the Hackneyed Hallmarks
As Sherlockians, we are usually happy to find the name and image of the Master
perpetuated in the popular mind. But tell the truth now: isn't there something
nauseating about the sight of a bulbous-nosed cartoon clown adorned with deerstalker
The fact is that, although true Sherlockians have done a commendable job over
the years of keeping alive the memory of the great detective as he actually
is and was, the vast majority of the population associates three things with
Sherlock Holmes: deerstalker hat, fat curved pipe, and magnifying glass. Such
symbolic shorthand is typical of the modern age, especially in the advertising
industry, which is in large measure responsible for the perpetuation of these
But we Sherlockians are by no means blameless when it comes to perpetuating
the stereotypical imagery. To be sure, there is an admirable amount of variety
and authenticity exhibited in the emblems adorning stationery, calling cards,
and pages of scion publications. Nevertheless, the familiar triad.of objects
is also found there in abundance (although the violin often replaces the pipe
as a Sherlockian symbol among devotees).
The more one considers the popular Holmes caricature, the more one wonders
why it evolved as it did. Take the deerstalker, for example. It is common knowledge
that its origin as a popular image stems not from the Canon per se, but from
the Sidney Paget illustrations. Yet it is not particularly common there either.
A survey of the Paget illustrations accompanying the 24 stories of the ADVENTURES
and MEMOIRS yields the following tally for Holmes's hats: bowler (18), Homburg
or fedora (9), deerstalker (8), top hat (6), boater (4), Nonconformist clergyman
hat (3), and various others (4). Thus, the hats worn by Basil Rathbone in the
"updated" Holmes movies are at least as historically accurate as any
An argument can be made that the deerstalker (and to a lesser extent the accompanying
Inverness) came to be associated with Holmes because of its distinctiveness,
or because of William Gillette, or because of the vigorous marketing efforts
of the International Fore-and-Aft Cap Makers Guild, but these are the flimsiest
of excuses. The fact is that the man hardly ever wore a deerstalker, and how
he came to be so ubiquitously associated with one is, as they say, a mystery.
The other icons of Holmes are equally questionable. The lens, for example,
was one of the tools of his trade, but not the only one. All right, so he used
a magnifying glass some 21 times in the Canon, but is that any excuse for it
to be placed in the hand of every pseudo-Sherlock from Daffy Duck to a Cabbage
Patch Doll? Why does no one ever suggest Holmes by including a tape measure,
a test tube, or a packet of envelopes (for cigar ashes and such) in the caricature?
Lastly, we come to the calabash pipe, which has the least justification of
all. For simplicity's sake, let's set aside the entire question of whether Holmes
smoked a calabash any more than he did his cherrywood, or cigarettes; or if,
indeed, he ever smoked one at all. Out of the dozens of items that littered
the Baker Street rooms, why a pipe? Why not the Persian slipper -- now there's
a unique characteristic!
But of course, such speculation on the rationale of the items associated with
Holmes is really pointless. It has been deerstalker, lens, and calabash for
longer than any of us (save the Master himself) have been alive, and the public
is not likely to abandon them now. Indeed, we should be grateful that the symbols
have been so universally recognized for so long.
But we should also remember to look objectively at the popular imagery, and
keep from being swept up in the tide of calabash-bearing, be-deerstalkered cartoon
characters. Sure, it's fun to spot images of Holmes in newspapers, magazines,
billboards, cartoons, and toys. And it's a rare Sherlockian who doesn't occasionally
don a deerstalker or carry a calabash. But we, as Sherlockians, bear the responsibility
of keeping the true memory of the Master green, even if only among ourselves.
So next time you see a picture of a man wearing a bowler, smoking a cigarette,
and carrying a measuring tape . . . smile. It's Sherlock Holmes!
(Printed in Plugs & Dottles, December 1984)