You won't find it marked on any calendars, and there are no site-wide discounts to celebrate its arrival, but September 3rd is still an important date for pipe smokers, and more specifically for fans of the storied Peterson marque. To find out a bit more on why it's such an important day, we asked the man who literally wrote the book on Peterson pipes: Mark Irwin.
The System pipe as it has come down to us was finalized in the third patent, dated September 3, 1898, and this year marks its 120th anniversary. For that niche of extremely geeky pipesmokers, it will always be on the short list as one of the greatest inventions of all time. It was real-life steampunk before there was steampunk, as countercultural to the pipesmoking community then as it is now.
Engineering was crucial for Charles Peterson, who believed that form should follow function. His first job after certification as a wood carver was as artisan pipecarver, in the employ of a Bavarian meerschaum carver and tobacconist in Dublin by the name of Frederick Kapp. Like others of his day, Kapp was enthusiastic about the possibilities of patent pipes, even marketing one in his London Soho shop. The young Peterson seems to have worked for Kapp for about a dozen years before embarking on the System idea, which didn't materialize all at once, but was refined through three patents from 1890 to 1898. Peterson also patented a handful of other inventions as well, but none took off like the System.
Like all great artisan pipes, the System begins with its engineering, which may be broken into three components: reservoir, mouthpiece and army mount. The reservoir has dictated Peterson's house style from the beginning, and sometimes even carries over into non-System designs, necessitating the thick shanks distinguishing the aesthetic. It is drilled below the chamber's air passage to trap moisture and cool the smoke. Does it work? Absolutely, regardless of the sugar content of the tobacco smoked. But it needs to be cleaned out with a tissue twist, preferably right after smoking and certainly before the next smoke.
The P-Lip mouthpiece partners with the reservoir. Without it, there is no System. It took Charles Peterson three patents and nearly 10 years to get it right. His first patent (1890) was about producing cool, dry smoke with the graduated bore that runs from 1.5mm at the opening, gradually expanding to 5mm at the tenon. When the pipeman pulls a draft of smoke, it travels out of the chamber air passage down the side of the mortise and into the reservoir, dropping moisture and heat, then up the mouthpiece passage to the button. It's a one-way system, which is why the smoker never needs a pipe cleaner midway through the bowl. This function can be especially helpful for wet and new smokers.
The second patent (1894) was about preventing hot spots on the tongue's tip, and tilted the end of the button and air passage upward to the palate. This done, Peterson turned in the final patent (1898) to creating a comfortable button. In the 1890s, mouthpiece buttons were generally oval or round, with the air passage coming out the end. It wasn't for another few decades that the flattened fishtail mouthpiece we know today gradually took shape. Imagine how revolutionary Peterson's button was, then: it had a place to stick the tip of the tongue underneath and two distinct vertical shelves to make an easy clench for the teeth, with an airhole that distributes smoke across the roof of the mouth to prevent tongue burn.
There is a third benefit of the P-Lip which the company has never advertised, one Peterson himself may have been unaware of. By distributing smoke down from the roof of the mouth across the entire palate, the P-Lip achieves a more flavorful smoke than a traditional bit, which concentrates flavor on the receptors at the tongue's tip. It's not as simple as the disproved myth of D. P. Hanig's tongue map, since all areas of the tongue have been shown to process sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami flavors. A better analogy may be to think of it as the difference between listening to the latest Gojiri album or Llŷr Williams's Beethoven Unbound through cheap earbuds or in the perfect acoustic of the concert hall. Beer and wine aficionados know what I'm talking about here.
Smokers new to the System will notice the pull is a little harder than open or traditional air hole configurations, but it's also cooler. I think there are certain affinities to reverse calabash pipes, although without the ghosting problems those kinds of pipes sometimes experience.
Charles Peterson can't take credit for the third component, the army mount, but he took advantage of it and took it to new heights with the space-fitting saddle (S) and tapered (B) mounts he produced for the De Luxe Systems. The army mount is desirable but not in fact essential, and through the decades the company has made numerous "sub-System" pipes with P-Lips, reservoirs and traditional tenon-mortise mounts. Charles liked the army mount because it was so very rugged and made it possible to immediately clean the pipe after smoking, as well as break it down while hot if a blockage occurs. Having said that, I should hasten to add that the smoking experience of a traditional army mount and a System are in all other respects antipodean—the former's wide-open tenon-mortise creates a lot of air turbulence which the System eliminates. That's why it's such a mistake to put a fishtail on a System, although putting a P-Lip on an army mount can revolutionize it, as the company learned early on, but afterwards forgot.
My co-author Gary Malmberg has looked closely at the patent pipes from the 1880s through the early decades of the 20th century, and there were hundreds, maybe thousands. The reason Charles Peterson's patent pipe was recognizable by sight and the subject of dozens of clones within a decade of its invention was simply that word got around that it worked. His company also did a good job educating smokers on how to use the System, to the extent of including a pipe tool we know as the Czech tool with every System until the early 1960s. And the company has always had a kind of counterculture inclusive vision, perhaps because its founders were lower middle-class immigrants in what we'd describe today as a subjugated country. They made sure there was a System to accommodate any smoker's budget, from a lowly Grade 4 nickel-mount with fills at the lowest tier to a rose gold-mount, engraved straight grain with amber stem and morocco-lined clamshell case at the uppermost—the difference being in the adornment and quality of the wood, not the engineering.
I've been smoking fantastic, gorgeous pipes by Davide Iafisco and Silver Gray lately, and as Lars Ivarrson always said, engineering comes first. Davide and Silver both understand that. So did Charles Peterson, and isn't that the most important gift a pipemaker can give his customers? System pipes, properly made and used, can deliver as good a smoke from the engineering side of things as any pipe made, and deliver an even richer tasting experience. It's true the smoker has to be more conscientious in a System's cleaning, but anyone with experience in the military or other fields where keeping one's gear in top condition is a habit should be pleased with a System.
The beauty of the System is that it delivers more of your favorite tobacco's flavor in a cooler and drier way. Everyone's body chemistry and tobacco tastes are different, so I can only say that like many others, I turn to larger diameter or shallower depth Systems for English tobaccos. But I spend most of my smoking time with Virginias and Va/Pers and for them find ideal the old-fashioned smaller chamber geometries in shapes like the 312, 306, and deleted 309 where the chamber height is always greater than its width. Short-stack Systems like the old 02BB and original 306/356 (Oom Pauls) also deliver incredible experiences for the Virginia smoker—19.5mm x 45mm to 49mm is right at smoking nirvana to me.
The System was originally the Peterson pipe, and through the mid-twentieth century accounted for the largest part of Peterson's production. It's still the iconic line, but deserves to be their three-decker man-of-war flagship. What makes it a System, how it works, how to maintain it—these have largely been forgotten by the hobby. This type of information was commonplace in Peterson pipe-box brochures and catalogs until the 1980s, and was routinely discussed by brick & mortar tobacconists when they had System demonstrators on the counter, but has now all but vanished. I regularly smoke non-System or "Classic Range" Peterson pipes, but I can't help but wonder if the reason so few pipemen smoke Systems is simply that they don't understand the engineering behind them and how to smoke them. It's important enough that the System gets an entire chapter in our forthcoming book, The Peterson Pipe: The Story of Kapp & Peterson.
Mark Irwin holds a Ph.D. ("Piled Higher & Deeper") in Religion & Literature from the University of Virginia. He has divided his time between teaching English to inner-city middle schoolers and writing about pipes, which he took up under the influence of The Lord of the Rings in lieu of attending the first months of high school. He acquired his first Peterson in 1978 and despite reservations about social media, blogs about the brand at Peterson Pipe Notes. He is the co-author, along with Gary Malmberg, of The Peterson Pipe: The Story of Kapp & Peterson, forthcoming from Briar Books Press.