Notes From the Ashtray

The Calabash

Dylan Gyles

"Pipes are occasionally of extraordinary interest,” said he. “Nothing has more individuality, save perhaps watches and bootlaces.” – The Adventure of the Yellow Face, Arthur Conan Doyle

Few pipe smokers are as famous for their habit as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes. The character has greatly outlived his author, spanning over 120 years of novels, short stories, radio plays, films, and television shows; his face has changed many times, but his genius and nicotine addiction have not diminished. Almost all interpretations of Sherlock Holmes include his tobacco use and yet his most iconic prop, the enormous pipe, the Calabash gourd with meerschaum bowl, never appeared in any of Doyle’s original writings.

Tobacco was featured heavily throughout Doyle’s mysteries. The great detective often considers the specifics of the habit in his forensic analysis of crime scenes and character profiling of suspects. Holmes even penned a monograph entitled “Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos” in which he differentiates a hundred and forty forms of cigar, cigarettes, and pipe tobacco based on the ash they produce. Holmes was of course, a great smoker himself, turning to his pipe at moments of intense introspection. He kept his tobacco in the toe of a Persian slipper by the fireplace and he smoked three small pipes: a churchwarden style clay, a briar, and a cherry wood.

The great Calabash, along with the seminal deer hunter hat, did not appear until a stage portrayal of Holmes’ by English actor William Gillette in 1899. Gillette wanted a pipe that was large enough for audiences to see, and swung low, as not to obstruct his face or blow smoke in his eyes. The Calabash stuck with the character and has appeared in the hands of many actors since: Peter Cushing, Roger Moore, John Barrymore, and Michael Caine to name a few.

The size of the Calabash is indicative of Holmes’ massive intellect and ego, but it also demonstrates the depths of his contemplative nature. The pipe is the record player of tobacco intake; there are faster, easier ways to get a nicotine fix, but the packing and smoking of a pipe is a ritual of discipline and tranquility. The Calabash is a pipe only for people who have the time to smoke it.

The Calabash also makes an appearance in the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s World War Two fairytale Inglorious Basterds. Colonel Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter”, played by Christoph Waltz interrogates a French farmer and brandishes the enormous pipe to exhibit his detective prowess.

In the most recent adaptation of Doyle’s work, the BBC series Sherlock, the Calabash does not appear, no pipe does, for that matter. Instead, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes uses nicotine patches in his moments of meditation.

Regardless of the means, nicotine addiction is an essential element of Sherlock Holmes. His overwhelming genius and abrasive manner are dehumanizing qualities, but a habit as trivial as tobacco helps ground him. Despite his remarkable brain, Holmes is still at the mercy of his body’s chemical needs and that makes him believable and relatable.


Dylan Gyles

Dylan Gyles is a writer and barista. He writes short fiction and creative non-fiction. He is originally from Winnipeg and now lives in Vancouver.


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