Some pipe shapes are so inviting and attractive that they become iconic. Peterson's 4AB is such a shape, and it's return after decades of absence as the Peterson 2021 Pipe of the Year was an event to be noted.
"Iconic" is a big word to throw around. A great example of an iconic shape is the Churchwarden. It was there at the beginning of European pipe smoking, long, graceful, and attending the first generations of modern smokers. Its popularity was energetically revitalized with the Peter Jackson films of Tolkien's great trilogy. That event animated a newer generation and modern Churchwardens remain irrevocably desirable.
It's happened with more specific shapes as well, like the long, slender Billiards that Bing Crosby popularized. The Bing's Favorite Billiard remains among Savinelli's most popular shapes. However, for pipes to earn wide appreciation like that, their style, proportions, aesthetics, and sheer charisma must be immediately evident and exhilarating. Pipe smokers know one when they see one.
It takes more than celebrity endorsements or cues from popular culture, though that helps bring awareness to a wide audience. It doesn't happen often, but on rare occasions, a pipe miraculously brings all the essential elements together and resonates through generations.
... on rare occasions, a pipe miraculously brings all the essential elements together and resonates through generations
Such a pipe is the Peterson 4AB. It was among the first System pipes introduced by Charles Peterson. First released in 1896, it became one of the more popular shapes fashioned by Kapp & Peterson. That popularity exponentially increased when the shape was smoked by Basil Rathbone in 12 of his 14 Sherlock Holmes films, introducing it to a new generation. Few pipes reflect the quintessential Peterson presence to the extent of the 4AB.
This shape personifies Peterson's style. Its robust, angled shank rises from the straight-sided bowl to the sterling military mount, and its long, tapered stem languorously bends to the famous P-Lip button. The connection between Sherlock Holmes and Peterson pipes is well-ingrained in the pipe-smoking world, and this pipe is the reason. From 1942 to 1946, Basil Rathbone starred in 12 Sherlock Holmes movies smoking this pipe, and its impact was felt.
That's confirmed by Mark Irwin, author of The Peterson Pipe Book and one of the leading experts on the brand. "I think part of the reason that fans have been anxiously awaiting the 4AB is its connection to Sherlock Holmes," he says. Seamus Tighe was the manager at the Grafton shop in Dublin after the Basil Rathbone films were released, and "he said that anytime anybody visited the shop in the '40s and '50s, they'd say, 'I want that Sherlock Holmes pipe. Have you got that Sherlock Holmes pipe?' So Peterson's connection to Sherlock Holmes goes back to Basil Rathbone."
It's a shape that has been unavailable for generations, and it's been missed. No one is quite sure why it was discontinued. Perhaps sales fell off after a couple of decades; perhaps the manufacture of the stem became too difficult. But whatever the reason, it's been absent for a long time, and Peterson fans have been wishing for its return for some time.
Jim Amash, who is well known for his multitude of tobacco reviews under the handle, JimInks, has written that "For many years, I dreamed about owning the same model Rathbone smoked, though I didn't know what shape number it was until the early 2000s. It was a fruitless search to find that pipe, and I began to feel I would never own one." After Laudisi Enterprises acquired Peterson, Jim launched his own campaign to bring the 4AB back into production. At the West Coast pipe show, he ran into Shane Ireland, V.P. and Director of Smokingpipes, and told him that there were "a great many pipe smokers who have wanted one for years and that it would be a great service to the community." That sentiment was supported by the emails that began arriving about the 4AB. Jim had posted to various pipe forums about the pipe, and many others were equally interested and communicated the same request.
Josh Burgess, Director of Peterson, certainly noticed. "I think the week that we announced we were purchasing Peterson, we started getting emails from people: 'Please bring back the shape number four.' So, it was one that people had missed. They especially wanted this AB configuration of the shape. It was part of a family of shapes: straight-sided Billiards that are very distinctively Peterson. I think in the old days, Peterson folks referred to those as Dutch Billiards."
" ... straight-sided Billiards that are very distinctively Peterson ..."
"The story behind that name," says Mark Irwin, "I've pieced together from conversations with Arno van Goor of the Dutch Pipe Smoker blog, so it's anecdotal. The Dutch Billiard name actually came about because Irish troops were fighting against the Brits in the Second Boer War and when they came home, they would go into the shops — there were four or five of them at that time in Dublin — and say, hey, I want a Dutch Billiard. It was a straight-sided Billiard and Charles Peterson wasn't alone in carving it; you can see it in the Barling catalog and some of the other catalogs of the era. But Peterson's was distinctive, just like all of their classic shapes, because they're kind of on steroids with that big shank that they need for the moisture reservoir. Peterson themselves first named it that. The first time you see it in print is in a Peterson catalog in the '40s or maybe the '50s. In their ephemera, they didn't name their pipe shapes too often."
The reason that experience in South Africa initiated this interest was because of the pipes smoked by President Paul Kruger, whose background and language was Dutch and for whom the Oom-Paul shape was named. "His friends ordered a Peterson O1.A for him for his birthday," says Mark, "from a French Tobacconist in Johannesburg, with the South African Transvaal crest carved on the front of it. And so of course Peterson said, sure, we'll make one. I mean, his friends paid money for it. Well, back in those days, smoking was such a big deal that it made it into lots and lots of the newspapers, including some photographs of the pipe in its case with its extra stem."
"... in those days, smoking was such a big deal that it made it into lots and lots of the newspapers ..."
Peterson made a duplicate to display in their shop window, and because Kruger wasn't someone to be admired, they took some criticism for it. "They came under some political censure because people said, 'Why are you making a pipe for this guy?' The British government didn't particularly care for him. But the fact is that he was in so many Western European newspapers that everybody knew the pipe and that Kapp & Peterson made it. So that's where the name Dutch Billiard comes from." Kruger's was a larger version than the 4AB, but the shape was famous long before Basil Rathbone.
It's a long history for a particular pipe. The 4AB has been famous through many generations and has now been resurrected as the 2021 Pipe of the Year through a two-year effort on the part of Peterson.
It's a bent Billiard, its bowl rising with straight sides, the same as the 4S, which is the pipe seen in the Thinking Man Peterson logo, but the AB designation pertains to the long tapered stem rather than the saddle stem of that image. That tapered stem, however, is not a simple affair. It's a longer stem, with a subtle expansion near its center, just below the bend, which is more difficult to achieve than one might think. In fact, the stem is so rare that Peterson had to reverse-engineer it from photos. They had not a single physical example to work with.
"It has to do with the way it's bent and tapered," says Mark Irwin. It's a vulcanite stem that "flares out a little bit in the middle. Kapp & Peterson got away from vulcanite stems when Tom Palmer was Director because their salesmen didn't like the way they oxidized in the stores." It was a period when "everything was coming up acrylic by any of the factory makers, and even some of the artisans, although I'm pleased that most of the artisans have gone back to ebonite these days."
... the stem is so rare that Peterson had to reverse-engineer it from photos
Giacomo Penzo, who was an established artisan in Italy before joining Peterson in 2019, accepted the task of recreating the 4AB. Mark Irwin assisted by providing materials. "I sent scale drawings from the 1937 catalog and other items. And I know they worked really hard on the stem, which of all the areas of old vintage Petersons, the stems and the stem bends are probably least like pipes they've done since. And Giacomo just did a dead ringer of the 1937 shape. He did a superb job. And of course, it's not just him. It's a whole collaborative group."
"There were lots of questions about where on the stem to sort of place the visual weight," says Josh. "If you look at some of the old drawings of the 4AB, you'll notice that there's a sort of bulge in the stem so the taper is more evident as it approaches the button, and then it tapers again as it reaches to the base of the stem. One particularly tricky aspect was deciding where to place that expansion, and Giacomo got it just right. If I had to identify a major challenge with these, it would be the stem and particularly getting that visual weight right."
Because no samples of the shape existed and no one in the factory had worked on this stem, says Josh, "the stem had to be based on drawings. We worked with Mark and went back to early catalogs. At one point we even took an image and shrunk it down to superimpose it over an image in one of the movie posters with Basil Rathbone. In the end, I think we got it just right. Like all of the iconic Peterson shapes, there's been some evolution over the years, but I think Giacomo, who did most of the design work on the stem, really nailed it on this one."
This pipe is the first Pipe of the Year to feature Charles Peterson's original System engineering, including a moisture reservoir, military mount, graduated-bore mouthpiece, tenon extension (also known as a chimney), and a P-Lip bit. It's as close to Peterson's 1896 vision as possible, but it benefits from modern finishing techniques, which have improved noticeably. A new staining process provides excellent color and color retention, as well as improved consistency and a better final finish.
"I think the finishing on this year's pipes," says Mark, "is the best I have ever seen from Peterson. Everybody at Peterson has been working really hard. I'm looking at a natural right now, and a PSB, and am pretty knocked out. I mean everything, the stamps, the drilling, the silverwork, it's always been good, but they just get better and better."
"... the finishing on this year's pipes," says Mark, "is the best I have ever seen from Peterson ..."
The 2021 pipes were released in seven finishes:
- PSB (Peterson Sandblast)
It should be noted that the Ebony, PSB, and Natural finishes are very rare, and though 500 Pipes of the Year have been made, very few bowls of the quality necessary for these finishes presented themselves.
"This is now the third classic shape that we have resurrected for the Pipe of the Year," says Josh. Traditionalism is an important hallmark of Peterson pipes, and the company values its history. "We are very much looking to the inspirations of our past, and with the modern resources that we have today." Peterson continues improving its techniques while honoring its historical experience.
The Peterson System revolutionized smoking and attracted the attention of pipe smokers worldwide, and the engineering of the System necessitated the famous Peterson style, with its muscular transitions, robust shanks, and tubular profiles. It's an aesthetic that has been maintained and admired for more than 125 years and is exemplified by the 2021 Pipe of the Year. For a return to the origins of the Peterson pipe, the 4AB is an irresistible window into the early years of Charles Peterson's vision for the future of pipe smoking.