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SHERLOCK HOLMES SMOKED a pipe, kept his tobacco in a Persian slipper, and certainly knew his tobacco ashes: “To the trained eye,” he told chronicler Dr. John H. Watson, “there is as much difference between the black ash of a Trichinopoly and the white fluff of bird’s-eye as there is between a cabbage and a potato.”
Holmes’ Persian slipper tobacco pouch, typically made of silk, satin, or brocade, with a curled-up toe, would have contained common black shag: According to pipesandcigars.com, “Shag tobacco in Victorian days was more coarsely cut than what we think of as a shag today, and it would have been a strong tobacco of fair to poor quality. Watson commented on how dense and foul the clouds of bluish smoke would be when he would return from a sojourn while Holmes would concentrate on a puzzle.”
This would have been especially so with a “three-pipe problem.” But what sort of pipe?
The Calabash Meerschaum Pipe. Many imagine a pipe with a twisted stem and a large bowl made from a calabash gourd with a meerschaum head.
The calabash, Lagenaria siceraria, is also known as the bottle gourd, long melon, New Guinea bean, and Tasmania bean. According to Wikipedia, “It can be either harvested young to be consumed as a vegetable, or harvested mature to be dried and used as a utensil.”
“Calabash,” Wikipedia continues, “was said to bestow a ‘special softness’ of flavor that could not be duplicated by other materials. The lining was made of meerschaum, though tin was used for low-grade models.”
Meerschaum, aka sepiolite, is a soft white clay. The word comes from German, meaning “sea foam.” Wikipedia writes, “The first recorded use of meerschaum for making pipes was around 1723 and quickly became prized as the perfect material for providing a cool, dry, flavorful smoke. The porous nature of meerschaum draws moisture and tobacco tar into the stone.”
All Very Interesting, But …. In fact, the real Sherlock Holmes never smoked a calabash meerschaum pipe. As cited in sherlockian-sherlock.com, Watson makes clear in his chronicling that Holmes “had pipes made from clay, briar, and cherry.”
The Clay Pipe. In “The Red-Headed League,” Watson describes a contemplative Holmes: “… there he sat with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird.”
It’s possible that Holmes’ clay pipe was a meerschaum (the “sea-foam” clay) turned black by use. Consider his three-pipe problems, the implication being two refills rather than successive choices of smoking utensil.
The Briar Pipe. In “The Man With The Twisted Lip,” Watson recalls, “In the dim light of the lamp I saw him sitting there, an old briar pipe between his lips, his eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling, the blue smoke curling up from him….”
From The Sign of Four: “My practice has extended recently to the Continent,” said Holmes, after a while, filling up his old brier-root pipe. “I was consulted last week by Francois Le Villard, who, as you probably know, has come rather to the front lately in the French detective service.”
No doubt the misspelling can be traced to Watson’s literary agent, Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Cherry-wood Pipe. The sole reference of Holmes’ cherry-wood pipe is in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” Holmes and Watson are discussing the latter’s chronicling of their adventures: “You have erred, perhaps,” he [Holmes] observed, taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood….”
So Whence the Calabash Meerschaum? As described in “Holmes on Stage,” here at SimanaitisSays, “To an early generation of theater goers, American actor William Gillette (1853-1937) all but defined Sherlock Holmes—rightly or wrongly.”
However, as clearly shown in the many illustrations of Sidney Paget (who knew Holmes almost as well as Watson did), Holmes’ pipes were invariably straight stemmed. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021
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