Cultural Pipe-Smoking

“Corn Cob Pipe” by Tanya, Creative Commons

By Sasha T. Miller

One of the things most closely associated with the image of Mark Twain is smoking. Twain lived in an era when tobacco use was far more acceptable than it is today, and there were many methods involved in the use of it.

In Huckleberry Finn Twain brings tobacco into the story early, in the first scene where Huck is with the Widow Douglas. “Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the Widow to let me,” Huck tells us, “But she wouldn’t. She said it was a mean practice and wasn’t clean…” This is the first place in the novel where Huck recognizes hypocrisy, as he goes on to say: “And she took snuff too. Of course, that was all right, because she done it herself.” (Huckleberry Finn, Chapter I) (1)

Snuff, a powdered tobacco that’s either inhaled in tiny quantities, or rubbed on the gum, was acceptable enough for a proper lady like the Widow Douglas, but in the 19th century smoking was only acceptable for men.

Then as now, many people were opposed to any form of smoking, and they frowned on lighting up in public. Twain recognized this when he first visited Hartford, his future home. He wrote of his first impressions in an article titled: “A Glimpse of Hartford,” saying: “As I came along the principal street, today – smoking, of course – I noticed that of the two hundred men in sight at one time, only two were smoking beside myself.” (2) Twain refuted the arguments of anti-smokers in an 1893 essay, “The Moral Statistician.” There he wrote: “I don’t want any of your statistics; I took your whole batch and lit my pipe with it… You are always ciphering out how much a man’s health is injured, and how much his intellect is impaired, and how many pitiful dollars and cents he wastes in the course of ninety-two years’ indulgence in the fatal practice of smoking… You never see more than one side of the question.” (Sketches, Old and New) (3)

Though the habit was considered dirty by some, it was acceptable as long as men limited it to particular times and circumstances. Trains had smoking cars, large homes had smoking rooms, and wealthy men could smoke at their clubs. Tobacco came in five main forms. We have already seen snuff. Closely related to snuff was chewing tobacco, which came in long, round sections, something like very thick rope. A man would cut a small section, usually called a “chaw.” The cigar dated back to Native Americans who had rolled tobacco into long cylinders for centuries. During Twain’s lifetime, the cigarette—a kind of mini-cigar wrapped in thin paper—became popular. But throughout the 19th century the most prevalent method of tobacco use was smoking it in a pipe. If pictures are any indication, the pipe was Twain’s favorite. In most photos and drawings he has one in either his hand or his mouth.

Twain had all kinds of pipes, and, like most smokers, he switched from one to another. He had briar pipes, cherry pipes, and meerschaum. Meerschaum is a porous rock-like material found in large deposits in Turkey and its neighbors. A meerschaum pipe will start out white, but as it is smoked the outer bowl and stem gradually take on a yellow-brownish coloring. If the smoker holds the meerschaum in his fingers as he smokes, the white material absorbs oils from the skin, resulting in a pipe of many colors. The pipe is fragile, expensive, and highly prized by most pipe smokers.
No doubt Twain enjoyed meerschaums, but his most famous comment on the subject is somewhat ironic—like Huck’s thoughts about Widow Douglas and her snuff. The comment was a response to famed British author, Rudyard Kipling, who visited Twain at the latter’s Hartford home in 1890. Kipling, who was also a pipe smoker, chided Twain for loading fine Turkish tobacco into a cheap corncob pipe. Twain replied: “This, sir, is not a corncob pipe. It is a ‘Missouri Meerschaum.'”(4)

Of course, it was a corncob pipe, which was also Twain’s favorite. Corncobs are the cheapest pipes. They produce a cool, smooth smoke, but they don’t last very long. Twain claimed to prefer “used” corncobs. In an 1892 interview he said: “I never smoke a new corn-cob pipe. A new pipe irritates the throat. No corn-cob pipe is fit for anything until it has been used at least a fortnight.” (Idler Magazine, February 1892) (5)

Twain’s smoking habits—like the man—reflected two sides: There was writer-humorist, Mark Twain (his pen name), and respectable Hartford businessman, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. His choice of a pipe could symbolize either calm authority, sophisticated wit, or hayseed humor. When Twain smoked a meerschaum pipe that showed off the middle class respectability he seemed to crave in his Samuel Langhorne Clemens persona. His huge, odd-looking calabash went better with smart comedy and sophisticated satire. His lowly corncob was the favorite of his writing persona: Mark Twain, former riverboat pilot, and now a teller of tall tales around the camp fire.

Twain had some awareness of the risks of smoking. In his last years, as he began to develop cardiovascular problems, he referred to the troubles caused by his “tobacco heart.” But in all his years of smoking, he never expressed regret. In a letter to Joseph Twitchell in 1870, Twain noted: “when they used to tell me I would shorten my life ten years by smoking, they little knew the devotee they were wasting their puerile word upon — they little knew how trivial and valueless I would regard a decade that had no smoking in it!” (6)

Twain never completely quit smoking, though he did cut down in his last years. When invited to make a speech on his 70th birthday, Twain told his well-wishers: “It has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain while awake.”

It was also late in life that he wrote his final word on the subject of smoking in an essay titled “Concerning Tobacco.” It appeared in his book, “What Is Man,” in 1906, four years before he died. He finished the piece with these words: “…the taste for tobacco is a matter of superstition. There are no standards—no real standards. Each man’s preference is the only standard for him, the only one which he can accept, the only one which can command him.”(7)

Works Cited

1 The Portable Mark Twain, edited by Bernard DeVoto, Viking Press, 1946.
2 A Glimpse of Hartford, by Mark Twain, San Francisco, March, 1868 , accessed 12/11/15
3 Sketches, Old and New, by Mark Twain, accessed 12/11/15
4 Remarks to Rudyard Kipling, Traveling Into History, by Steve Parsons, 1997, accessed 12/11/15
5 Interview with Luke Sharp, The Idler Magazine, London, February, 1892 accessed 12/11/15
6 Letter to Joseph Twitchell, December 19, 1870,, accessed 12/11/15
7 What is Man? By Mark Twain, 1906, accessed 12/11/15
8 “Huckleberry Finn.” By Mark Twain. Search E-text, Read Online, Study, and Discuss. N.p., n.d. Web, accessed 12/11/15.

Submitted for ENG 220, Studies in American Literature, Fall 2015
Instructor: Professor Jeffrey F.L. Partridge
Instructor comments: This class met entirely at the Mark Twain House & Museum and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and therefore gave us an opportunity to read the literature of these authors in depth and also to study the material evidence of their lives in the homes, archives, and exhibits. The challenge for me as a professor of literature was to devise a research assignment that would bring these two experiences together. The challenge for the students was to try to meet the crazy demands of my assignment! Sasha rose to the occasion. Her idea started with a corn-cob pipe in an exhibit and blossomed into an informative and creative essay on the significance of pipe-smoking in the life of Samuel Clemens and in the works of his literary alter-ego, Mark Twain.

Photo credit: “Corn Cob Pipe” by Tanya.  Licensed through Creative Commons.

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