100 percent of his debts, which he managed by 1898, but at great personal cost. Just as he was finishing his tour and his finances seemed to be coming into order again, Suzy died of spinal meningitis in the Hartford house, while Jean was in Elmira and the rest of the family was with Twain. Suzy was Twain's favorite and he never recovered. The family did not celebrate Christmas again. They couldn't bear it without Suzy.

Olivia died in 1904, almost destroying Twain, and when Jean died on Christmas Eve, 1909, of an epilectic seizure suffered in the bathtub, it was difficult for him to be amused by life, although his comments were still sought and he managed to entertain. He often felt compelled to comment on his attainment of old age: "As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake."

Mark Twain died on April 21, 1910, at sunset, less than 24 hours after Halley's Comet reached perihelion on its 75-year circuit of the solar system. He'd been born on the comet's previous visit, in 1835, and always said he had come in with Halley's Comet, and would go out with it. He had cut back to four cigars a day at the end, which was an enormous reduction from his usual 30 cigars interlaced with pipes, but he never quit. He was a devoted tobacco enthusiast virtually his entire life, and if he's right about the necessity of the leaf for his writing, without it we would have no Huckleberry Finn, no Tom Sawyer, no Mysterious Stranger, no Pudd'nhead Wilson — we would be absent some of the greatest literature in the world, if not for Mark Twain's tobacco.

Comments

    • Dan H. on June 22, 2019
    • In a wry mood, Clemens later said, "After all, what does tobacco matter? Let's have another chapter of Deuteronomy."

      Perfect.

    • Ricardo on June 22, 2019
    • Thank you Chuck. You have made me happy for a few minutes.

    • Rick Newcombe on June 23, 2019
    • I love this!!! Beautifully written, well researched and absolutely fascinating. Thank you, Chuck.

    • Ali Alansari on June 23, 2019
    • What a great article! Does anyone one what his favourite kind of pipe was? What about his favourite pipe tobacco?

    • Matthew Stinson on June 23, 2019
    • I will admit, I have for the last months, without thought, clicked the “archive” button on the Smoking Pipes emails along with the 100s of other emails I receive. Today I am glad I didn’t. This was a great write up and a refreshing read. Today I’ll smoke a Peterson pipe and imagine ‘ole Sam sitting next to me on the porch. I’ll smile to myself looking out to the bay and find comfort in a tradition and past time that has brought peace to so many men for so many years. Cut your plug how you like it boys. Today I’m Smoking McClelland English cavendish.

    • Bryan Manley on June 23, 2019
    • Excellent article Mr. Stanion! I often hear smoking pipe men defer to the will of their wives and smoke only what doesn't insult their aromatic sensibilities. Your article on Twain showed that such folly only serves to deny your own self determination. While Twain was noble to try and limit his habits he realized in the end that life is short and you should do what you want. The next time your wife complains about your pipe hobby ask her how many pairs of shoes she has and after the stunned silence puff away.....puff, puff, puff away.

    • Chi Chi on June 23, 2019
    • Great way to spend a few minutes on a Sunday afternoon, thank you.

    • Chi Chi on June 23, 2019
    • Great read on a lazySunday afternoon, thanks.

    • Tom Craft on June 23, 2019
    • Thanks. Great!

    • Ashley on June 23, 2019
    • What a fantastic article! “After all, what does tobacco matter? Let’s have another chapter of Deuteronomy.” That was hysterical. I love his sarcastic wit.

    • JLS on June 23, 2019
    • Reading this story made my Sunday morning cheerful, so cheerful, I think it's time to fire up a bowl, with all my favorite LATAKIA blends all mixed together with loving care, happy piping!

    • Michael Cherry on June 23, 2019
    • I have always loved Mark Twain, and another outstanding writer that goes by the name Chuck Stanion. Chuck has actually answered my emails when appropriate, Mark never has.
      Outstanding article.

    • Dave Neeb on June 23, 2019
    • Thanks, Chuck for this interesting piece. Haven’t read any Mark Twain in years, but I think that’s going to change.

    • Nicholas J Cox on June 23, 2019
    • I really enjoyed the read :) I have always been a huge Mark Twain fan!

    • Fred Brown on June 23, 2019
    • Thanks, Chuck. Great piece on Twain. Another of his quotes that I love is that if smoking is not allowed in Heaven, "I sha't go." Always enjoy the Chuck Stanion view as well.

    • Dawn Sands on June 23, 2019
    • Love this piece, Think its time to dust off my Mark Twain books.

    • John Navroth on June 23, 2019
    • Very entertaining article. It would be nice to know what brands of Tabac that Twain smoked (even if they are long gone from the shelves) and his favorites. Also would love to see a historical piece on cigars and pipe tobacco in the 1800's (types, styles, storage techniques, etc.).

    • Syrous Marivani on June 23, 2019
    • Great article. I never imagined that Mark Twain smoked so much although I might have seen him with a pipe.

    • Stan on June 23, 2019
    • Well done Chuck!

    • Ron Marotte on June 23, 2019
    • What a great read. Both charming and engaging. And such a singular American figure! Well done!

    • Ron Marotte on June 23, 2019
    • What a great read. Both charming and engaging. Such a singular American figure. Well done!

    • Howard R. Houck on June 23, 2019
    • It is fitting that Twain's "1601" opens with Sir Walter Raleigh's fart.

    • Amir A on June 23, 2019
    • Very, very well written. Nice read indeed on a restful Sunday. I had no idea that Mark Twain was such a big tobacco smoker!

    • Bob Taylor on June 23, 2019
    • Great read! Thanks!

    • Tim Hedden on June 23, 2019
    • About 8 years ago while visiting one of my wife's sisters on Lake Owasco, N.Y. I decided to pay homage to my favorite author and spent the day driving up to Elmira to visit Mark Twain's grave. While there I visited the Historical Society Museum and saw lots of Twain memorabilia. Then over to the cemetery and took a few pictures of myself smoking one of my Savinelli pipes while standing next to Twain's headstone. One of my best memories of upstate N.Y. and celebrating a great man and pipe and cigar smoker!

    • Paul T. Williams on June 23, 2019
    • Thank you, great article Mark Twain is my Hero!

    • Dr J. B. Webb on June 23, 2019
    • Great theme! Who’d of guessed written by a PhD ! Your mentors would be damned proud ! JBW.

    • Rob on June 23, 2019
    • Really entertaining and informative about this massive tobacco lover. Another great one chuck thanks!

    • Allan Wright on June 23, 2019
    • I share Twain's need for the leaf. Once when asked why I smoked so much I replied " For my sanity and your longevity".

    • Dave Sommer on June 24, 2019
    • A few years ago I had the pleasure of doing a "Hal Holbrook". I took it upon myself to be as realistic as possible. Unfortunately since then I've misplaced my
      cobb collection but I still enjoy the leaf daily. I didn't realise that Mr. Clemens had in my area and the paper he founded stopped printing about 30-40 years ago. Thank you sir for being an inspiration to ALL including the pipe smoking community!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Chuck Stanion on June 24, 2019
    • Ali Alansari:

      A few receipts for S.L. Clemens from Solomon & DeLeeuw Tobacconists in Hartford, dated to the 1880s, are housed among the Mark Twain Papers at the Bancroft Library at the University of Berkeley. These receipts mention Blackwell's Durham pipe tobacco, which he bought in quantities of a pound and a half and up to three pounds at a time, though I don't doubt it was an average amount and he bought more on occasion. These receipts also indicate corncob pipe purchases. On February 7, 1880, for example, he bought two dozen corncob pipes at a cost of one dollar, along with three pounds of Blackwell's Durham for a dollar. A week later he bought another pound-and-a-half of Durham, so he seems to have smoked it a lot. Another receipt reflects the purchase of two-and-five-twelfths dozen corncob pipes, two dozen on another, and 12 dozen on another.

      In a journal entry from 1879, Twain complains about the tobacco available in Europe: "No good smoking tobacco in Europe — no Durham, Vanity F, Lone Jack — but I brought mine with me — been over before." That's the only quote regarding specific pipe tobaccos that I've run across, and I don't know what constituents make up those blends, but from the quote it seems obvious that he considered them good tobaccos, and most likely smoked them.

      One additional tobacco detail emerges: Twain didn't like Latakia. In another journal entry, he writes: "Gave away all of my Durham and kept the worst brand in America — still it was of course better than any in Europe — Latakie is almost as good."

      Aside from corncobs, in later life he was most often photographed with a Peterson; photos indicate at least two different Petersons, and there may have been more.

      He smoked his pipes hard. The pipes from the Hartford house, whose images may be seen above, are most likely random, non-favorite pipes that sat in a drawer someplace, though when I handled them, there was some tobacco in the bottom of one, turned green from age, with no aroma to indicate its ingredients. He smoked his pipes hard and discarded them. He was not a collector, and the old tale about his staying home from an engagement to clean his pipes is very suspicious. The condition of his pipes alone indicate that he rarely cleaned them, if at all. For Twain, it seems, they were merely tools for the combustion of tobacco, not for collecting.

    • Dr joseph webb on June 24, 2019
    • Great theme on Mark Twain, Dr Stanion. Keep up the contributions! JBW

    • Jon DeCles on June 24, 2019
    • As usual, Chuck, your writing is wonderful, and despite my having shared my body with Mr. Twain (on stage) for almost fifty years, you filled is some valuable gaps for me. Some additional quote:
      "I am a moderate smoker. I only smoke one cigar at a time, and I never smoke in my sleep."
      "I am not addicted to smoking. I can give it up any time. In fact, I have given it up! Thousands of times! But the righteous indignation you feel in giving up a habit is nothing compared to the sublime pleasure you get from going right back to it!"
      "They tell me that smoking will take twenty years off the end of my life. When I consider the misery of not smoking, I am happy to trade those twenty years for the pleasure of it."

    • Dan H. on June 24, 2019
    • As for what tobaccos Twain smoked, I would guess a combination of strong and affordable.

      I base this on quotes attributed to him where he went out of his way to bash Havana cigars in favor of cheap domestic cigars.

      Great info above regarding the Durham brand and his dislike of European tobaccos and Latakia

    • Kevin M. on June 25, 2019
    • You remind me. I live a short drive from the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe houses in Hartford, CT. Time for a visit.

    • J Evans on June 25, 2019
    • Thoroughly enjoyed reading this!

    • David Zembo on June 26, 2019
    • I couldn’t help but smoke a Peterson Silver Spigot Flame Grain while reading. Beautifully written. What a treat. Thanks, Chuck!

    • Bill Wright on June 30, 2019
    • Two things I accumulate...pipes and fountain pens. One of Twain's favorite fountain pens...the Conklin Crescent-Filler. Said it helped him from cursing so much...the crescent kept the pen from rolling off the desk.

      Bill

    • Jack Gillespie on July 16, 2019
    • Chuck, such a fantastic tale. Thanks for all the research. It was a great read.

      Have you considered writing about J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan? He wrote a fantastic little gem titled, "My Lady Nicotine." I've heard it said he was never seen without a pipe.

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