“Never underestimate the big importance of small things,” Mrs. Elm said. ‘You must always remember that.’
—Matt Haig, The Midnight Library 86.
More than once I have suspected that what holds the world together is not the Sturm und Drang I read about in the day’s headlines but the little pleasures we take for granted. It’s the first cup of coffee in the morning, the beer after a hard day, the pipe in the evening. Scottish mystic George MacDonald once wrote that God’s greatest miracles are the everyday ones, the ones we often don’t even see. One of those I suggest may be the little System pipe 314, shape 20. It’s been around since 1891 and has changed very little since. It can be seen on a regular basis on eBay, often from several different eras. This morning I want to look at a particular one I’ve known about for years but never seen in person until just recently: the Gold Block.
In the 1937 catalog (above), shape 20 was the DeLuxe 20, the 314 Grade 2 (sterling) and 364 Grade 3 (nickel)
Many Pete lovers don’t realize how many System lines (apart from the traditional DeLuxe, Premier and Standard) and commemoratives there have been beginning in the late Republic era. The lines began with the Dunmore Premier Unmounted (1971-84), followed by the red Star (c. 1979-85, 2010), the smooth Sculpted (not actually a line but uniqued scalloped smooth rustication, c. 1971-75) and the Connemara Premier Rustic (1987-1998).
The System commemoratives began with the Hallmark Silver Cap & Chain 9s in 1974 and were followed by the Mark Twain from 1981-1985 and the Patent Oom Paul (1990). I would argue that the Gold Block System (c. 1970?-88) probably belongs to the commemorative issues inasmuch as it is a single shape rather than a line comprised of the full catalog of System shapes.
From 1998 through 2018, the System was more figurehead than flagship line for Peterson. The System’s fortunes began to turn around under Laudisi’s direction, and in 2019 we saw not only the Pub Pipe shape but the St. Patrick’s Day (2019), Halloween (2021) and that triumph for System lovers, the POY 2021 / 4AB.
As a kid I was a sucker for saving cereal box tops, redeeming them one time for a Matchbox Mustang Mach II and once for an A4 Corsair model kit, which probably explains my fascination with the Gold Block System. The offer was made by John Ogden’s of Liverpool. To qualify for the 1987 offer, one had to send them £9.95 and proof of purchase for three tins of their Gold Block tobacco. This venerable tobacco, now made by MacBaren’s, was a staple for British smokers, a classic OTC blend that dates back at least as far as the Great War (according to the Imperial War Museum) and as such must be one of the oldest tobacco blends still being made.
Photo of 1917 tin courtesy Imperial War Museum
The idea is an old one and for those who enjoyed Gold Block anyway or who could be tempted for the 1987 offer to buy three 50 gram tins, it saved them £5.50 over the £15.45 retail—about 36%. Not bad. We know the date for this pipe because Scott Forrest, fellow traveler on the path to enlightenment, recently sent me the 314 Gold Block we’re looking at with all its ephemera. Finding such a new/old stock Pete with all its ephemera is a rare event in the Pete World.
A rare find: the pipe, correct box, original sock, a pipe box price brochure and a brochure catalog.
The box included the January 1987 pipe box brochure price list. Such little pieces of information as this are of great value to Peterson history and I always give them my full attention. I don’t know how many years K&P included these, but I have ones for 1985, 1986 and now this, from January 1987. As you can see from the tin in the banner, the offer is from the year the pipe was made. Every little bit helps in reconstructing the history of this, or any other pipe maker.
While the estate versions I’ve seen online over the years are of variable Standard quality, this one knocks it out of the park, with tight, beautiful birdseye and nary a fill that I could spot. The ferrule, however, is a different story.
If you look where the ferrule meets the stummel, you can see where green oxidation has impacted the gold tone plating. That, however, is the sole clue that this pipe was not purchased new yesterday.
Most of the examples of the Gold Block I’ve seen on eBay over the years have lost all or most of their gold tone finish, which was applied cheaply and under repeated use simply wore off. I don’t know what causes gold tone plating to turn green over time, but I wonder if being tucked in the plastic pipe sock didn’t contribute to the problem. As there were only a few spots afflicted, being the kind of person I am, I couldn’t help but try to remove it and buff out a few of the scratches in the gold tone. Bad idea! The gold tone simply buffed right off. Oh well, I bought the pipe as a companioner / smoker and not as a collector. At least the ferrule polished up nicely!
There they are: the wonderful chuck marks on the inside of the chamber that proclaim this Pete has never been smoked. Chuck marks were one of the great distinguishing features of all K&P pipes from 1896 through 2018, when Laudisi discontinued the practice.
The Gold Block was apparently available with either a fishtail or P-Lip, and while I’ve seen it both ways, for every P-Lip I seem to see three or four fishtails. Why K&P would issue it with a fishtail remains a mystery. Economy, perhaps? I know that K&P currently sells Systems with fishtails and I have, as politely as I could, repeatedly argued that such treatment drives100 prospective pipe smokers away from the System for every 1 it draws. A straight-bore stem won’t allow the condensate to drop into the reservoir, but because there is a reservoir it produces a hellishly hot, wet smoke that makes the Irish Army F/T a cool, dry oasis by comparison. Be that as it may, the Gold Block equipped with a F/T is the first System pipe I know of that was deliberately marketed this way.
You can see the scratches in the NOS gold band revealing its “qualities.” But look at the size of this mortise! No wonder old Systems smoke so well: no skimping on the mortise and reservoir here!
(A parenthetical remark on stems: I’ve had a number of queries over the years on how to replace a missing stem, as Systems are prone to this problem far more than the traditional tenon/mortise variety. As I acquired this pipe from Scott in part to smoke it, I knew I’d need to figure out a replacement solution for myself.
The problem in replacing any System stem has to do with the mortise opening, which varies from shape to shape and era to era. The current 314 mortise width, for example, is designed for the acrylic P-Lip and is narrower than the classic one, which now that I think of it may be part of the recurring problem in getting Systems reservoirs drilled right in recent years.
For most decades in the old vulcanite era, K&P could offer the vulcanite P-Lip stems in three sizes and indicate which size would fit which shape. Then or now, though, availability has been spotty at best, as the company has never made an effort to see that these are consistently available. Most longtime Pete Geeks simply store away discarded System stems for future use, as these seem to accumulate almost as soon as one begins restoring estates. Nothing, by the way, is so sadly humorous as to see an estate Pete being sold with a stem that is outrageously, incredibly wrong.
The best advice I can give, if you really want to smoke the pipe, is to watch for a similar pipe with a decent stem and buy it. You can sell off the bowl afterwards and make back some of your money. As the Gold Block is a Late Republic 314, I knew most of the 314s and 313s from the late 1980s back through the 1950s would fit. I found one on eBay within a week.)
Oops. My Gold Block is now a Silver Block.
The box is also of note. I have one or two other foldable, end-loading boxes like this one. I’m sure this saved Ogdens a few pennies as the slide-out “unboxing” isn’t nearly as fun for the pipeman. It follows the color-scheme of red with gold lettering seen in other pipe boxes during the late 1970s and much of the 1980s. I love it for being the exact box that came with the pipe.
Finally, how great to find a copy of the 1984 Classics Downsizing brochure curled inside the box. I remember these sitting in a pile on the counter at Ted’s Pipe Shoppe in Tulsa. I didn’t know at the time (of course) that K&P was in the middle of two layoffs, the worst in its history, as pipe smoking seemed to virtually stop all over the globe at once. You certainly couldn’t tell that was the case unless you’d been paying close attention to the company’s ephemera in the years previous. As we read in The Peterson Pipe:
The advertising copy for this brochure, which celebrates the two 1895 International Tobacco Trades Exhibition gold medals Charles Peterson received for best finished and best patent pipe, might lead one to believe the catalog appeared in 1995. In fact, it uses a detail of the same cover photograph used for the 1983 catalog, as well as the identical silhouette shapes and names, including the bent-dublin 305 and 5s. System and Meerschaum lineups are likewise identical. It was probably released not long after Peterson-Glass was sold off in late summer of 1983, in an effort to retrench after the reduction in production and lay-offs at the end of 1982. A comparison with the 1983 catalog shows the demise of the Dublin and London, Shannon and Galway lines (in descending order of quality) and reintroduction of the old Kapruf and K Briar entry-grade lines. 6.25″ by 4″, 12 panels.
The factory was leveled not long ago, but the beautiful administration building remains and has been converted into apartments. Take a look at what was left of both.
I haven’t smoked this Gold Block yet, but I’m looking forward to it. I typically pick up larger chamber Systems, but of late I’ve been finding there are evenings where I need to go back after finishing a first pipe for just a little more. This one should do the trick.
Thanks to Scott Forrest, CPG, for his help
and selected photographs
* Check out Alan Blake’s terrific 1985 Gold Block ad for UK TV, starring Ballard Berkeley.