Pipe making is not an industry that encourages change. From about A.D. 100, when a Mayan priest stuffed tobacco into a hollow tube, the pipe’s basic form and function remained mostly unaltered until 1875. That was when a young Irishman, weary of burning his tongue on his pipe’s hot smoke and tasting the acidic liquid that had seeped into the air hole, proposed what became the most sweeping changes to basic pipe design in centuries. So revolutionary were Charles Peterson’s ideas that Dublin pipe makers Friedrich and Heinrich Kapp made him a partner and changed the name of their factory to Kapp & Peterson.
To this day, all Kapp & Peterson pipes—those in the know simply say Peterson—feature air holes angled upward, away from the tongue. This design helps to prevent tongue bite, the painful burn caused by mouthpieces that, until Peterson, pointed directly at the tip of the tongue. Peterson pipes also feature bowls with drilled-in reservoirs so that the tobacco chamber can drain, alleviating the acidic taste and silencing the occasional gurgle caused by condensed moisture from humidified tobacco and saliva accumulating in the bowl and leaking into the air hole. Before Peterson’s innovation, refined smokers used chicken feathers to soak up the moisture. (Today, people who smoke pipes other than those made by Peterson must use pipe cleaners.) Peterson’s legacy also includes his distinctive rounded mouthpiece tip, called the P-lip design, which was patented in 1898 and has since been copied by many other pipe makers.
Although Kapp & Peterson introduced the most significant changes to pipes in almost 1,700 years, the company survives today by resisting change. For instance, Grafton Street has been the home of the Kapp brothers’ shop since 1865, when they first opened for business. The factory operated in its original building for 121 years before being relocated to Sallynoggin, just outside of Dublin, in 1996. There, each pipe is still handmade by a group of 17 craftsmen, many of whom have been making Peterson pipes for more than 50 years. “We make about 2,000 pipes a week, and we’re struggling [to meet demand] because that’s the limit of our capacity,” says Tony Whelan, manager of the pipe bowl department and himself a 48-year company veteran.
The company has begun to honor its long and esteemed history by producing collectible reproduction pipe sets. Two of the most popular offerings, the Original Sherlock Holmes and the Return of Sherlock Holmes, draw their inspiration from late-19th-century Peterson designs that first Basil Rathbone and later Jeremy Brett made famous while playing the role of Sherlock Holmes. The latest series, the Great Explorers, is a cased set of silver-banded pipes designed in honor of four pipe-smoking explorers who ventured to the Antarctic during the early 1900s. Before designing the series of pipes, which are reminiscent of some early-20th-century Petersons, the company consulted a photo in which one of the explorers, Tom Crean, was pictured with a pipe to his lips. Given the company’s history, it seems fitting that the design of the latest Petersons should be inspired by an Irishman smoking a pipe—a Peterson, in fact.