The origins of Brigham pipes can be traced back to the early 1900s when its founder Roy Brigham was employed as a part-time employee at a Toronto tobacco shop. Roy was hired by the shop's owner, Andrew Wilson, and soon after, the pipe portion of Wilson's business grew significantly, prompting him to hire an Austrian pipe maker to perform repairs and craft pipes for him. Eventually, Wilson offered Brigham the opportunity to apprentice under the Austrian pipe maker, whose name was unfortunately lost over the course of history but nonetheless remains a significant figure in Brigham's history.
Roy studied and worked alongside the Austrian craftsman for several years, developing an interest in pipes and in learning what elements had room for improvement. One day, Wilson picked up a pipe repaired by the Austrian and praised his work, but Roy felt he could do a better job, prompting Brigham to take it back to his home workshop. He brought it back the following day to show Wilson, who was impressed and acknowledged that Brigham outperformed the Austrian pipe maker. Mike Brigham, Roy's grandson and current owner of the company, recounted in a 2004 interview with Pipes and Tobaccos magazine that Wilson reportedly found the Austrian was temperamental and difficult to work with, so Wilson let him go and helped Roy establish his own business specializing in selling tobacco products and repairing pipes.
Roy Brigham, 1906 (sourced from Brighampipes.com)
Brigham's first store opened in 1906 in downtown Toronto on Adelaide Street and though the first few years were difficult, its location within the rapidly growing city exposed it to patronage from the nearby theater and business districts. Roy's pipe repair service was in high demand, and as a result, he began offering pipes made by himself and five other craftsmen which became popular across Canada for their quality and value. In the years following its establishment, Brigham's store became a popular destination for smokers and allowed Roy to speculate in the local real estate market.
Brigham's first store opened in 1906 in downtown Toronto on Adelaide Street and though the first few years were difficult, its location within the rapidly growing city exposed it to patronage from the nearby theater and business districts.
While things were beginning to look up for Roy and the young business, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression forced Brigham to consolidate his assets, selling all of the businesses he owned except for his shop. It was during this bleak period that Roy's son, Herb, left high school to help his father run the store in 1935, and together the father and son team searched for ways to improve the brand's pipes.
Roy and Herb observed that the biggest complaint from pipe smokers was the unpleasant sensation of tongue bite. Mike Brigham recalled, "My grandfather strongly suspected that the heat sensation was not the results of thermal heat, but rather it was a chemical irritation of the tongue. He knew that if he could eliminate tongue bite, he would be able to keep people interested in smoking and improve sales."
The Rock Maple Insert, or the Brigham Distillator System as it's sometimes called, became a viable method to reducing tongue bite and remains one of the most enduring aspects of Brigham pipes.
In an interview with Pipes and tobaccos magazine Brigham's current President Dan More likened the process to Thomas Edison's search for filament material for the light bulb, saying "He sent for materials from all over the world, and Roy and Herb did the same thing. They tried cork, bamboo, rice plants, and all manner of hollow reeds. They wanted to find a filter that would cleanse the smoke without impeding its flow through the pipe."
It was determined that the two most suitable materials that fit their criteria were bamboo and rock maple, but since bamboo wasn't readily available in Canada, rock maple became the chosen medium. The Brighams recognized that rock maple not only possessed the necessary absorbency to help reduce tongue bite but is inherently flavor-neutral and won't impart any flavors to the tobacco being smoked.
The Rock Maple Insert, or the Brigham Distillator System as it's sometimes called, became a viable method to reducing tongue bite and remains one of the most enduring aspects of Brigham pipes. To protect their invention, the Brighams patented the Brigham System in the United States and Canada in 1938. It's subsequently been renewed with the only significant change being how the filter is locked into the pipe.
The actual engineering of the Rock Maple Insert is impressively simple and straightforward. A rock maple dowel is drilled with a 3.5mm airway and pressure-fitted with a special metal cap that allows it to fit securely within the pipe while also being easily removable. The dowel is able to take the smoke from the bowl and pass it through the shank and a large section of the stem, removing moisture and unpleasant flavors that develop during the smoking process. No chemicals or adhesives are used to manufacture the rock maple inserts, ensuring it remains flavor-neutral. And because of the drilling, a rock maple insert is able to pass a pipe cleaner, even while the pipe is still assembled. The insert's design also helps prevent moisture from traveling back into the bowl or up the stem, helping to reduce pipe gurgle in the process.
With proper care, a single rock maple distillator can be used for up to 40 smokes, but can be changed at any time based on personal preference and usage. To extend the life of a single insert it's recommended that it be removed from the pipe, after it's had time to cool down, and rinse the rock maple with water to wash off the impurities collected within the dowel. Once it becomes a darker shade of brown, that's usually the indication that it has become saturated and that a new insert is needed.
The Rock Maple Distillator system is still a major focus for the company, according to Brigham President Dan More, who emphasizes that it's not actually a filter, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. "It's a piece of rock maple with a straight hole without any filtration or blockage which allows the smoke to travel unimpeded," More explains, "and collects the tars, and wicks away moisture to provide a cooler, drier smoke. It's something we still strongly believe in. We compare it to the Hemi engine: you can put it in any number of different vehicles and it'll work just as well."
Thanks to the development and implementation of the Rock Maple Inserts, Brigham's pipe sales increased dramatically from the 1940s to the '60s. By the 1960s, Brigham Enterprises employed over 40 full time production workers and were creating 50,000 pipes each year. The craftspeople worked at various specialized stations that involved bowl turning, drilling, sanding, finishing, and producing rock maple inserts. To satisfy the increased demand, Brigham moved into a new factory on Ripley Avenue in 1970, making over 100,000 pipes a year, with two retail stores in downtown Toronto to sell their products. Brigham pipes were also sold through exclusive retailers, numbering around 650 across Canada and were featured in the annual Simpsons-Sears catalogue.
In 1978, Herb's son Mike joined the family business and helped expand the company's product line to include pipe tobacco and accessories. The following years saw the company adapt to new technology that was at the time state-of-the-art, utilizing machines that could improve quality of the Rock Maple Inserts, meet growing consumer demands, and reduce the unavoidable waste corresponding to hand-drilled dowels.
"Mike identified that the company was producing in excess of demand, and made some changes," says More. "He brought in a computer, which was a huge mainframe and could't even do as much as a calculator can today, but for the time it was quite innovative. Mike focused on efficiency and numbers."
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, overall interest in pipe smoking was fading as fast paced lifestyles were becoming the norm and the patient practice of enjoying a pipe was viewed as old-fashioned for contemporary culture. One group was particularly affected: Brigham's retailers, whom the company still relies heavily upon and works closely with to distribute their products.
"The industry was changing at that time" Dan said. "Retailers were looking for other ways to supplement their revenues because it wasn't coming from pipe and pipe tobacco sales, and this was before the cigar boom." Soon after joining the company in the late 1980s, More recognized the need for Brigham to adapt to the changing pipe smoking climate and to understand the primary interests of retailers and customers.
"I traveled all across Canada as the de facto sales representative, going to the shops and talking to retailers. I gathered all the information firsthand and it was a real educational experience for me," says More.
To reflect the widening business opportunities Brigham was experiencing, the company changed its name from "Brigham Pipes Ltd" to "Brigham Enterprises" and continued to expand their portfolio in the following years beyond just pipes and pipe tobacco in response to the information gathered, offering various humidors, cigar brands, pipe cleaners, and pipe tools to retailers and distributors. Economic conditions were also driving demand for lower pipe prices in the late '90s and as a result the actual production of Brigham pipes was moved to France and Italy. However, Brigham remains closely involved with quality oversight, with the designs, and with all of the microdetails involved with large scale pipe manufacturing.
We've built a community internally that's like a family and consider our retailer partners and our customers as part of that family — we're all in this together."
That production move also developed new opportunities for the company. "For instance, we didn't have a sandblasting machine, so for over 85 years we had never produced a sandblasted pipe," says More. "Now we're able to offer more interesting lines and continue to be innovative, which is a result of moving the pipe manufacturing while still remaining involved in the entire process."
Despite all of the company's changes throughout the years, Brigham's patented Rock Maple Inserts continue to be produced in Canada. In 2011, the company invested $150,000 dollars in a new Distillator machine that utilizes modern manufacturing techniques and effectively ensures that the company's most iconic and innovative product remains Canadian made. It's a testament to Brigham's ability to simultaneously adhere to tradition while continually improving their processes and products.
Dan More primarily credits the company's longevity to being a relatively small, family business that's remained family owned for over a century, as well as an impressive employee retention rate, with many employees having worked at Brigham for decades, including More himself, who has been with the company for over 30 years. "We've built a community internally that's like a family and consider our retailer partners and our customers as part of that family — we're all in this together."
It's truly impressive how a company that has endured so long and survived so many changes remains so humble and family oriented. The innovation and perseverance that went into inventing the Rock Maple Distillation System is exceptionally remarkable and was born out of the company's willingness to improve the pipe smoking experience for everyone. Brigham's dedication to quality and value is the company's guiding principle, and it has remained one of the reasons pipe smokers continue to enjoy Brigham pipes.