I was doing graduate work in Charlottesville, Virginia in the late 1980s, and like most graduate students was somewhere between desperately poor and totally impoverished. I had dropped my glasses and one lens had a spectacular spider-web crack making it impossible to see without closing that eye. There was no hope of getting a new pair until the next financial aid check came in a few months, but somehow I scrounged together enough money to buy a tin of Mac Barens Virginia No. 1. Some things are more important than others, right?
So off I went to Cavalier Pipes and Tobaccos, the only remaining tobacconist in that university town, the legendary Mincer’s having long since divested itself of its smoker’s equipage. While most pipe-smokers didn’t know it, the late 80s were still the dark days of the hobby, which had plummeted in the mid-1980s and wouldn’t rise on the coat-tails of the Great Cigar Boom until the early ’90s.
Tobacconists had for the most part become upscale tchotchke shops, as my beloved Yiddish friend Linda would say, with flavored popcorn, walking sticks, umbrellas, porcelain ballerinas, men’s cologne and maybe a tray or two of pipes and a few tins of tobacco. This one was in transition, with about half its real estate taken over by tchotchkes. But the other half was still a respectable pipe & tobacco shop, carrying Ser Jacopo, Dunhill, Sasieni and Comoy’s, and (of course) Peterson pipes.
On the day I went in with impaired vision, Jim the proprietor had a tray of Peterson Dunmore Systems (c. 1979-84). At the time I had in my Peterson rotation my beloved 309, a 1980 DeLuxe 11s and a 1981 Mark Twain. Even with one eye, I knew I had to have a Dunmore 02 System, and after some negotiations first with Jim and then later with my wife, the price was met. I don’t remember how we did it, but somehow we did. And that’s the first time I’d heard of a System line apart from the Standard, Premier and De Luxe.
As readers of The Peterson Pipe: The Story of Kapp & Peterson know, there have actually been a number of other System lines, most of them fairly scarce on the estate market. The most recent examples are the 2019 St. Patrick’s Day commemorative, the 2018 Pub Pipe and the 2018 Spigot System, the latter two still in production. Beginning in 1975 (and in no particular order), these lines also included the Centenary System; the Mark Twain commemorative; the STAR, a red-stained gorgeous-grained line with sterling mounts; the Cara, a hand-selected nickel-mount line for Mario Lubinski’s Italian market; the Gold Block, a premium for those who collected enough coupons from Ogden’s Gold Block tobacco in the UK; the Connemara Premier Rustic of the renowned “pebble grain” rustication; the Sculpted and Aboriginal, briar and meer Systems with a scalloped smooth and sometimes partially rusticated finish); the Dublin with Briar Circle high grade; the Supreme ultra-high and the Tinder Box Erin System. While I love this year’s Dark Smooth and sandblasted De Luxe and Standard System Dark, as they have no distinguishing stamps like the other Systems mentioned (apart from the Aboriginal and Sculpted), technically they’re finishes and not lines.
Notice the Spigot “Systems” in the 1979 catalog have fishtail stems. Sorry folks, but they’re not going to smoke like a System.
At about the time I was enjoying my first Dunmore, the Tinder Box, a chain of hitherto highly successful brick & mortar pipe shops, was experiencing the same decline as other pipe shops. The Tinder Box had been a lifeline for me whenever I was away from my home town, and whenever I found myself in another city, the first thing I’d do was see if there was a Tinder Box and make a pilgrimage. For many years their gorgeous 1979 and 1980 catalogs sat proudly on the shelf next to my pipe “bible,” Carl Ehwa’s Book of Pipes and Tobaccos. From 1979 through 1981, Tinder Box carried a full array of Petersons, including some remarkable high-grades.
The Peterson page from the 1980 Tinder Box catalog.
Is it my imagination, or does that Rossi Duca look like what we in the US sometimes call a Dookie Chair (toilet)?
The 1981 Tinder Box Peterson page
From 1982 through 1984, Tinder box apparently couldn’t get Peterson Systems, but they still wanted some kind of System so they turned to Armellini, Savinelli and even GBD for clones. The Armellini, with its Lucite P-Lip clone button, has always been of great interest to me. Not quite as glamorous when seen in person as the catalog suggests, the idea of an swirled-acrylic army mount P-Lip remained with me for a long time.
I wish I could offer you an exact date for the Tinder Box Erin “System”’s manufacture, but all I can do is guess. It obviously wasn’t made from 1979-84, as it would have been featured in the Tinder Box catalogs for those years. Peterson lost its ability to do in-house sandblasting when the downsizing (reduction in force) occurred in 1983. The out-sourced drum sandblasting, stain style and COM stamp all look to me like something from the end of the 1980s or at the beginning of the Dublin era in in ’91 or soon thereafter.
Drum sandblasting always seems to have a fairly interesting obverse side and far less interesting reverse.*
The Erin sandblasts seem to have been blasted with a harder media than often seen, making deep pits or ridges
that responded well to Peterson’s red-over-black contrast stain.
Surviving interweb examples are in both smooth and sandblast. I’ve seen a 305 calabash, 312 billiard, 309 Dutch billiard and the 314 small billiard. All carry an unstamped nickel mount with the typical Late Republic era COM stamp on the reverse (for smooth) or bottom (for sandblast). My question for you, dear reader, is whether the Erin is a genuine System or not. The 314 I acquired has a P-Lip, but the P-Lip seems to me to be unsmoked and possibly a NOS replacement, since every other Tinder box Erin System I’ve seen has a fishtail.
A 305 Tinder Box Erin from Doug Valitchka’s collection (courtesy Pipedia)
My 314 had one other problem: it didn’t seem to have much of a reservoir. I thought maybe it was just full of tar, but a thorough cleaning only revealed that the draft hole had been opened a bit. I therefore took it upon myself to supply the requisite reservoir with my variable-speed hand drill, after carefully taping the nickel mount so as not to scratch it.
A Smooth 317 from Tony Barr’s Collection
I don’t normally smoke smaller-bowled pipes, but seeing this 314 Erin recently piqued my interest, especially as everyone aside from Chuck Stanion at Smokingpipes seems to smoke a small-bowled pipe. I haven’t figured out why they do so—something to do with the Illuminati, or possibly some kind of trade secret is my best guess. Or maybe they know something the rest of us don’t? I’ve actually asked a few of them but received no satisfactory answer, just some very suspicious hems and hahs. If you’ve read this blog for long, you know my opinion that if a pipe doesn’t deliver 2 1/2 to 3 hours of continuous smoking, which means a good virginia flake in a chamber of about 19.5 x 42 to 45 mm, then it’s failing its primary duty. But I can’t help wondering if somehow the tobacco performs better in these smaller chambers. I guess I’m going to try and find out for myself.
A discolored 309 Tinder Box Erin System estate (courtesy SPC)
The real question: is the Erin a genuine System line? For that, we’d have to document more examples and determine whether they had reservoirs and P-Lips. My guess at this point is that the Erin “System” was issued with fishtail and without a reservoir, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong.
*See Chuck Stanion, “The Unsurpassed Blast” for a good overview of the history of sandblasting and pipes.
Do you smoke a GOLD BLOCK Peterson System?
If you have any information on Ogden’s of Liverpool’s premium coupons program or one of its catalogs featuring the Peterson 314 Gold Block System, please contact me. I am looking for dates for this System line in doing research for The Pocket Peterson: A Collector’s Guide.