The David P. Ehrlich story
Pipemakers and Tobacconists for a Hundred Years, 1868-1968.
The David P. Ehrlich Company has remained solely in the hands of one family during its century of business, yet it has had several firm names and locations. David P. Ehrlich went to work in 1881 at the age of twenty for Ferdinand Abraham, who dealt in cigars and tobacco and who had begun business in 1868 at 1188 Washington Street in the South End, but in 1880 moved to the center of the city, where the firm has been ever since. David Ehrlich married the boss's daughter. In 1916 the name became the David P. Ehrlich Company and Mr. Ehrlich devoted the rest of his life to this business. Since David's death in 1912 it has been owned by - his nieces and nephews including Richard A. and William Ehrlich.
The Ehrlich shop has since 1880 had a predilection for historic sites. 25 Court Street was close to the spot where from 1721-1726 James Franklin had, with the assistance of his brother Benjamin, published The New-England Courant. In 1908 the firm moved a few doors up Court Street to number 37, on the opposite corner of the alley that is grandiloquently named Franklin Avenue. This new locution was on the site of the one-time printing office of Edes and Gill, publishers of the Boston Gazette, in whose back room some of the "Indians" of the Boston Tea Party assumed their disguises. Soon after the end of World War II at which time the store was located at 33 Court Street a move around the corner to 207 Washington Street brought the shop diagonally across from the Old State House and onto the site occupied from 1610-1808 by the First Church of Boston. The demolition of 207 Washington Street in 1967 caused still another move to 32 Tremont Street, adjoining King's Chapel burying Ground, which is the oldest cemetery in Boston.
The David P. Ehrlich Co. has not just occupied sites intimately associated with Boston history and institutions; it has in the past century become a Boston institution in its own right. It has specialized in fine cigars, pipes, and pipe tobacco. In addition to the retail business, the firm has long specialized in the manufacture of pipes, both from Algerian briar root and from meerschaum, a beautiful white fossilized substance, mined from the earth in Turkish Asia Minor. Meerschaum lends itself to carving, and in the nineteenth century there developed in Austria a fashion for carving pipes from it with formidably intricate decoration.
The Ehrlichs have long had meerschaum carvers, who ply their craft in the shop window to the delight of passersby. For years the bearded Gustave Fischer was a familiar figure in the window at 33 Court Street. A succession of craftsmen have continued the tradition. and still make and repair pipes in the window of the new Tremont Street shop. They still turn their meerschaum pipes by hand on a foot operated wooden lathe made in Austria about 1871. Although briars are today turned on power lathes, meerschaum can only be turned on a foot-operated lathe.
As amber was used for the bits in his better pipes, David P. Ehrlich found himself in the amber business as a side line. For years the firm has been noted for amber jewelry in its many types and forms, often purchasing old examples from estates to maintain its large and varied assortment. And with the meerschaum and die amber as a nucleus, a variety of artifacts dealing with tobacco and smoking, as well as prints of Boston have come to decorate the shop. There is a display case in the Boston Museum of Science donated by David P. Ehrlich Company which outlines the story of amber.
Many of the mahogany display cases that were installed in Court Street early in the century have been transplanted to Washington and then to Tremont Streets, so that the present premises, although new, have a strong family resemblance to those that we knew on our earliest visits to Ehrlich's. This is good sense in Boston, where people do not welcome needless change for its own sake.
In 1956 when the old Harvard Square firm of Leavitt and Peirce was offered for sale, the Ehrlich brothers, because of their Harvard connections, could not resist acquiring it. Richard A. Ehrlich was a member of the class of 1922; his brother William of 1925. As they had known for years this seventy-year-old establishment, which had done business in the same location in Harvard Square longer than any except the College itself, they took it over, with the idea of keeping it as it was, even to the metal ceiling. In 1958, to celebrate its 75th anniversary, David McCord edited for them an engaging volume entitled 75 Aromatic Years of Leavitt & Peirce in the Recollection of 31 Harvard Men . And as Leavitt & Peirce is to Harvard College, so is the even older David P. Ehrlich Co. to Boston - the purveyor of “a brand of special knowledge" built up over a century of honest dealing.
The January 1968 issue of Antiques Magazine carried a feature by Wendell D. Garrett titled "Paraphernalia of smokers and snuffers" describing in considerable detail the impressive collection of paraphernalia and smokers articles from many countries and centuries on permanent exhibit in their Leavitt & Peirce Cambridge tobacco shop. The Boston Public Library in Copley Square devoted twenty-five display cases during the month of January to the David P. Ehrlich Company Centennial Exhibition of Tobacciana made up of the Leavitt & Peirce antique collection, the David P. Ehrlich collection of carved meerschaum pipes and their two venerable Cigar Store Indians.
There are pipes of every price and size and shape, from good ordinary smoking pipes up to briars of the finest grain and meerschaums band cut, turned and polished front the best Turkish blocks. This is in keeping with a catalogue statement: “we have never ceased to regard smoking as an exquisite pleasure, rather than a mere habit." Another of the principles of the firm is embodied in the observation: "we are pipe makers - not plumbers. There are no tricky gadgets in Ehrlich pipes." But when a man drops his pipe, the makers will transform themselves into repairmen in a highly efficient manner. All this has been going on for a century, and we confidently trust that it will outlast our time, and then some.