My Bessai Special - Canadian circa 1960s
The John Bessai Pipe Clinic
35 Colonial Arcade
Cleveland, OH 44115
History of John Bessai (thanks to jguss from pipesmagazine forum)
John J. Bessai was born on June 7, 1882 in Radautz, a town in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire (it now has a different name and is part of Romania); he died in Ohio on January 7, 1950. His parents were Peter Bessai and Eudokia Scobai. I believe he came to the U.S. about 1908, and was naturalized in 1915. Here he met his wife, Anna Mildner Lohses Truthan, born about 1876 in Bavaria to parents Julius Lohse and Anna Mildner; she died in Ohio on September 15, 1967. Anna arrived in America about 1886, was naturalized in 1893, and married her first husband, Edwin Truthan, in Ohio on February 18, 1896. They had one son, also named Edwin, before Anna’s husband passed away. She and John Bessai married on October 16, 1912, and shortly thereafter had two children together: a daughter named Irene, and a son named Herbert John (born August 8, 1916); as you know it was Herbert who inherited the shop after John passed away.
Records show John listed as a pipe repairer almost from the moment he arrived in Cleveland, strongly suggesting that he had prior training in the old country. The first listed address, in the 1908 city directory, is 48 Public Square. This is interesting because located at that address was a cigar wholesale/retail business, and “pipe hospital”. It was owned by a man named Max Feder, who along with his brothers had been involved in the tobacco business in Cleveland since the mid-1880s. Just a few years later, in January of 1912, advertisements appeared in local papers for John’s pipe hospital, listing it as “suc. To Max Feder”. The clear inference is that John bought that aspect of Feder’s business sometime in late 1911. At the time of the acquisition the pipe hospital was located at 2063 4th street; a few months later, on March 15, 1912, it moved to 2111 E. 2nd. Within two years, by 1914, Bessai had gone into business with two brothers named Samuel and Morris Siegel; this relationship lasted for about seven years, first at 718 Superior (in 1914), and then at 202 Prospect (from 1915 through the summer of 1921). The Siegel brothers shops were famous in Cleveland for decades as a source of fine tobaccos and pipes. But by the fall of 1921 John had decided to go his own way, and is listed independently at the 47 Euclid address. Here he remained for the rest of his life. A little more than a year after he died, however, his son Herbert moved the shop to 13 Euclid Arcade in the spring of 1951. There it stayed for about seven years, before being moved one last time to 35 Colonial Arcade in about 1957/58. There the business stayed for the remainder of Herbert’s ownership, and for some years beyond.
**John Bessai ~1909 until his passing in 1950 (UPDATED 3/30/15)
**Herb Bessai 1949-1979 (UPDATED 8/16/14)
**Bernie Milota 1979-1983/1984 (UPDATED 8/16/14)
**Daniel Gottschall 1983/1984-~1993
**Purchased by Danny Kolod in 1985 and changed the name to Old Erie Smoke Shop at this point (owner of Dad's Smoke Shop / Cousin's Smoke Shop) (info courtesy of Crain's Cleveland Business May 24, 1999 article titles 'Cousin's Tobacco Road Leading to the Galleria'. (UPDATED 1/25/16)
Cousin's Cigars purchased the remaining stock of Bessai pipes near after Herb Bessai passed away in 2002.
Years of Operation: 1909 - 1979 (family owned and operated until sold to Bernie Milota with Herb Bessai remaining for bench-work). After 1983 the business was sold to Daniel Gottschall who then sold to Cousin's Cigar (Euclid Ave) around 1993. The name was changed to "Old Erie Tobacco Company". They were forced to move to the Galleria when all the tenants of the Old Arcade were cleared out to make room for renovations. Their new address was The Galleria at Erieview, 1301 East 9th Street in Cleveland.
After this move the location wasn't as busy as they had hoped and Cousin's moved all the Old Erie Tobacco assets to their Euclid Avenue Store. The store has since moved to a St. Clair location after Cleveland State forced them out due to anti-smoking regulations on campus. Their St. Clair location offers many of John Bessai Pipe Clinic's old tobacco blends.
Their new store opened in the Merriman Valley area in Akron, Ohio where the store manager John Coleman oversees the day to day operations. John was instrumental in helping me piece together a lot of loose ends during Bessai Pipe Clinic's transition years.
My father visited their shop several times in the early 60s as he attended Fenn College (now Cleveland State University) as an undergrad before moving on to Ohio State University for his Masters. He's way smarter than I am so I just go with the flow...
He mentioned meeting Herb at that time who quickly gave my father some pointers on smoking a pipe and how to take samples from the shops expansive sample jar collection. His pipes were on display in the shop although I don't believe he had a lot of pipes on display at any given time due to production in-shop.
John's son Herb took over the shop in 1949 after he graduated from Fenn College (now Cleveland State University) as he is listed as having played Baseketball for CSU. Herb was also a helpful, informative and friendly individual. Articles exist from the Herald in 1962 where they interviewed Herb (with photograph) about the state of smoking in the new age of the early 60s. I visited the shop in the late 70s / early 80s with my father during a trip to Cleveland and couldn't tell you much about the shop other than the guy working was very friendly. Back then it wasn't unusual to be a kid and walk into a smoke shop with your father. Clearly I didn't purchase anything but my father probably picked up some tobacco but I remember him looking at pipes displayed on a back wall. The shop was small but impressive.
If anyone has any pictures of the shop or old catalogs, I would love any additional information as it's tough to come by 30+ years later!
Tobacco Line offered by John Bessai Pipe Clinic (from the flier provided by Cousin's Cigars circa 1994):
#1000 - Virginias
This is sweet, exceptionally soft, fully-rubbed matured Virginia, aged to provide a medium-bodied smoke that is smoother than any other Virginia.
#1001 - English
Sweet, yet full-bodied and cool. An English tobacco tempered with aromatic roasted Cavendish. The perfect "Step-Up" blend.
#1002 - English
Virginia, Latakia, Samsoun and English Cavendish are combined to create a robust natural English tobacco with a pleasant aroma.
#1004 - English (no longer available - produced by Lane w/ Syrian Latakia)
Herb Bessai developed the formula for this superior English mixture while working with Herman Lane more than thirty years ago. The best-seller among our Orientals.
Here is a good tasting, sweet smelling Virginia. This soft cake smokes dryer and cooler than any aromatic, but with a natural tobacco taste.
Pressure, aging and light stoving transforms this tobacco into a beautifully dark, pungent cake. It is sweet and rich, but not heavy.
#1200 - English
A Classic medium Balkan mixture prepared from stoved Eastern and Middle Belt Strip, Cyprian Latakia, Lemon Carolina and the finest Oriental tobaccos.
#1600 - English
Latakia lovers will fall in love with this rich and exotic mixture. With just a touch of Virginias and Orientals for a satisfying smoke.
There are other aromatic tobaccos listed (roughly 20) but I am unclear if these were offered by the John Bessai Pipe Clinic and will leave them off the list until this is confirmed.
Pipes offered by John Bessai Pipe Clinic:
Most of the pipes were fairly standard in shape that were offered by the John Bessai Pipe Clinic. You can see the picture of the rather long Canadian at the top of this post that I recently purchased off e-bay. I would say most of the pipes Bessai offered were smooth pipes. My assessment would be 90% smooth and 10% rusticated / sandblasted. The Canadian pipe above is clearly sandblasted but I have seen others that appear to be hand rusticated one way or another.
John crafted pipes in the back room and finished them while the store wasn't busy. Some of his pipes from the late 1960s through the 1980s (John passed away in 1950) I feel were left over stock from previous turnings and sometimes showed fills or sand pits. In advertisements in the newspaper of the late 60s the Bessai Pipe Clinic offered "hand finished" Bessai pipes, all but confirming the previous statement. Some of these pipes even carry Herb's markings (see below). These pipes still smoke very well but are not as eye-appealing as other earlier pipes from the store's career.
Stampings and rough dating of John Bessai Pipe Clinic Pipes:
Which pipes did John make and which ones did Herb make/finish?
All Bessai pipes carry his standard large JB stamp either on the stem or shank or both. Typically the JB on the stem is within a circle.
All pipes created by John Bessai's hands reportedly contain the miniscule 'jb' stamp on the shank or body of the pipe. I have older pipes in my possession that do not contain this stamp (condenser, old stamps, etc) that were clearly shop made pipes. I feel he started using the tiny 'jb' stamp in the 40s. It is possible that hand-made pipes by Herb (starting in 1949) also used this small 'jb' stamp. All pipes in my possession carrying this small stamp appear to be actual hand made pipes with hand made vulcanite stems.
An interesting note about John Bessai's stems - they always clean very nicely and aren't prone to as much oxidation (that brownish / green color)as most dunhill and Charatan pipes tend to oxidize. His cuts to his stems were very impressive and often transitioned from diamond shaped shanks almost architecturally. Very comfortable to smoke. Most of his hand-made stems show excellent button cutting and the holes at the button end of the stem are always cut a bit larger than most from that time period which eases in the cleaning of the stem.
Pictures of stem stamps:
Picture of shank stamps:
Standard logo shank stamp - same as some stem stamps
Double stamped Bessai over Special tiny jb - sandblasted
One of my favorites - Bessai / Special / X / jb
The Specials and Special X pipes were his larger more impressive and unique briar pipes.
John Bessai over Bullseye - older stamp
John Bessai over tiny jb over Bullseye
John Bessai - some ghosting on the stamp probably 1960s/ early 1970s
Another standard JB but this one was an older pipe with a condenser in the tenon.
CLEVELAND, O. over U.S.A. - 1940s/1950s estimate
HB / JB - Herb Bessai Stamping late 60s/early 70s
Most of the Bessai Pipes show IMPORTED BRIAR in one font or another.
J. BESSAI - yet another variant - would guess 1970s vintage.
BESSAI over tiny jb - would guess late 50s.
JOHN BESSAI over Bullseye (2nd sample as above)
Tiny jb over IMPORTED BRIAR on left side of shank
Reverse side of shank stamp above JB.
Here's a JOHN BESSAI with a tiny jb stamp on the stem. Would estimate this to be an old stamp from the 40s from the bowl patina.
This one's tough to see as the shank was scratched. JOHN BESSAI over SPECIAL over tiny jb. Encircled stem stamp - would guess 1950s.
Very simple tiny jb with large JB encircled on stem.
JOHN BESSAI over tiny jb - JB not circled on stem.
Simple tiny jb on shank and no markings on stem.
John Bessai Special Pipes:
As pictured above I have a couple Bessai Special pipes. These stand out either by large size, graining or possibly shape. Most Specials are unique pipes and are rare to find in comparison to his regular issue pipes.
According to Herb Bessai in an interview from 1971, these SPECIAL pipes were unique and highly regarded blocks of briar that cost him around $35 per block to purchase. These pipes STARTED at $75 and went up to $250 according to the article. I'm sure they weren't this expensive in the 40s, 50s and into the 60s but BESSAI SPECIAL pipes are considered unique HAND CREATED individual pipes.
John Bessai Special X pipes:
I only have one of these and it's a beauty. This one is a larger bowl (around a group 4 dunhill) with deep colored grain and a hefty substantial shank. Special X pipes are probably the rarest of John Bessai pipes and should be sought out if possible. I've smoked mine roughly 4 or 5 times and it performs with the best of my pipes.
My Bessai Special X Straight Bulldog with Saddle Bit - stamped BESSAI over SPECIAL over X over tiny jb - would estimate from the late 40s to the late 50s.
Herb Bessai Pipes:
Unfortunately none of these pipes that I've seen have astounded me with grain or general appearance. Having said this, these pipes smoke nicely and are a great value if you can find them. I have one that my father found at an Antique Show in the South. There's another author shape on reborn pipe's blog that someone refinished because of the amount of fills in the pipe. He also states it's a wonderful smoker. These pipes are likely from the late 60s through the early 70s. I believe many pipes after this period were created en masse at a factory in the US. It is unclear what stamp was used on these later pipes.
My one and only Herb Bessai pipe. Author shape with saddle bit. Small conical bowl interior.
Dating / Circa era Bessai Pipes:
If the pipe carries a stamp stating Cleveland, O U.S.A. it's considered an older production pipe (pre 1960s, likely pre-WWII). I've not seen any newer pipes with that stamp.
Bullseye stamping usually indicates an earlier pipe as that stamp seems to have been abandoned pre 1950 as well.
Most of the earlier Bessai pipes have an unusual 'stinger' or condenser at the end of the tenon which is unique to Bessai pipes. They are either a hard plastic or created out of wood. They are typically easy to remove and could have been easily lost if misplaced. These pipes I would consider pre-1960 and possibly 1940s-early 1950s production based on their stamps and patina of the pipes.
A wooden / briar? condenser
Another condenser, possibly plastic
Another condenser likely a hard plastic - all these pipes have older style stamps (note from comment below from reborn pipes - possibly a bakelite composite?)
Exceptions to the rule - Always, right?
As always, there seems to be the unusual oddity that surfaces that makes you scratch your head...
Here's an example that the author was not high-bidder for on e-bay:
It's tough to see but the pipe is stamped "JOHN BESSAI PIPE CLINIC" partially obscured by the gold band. The JB stamp on the stem is also different from previous offerings. To boot, the pipe is stamped "MADE IN LONDON ENGLAND" with a shape stamp 4*9 (* is a soft stamped number unreadable). This pipe is likely a Comoy product as they made house pipes for a lot of old American pipe shops. Appears to have fills on the bottom of the shank. Pipe was listed as a 1950s era pipe but I would guess it's from the 40s. Gold band seems to be an aftermarket addition although it is hallmarked and in need of repair.
1970s 1980s and beyond:
My feeling on these pipes is that they purchased nearly finished pipes from a large manufacturer and stamped them with the John Bessai or Bessai stamp (on shank and/or stem). Most of these shapes are standard among many stores from that period and offer less than spectacular grain (and sometimes fills). Stamps on these pipes are probably fairly plain and don't have the tiny 'jb' stamp on the shank indicating it was produced by John Bessai (or early Herb).
My Bessai / Hross project
After receiving a couple new production Bessai pipes via auction, there were a couple that had rather extensive putty fills in the bowl. After toying with my technique and finding what works best for me, I set out to rusticate the pipes that were not up to the Bessai standard apprearance:
1) A huge Canadian that had some deep gouging sort of finish (similar to the GBD Sauvage finish).
2) A straight bulldog with numerous fills
3) A Dublin that had so many fills it looked like morse-code.
I have taken a picture of them below with their black Bessai-issued Sandblast pipe. I must say I am proud of their finished look and feel this has given me a more direct link to Bessai and his craft.
If you have any questions or comments or have more information or corrections to my posting, please do not hesitate to get this to me.
UPDATED Bessai Pipes in my collection:
One of my favorite shapes / the chubby bend Rhodesian. Stamped John Bessai. JB on the stem. No other stampings. Perfect balance and shape. I have smoke this quite a bit since refurbishing the pipe.
Before and after pictures of the John Bessai chubby / saddle bit bent rhodesian:
|Before (as received)|
|Inside of chamber as received|
|Aftermarket spring type wind-cap.|
|After / wind cap and chamber cleaned / cleared.|
|After refurb. Have since bent the stem a bit more for comfort.|