Life in the comfort zone: From pipes to smartphones

Linus van Pelt (left) and his friends from the Peanuts comic strip Image copyright Gary Gershoff
Image caption Linus van Pelt (left) with his comfort blanket

The cartoon character Linus van Pelt from the Peanuts comic strip has a comfort blanket, and so do lots of children.

I have been out and about, travelling, and watching other travellers recently. This made me think about the history of comforters.

Perhaps tobacco was the first mass comforter.

A north London pub I cycle past on the way to work almost every day has an Elizabethan-era panelled upper room from the 16th Century, where (it is said) the great explorer Sir Walter Raleigh used to smoke pipes of the tobacco he brought back from his travels in the New World.

The first time that happened in Europe, people say.

Smoke that

Jump forward a bit in time and modern mudlarks still scour the exposed banks of the River Thames in London for fragile clay pipes thrown away by the hundreds of thousands in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

You can date them by the size of their bowls, which seem to have waxed and waned according to the price of tobacco; the price of filling a pipe, in other words.

Conversations could be eked out, doubled in length, by a drag and a puff; a sort of extended breathing pattern that helped Elizabethans and others get through the day.

When photography was invented in the 1840s we could finally see how people really lived, as opposed to how a few of them, privileged, posed for the painted version of their lives.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Smoking a pipe allowed conversations to be eked out

Everyone may have worn hats before. But in the street photographs of the 19th Century it begins to look as though hats had become mass comforters - the workers imitating the nobs for whom hats had always been a form of self expression.

Hats were a comfortable uniform, I suggest.

Machine age

Enter the age of mass production in the beginning of the 20th Century. Machine-made cigarettes made the comfort of tobacco cheaper and more accessible than ever. Smoking, always a bonding activity, became even more so as people took breaks to exchange smokes.

And two world wars brought military travel to men who had never before dreamed of going further than their nearest town. The mass transit of troops enhanced the enforced boredom of conscription; waiting around for a train or a ferry could be punctuated by a quiet cigarette.

In the UK after World War Two, National Service in the armed forces regularised the fag break for almost everyone. Sharing a fag or a packet gave a little lift to the waiting around that was the experience for many men's two-year involuntary stay in the Army.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Many British soldiers on National Service, which ended in 1960, liked to smoke when off duty

But when National Service ended, something happened to the sharing cigarette routine. Horizons had widened as lots of Brits went abroad for the first time, first involuntarily in the war and then on holiday.

People took more responsibility for themselves. They started thinking about health. Smoking in public places declined in the most remarkable way in the 1970s and 80s.

Perhaps the rise of the PCB plastic bottle had something to do with it. Fag not in mouth, we still needed a comforter. The psychological answer was a new addiction to replace nicotine: bottled water, something to keep people busy just like a cigarette, but demonstrably healthy.

A bottle of water to accompany every mobile activity, clutched to the breast. In my childhood, who would possibly have imagined that the British would ever have embraced the continental cult of bottled water? But they did, and it is now challenging the consumption of fizzy sweetened drinks. Extraordinary.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption But fast-forward a few decades and the cigarettes had been replaced by bottled water

Parallel with water but slightly later came the inexorable rise of coffee-to-go, in a container with a mouth hole in it. Another badge of self importance coupled with self indulgence which is very much part of the comforter phenomenon.

Always connected

Meanwhile there's a powerful new entrant to what we might call the comfort zone: filling that top pocket, empty hand, or handbag. It is of course the smartphone, doing much the same (psychological) thing as the cigarette or the pipe - breaking the tedium of the moment with a bit of gratification.

Like the social cigarette, the phone links its obsessed user with others - not close at hand now, but the online community everywhere. The new nervous tic, the need to be connected at all the hours of the day.

And since carrying bottled water and looking at a phone at the same time takes a good deal of juggling, I wonder whether the comfort of water will eventually be replaced by the phone in a similar way to how a sip of water has replaced the ciggie.

After all, beer sales in South Africa are said to have dropped when cheap mobile phones swept the country 15 years or so ago. Instead of going out to drown their sorrows, migrant workers phoned home to the village they had left behind in moving to the townships.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption What comes next after the smartphone?

And I will bet that the great evolution of the adult comforter has not ended at the smartphone. The screen is cumbersome; sooner or later, it and the keypad will be replaced by data flows wired directly into our brains.

But wired from where? Maybe it's time for a revival of the headgear we all routinely wore 100 years ago. The "smart hat" may be on the way.

It's an entrancing story, this long line of human psychological and social development. Trace it back, if you like, to the Sumerian farmer sucking on a blade of wheat at the very beginnings of agriculture and civilisation 5,000 years ago. Then the pipe, the hat, the cigarette, bottled water morphing into the smartphone - and then what?

A book about this great human progression of comforters would obviously be a best seller, but don't ask me to write it. I'm too busy trying to master my (very uncomfortable) phone.

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