A Brief History of Tobacco Pipes & Pipe Collecting

american indian stone pipeSince history began man has attempted to smoke various burning herbs in different ways, but the first appearance of the pipe, functioning on the principle of the familiar briar, is a matter for conjecture.

Pictured left: An American Indian Stone Pipe With Lead Inlay To The Bowl And Stem 6In. (15Cm.) Long.  Sold for £1,320 at Christies, London, The Fine Art of Smoking sale, May 2006. Image Copyright Christies. 

The earliest known pipes have been discovered in the neolithic barrows of the Mississippi valley, and were made of porphyritic and other hard stone, tubular in shape or consisting of a tube with a central bowl. Many of these pipes, which are over 5000 years old, are elaborately carved with representations of animals, and from that time to this day, a lot of care and artistry has gone into the making of pipes all over the world.

HAIDA ARGILLITE pipeThe Maya tribes, who migrated from North America to the Yucatan peninsula and other parts of Mexico before the Christian era, have left in their stone carvings representations of priests smoking pipes of a similar design—a design not far removed from the modern American Indians’ calumet, or pipe of peace. Excavations in many parts of Europe have led to the discovery of iron and earthenware pipes, used for smoking herbs other than tobacco, which was only introduced into the ” Old World ” in the sixteenth century, while many of these finds are attributed to the first and second centuries A.D.

Pictured left: A Haida Argillite Pipe  – The Bowl Carved As A Head, The Stem With Bird And Figure – 6in. (15Cm.) Long. Sold for £2,640 at Christies, London, The Fine Art of Smoking sale, May 2006. Image Copyright Christies.

The first Europeans to smoke tobacco pipes were sailors of the Columbus expedition and those of other navigators of the time such as Vespucci and Magellan, who, having adopted the habit from the Indians, brought home with them calumets and tobacco. The custom and ” the weed ” spread from Spain and Portugal to France— where it was introduced by the French ambassador to the Portuguese court, Jean Nicot, whose name is perpetuated in the plant’s botanical name, Nicotiana Tabacum. From France it spread to the Low Countries and thence to Britain. Sir Walter Raleigh did much to popularise the habit of smoking the pipe in England, but it is difficult to ascertain whether he actually introduced it, or whether this distinction belongs to his great contemporaries and fel- low sailors, Drake and Hawkins. It is, however, an established fact that pipe smoking was common in this country before the end of the sixteenth century and the pipe makers of London became an incorporated body by 1619.

The pipe found its greatest vogue in the nineteenth century, when some of the most beautiful specimens were made and this vogue grew as the century advanced becoming quite a cult with our Victorian grandfathers. The following passage from ” The Diary of a Nobody” by George and Weedon Grossmith, published about 1880, illustrates this fact: ” Cummings unexpectedly dropped in to show me a meerschaum pipe he had won in a raffle in the City, and told me to handle it carefully or it would spoil the colouring if the hand was moist.”

The materials used for making pipes were many and varied—the main reason for their selection being suitability— but there were cases when the only substances available at the time and place were used.

The neolithic stone pipes have already been mentioned. While these were made of hard stone, a softer type of rock was used until quite recently, to make pipe bowls, in Palestine. This is a dark grey bituminous limestone found on the western shores of the Dead Sea and these pipe heads were used in conjunction with a long wooden stem. Soap-stone bowls were often made for the calumet which had a stem of reed or painted wood about 21 feet long, decorated with feathers.

eskimo walrus pipeThe Eskimos have fashioned pipes out of reindeer antlers, while in parts of central Europe the antlers of red and fallow deer were used for the same purpose.

Pictured right: An Eskimo Walrus Ivory Pipe Incised With Fishing Scenes, Inscribed Autsis Look 16½.In. (42Cm.) Long. Sold for £5,040 at Christies, London, The Fine Art of Smoking sale, May 2006. Image Copyright Christies.

Glass has been used from time to time, and the best known specimens were produced in the first half of the nineteenth century at the Bristol and Nailsea works, in all the delightful shades for which these factories were noted. These glass pipes—be they of clear glass with white or coloured symmetrical waves, or of an opaque milky-white texture with blue or red waves—were very attractive but it is doubtful if any but the smallest were ever smoked. Some of the very large ones—up to four feet long, with a bowl capable of holding a pound of tobacco — were most probably used to adorn some Georgian or early Victorian tobacconist’s window.

Corn-cobs suitably dried and toasted, fitted with a short straight stem of wood or cork and a bone mouthpiece, have enjoyed long popularity in the United States.

Calabash, which is a fruit of the gourd family, has been used for making bowls and was much smoked in this country during the 30 or 40 years preceding the first world war. The rim of the pipe and the end of the stem, where it adjoins the curved amber or ebonite mouthpiece, were generally protected by a silver band and the pipes can be dated from the hallmark carried by the silver.

Early in the nineteenth century, a Budapest shoemaker is supposedto have discovered the process of waxing a mineral white in colour, soft, chemically a silicate of magnesia, quarried mostly in Asia Minor and known as ” meerschaum” (a German word meaning sea-froth) because of its light weight.

meerschaum carved pipesPictured left: Finely carved meerschaum pipes.  Image Copyright Christies.

This discovery meant that the material could now be used for making pipes, the wax treatment preventing the rapid carbonization of the ” meerschaum ” which would have rendered it unsmokable. ” Meerschaum” was ideally suited for the purpose—easy to work, taking on the most pleasant hues when smoked—and throughout the century it was the delight of the pipe craftsmen, who produced some exquisitely carved specimens mainly from Paris and Vienna.

The carvings ranged from heads or busts to carefully cktailed hunting or battle scenes. The more elaborate sculptures necessitating a rather larger pipe. made up by the perfection of their execution. The mouthpieces of the normal-sized specimens were mostly made of amber, while the very heavy bowls which rested on a table, kept in an upright position by a support lined with velvet, were smoked by means of a long wooden stem suitably adorned.

Good meerschaum pipes are much sought after by collectors and some cigar holders made of the same substance are also worthy of note.

clay pipes 17th 19thThe next material—clay is the one that has been most universally used, for the longest period. The first tobacco pipes made in this country were of clay and from the sixteenth century to this day ” the clay” has continually been produced. In the early days when tobacco was scarce and costly the bowls were very small and almost horizontal, gradually becoming larger and moving towards the vertical position, in relation to the stem, of the present day.

Pictured right: A Quantity Of Clay Pipes And Archaeological Fragments 17th To 19th Century Including ‘Churchwarden’ Or ‘Stray’ Pipes. Sold for £132 at Christies, London, The Fine Art of Smoking sale, May 2006. Image Copyright Christies. 

The English pipe, made of a white clay, was mainly produced in Staffordshire. The makers often impressed their initials or mark into the clay but dated pipes are rare. A specimen with a very large bowl representing a negro’s head carries the diamond-shaped registration mark for the year 1873, and it is reasonable to attribute “clays ” with such large bowls, either plain or in the shape of heads, to the last decades of the nineteenth century. Clay pipes of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth century have a propensity for turning up in the mud of tidal rivers particularly in the South and a rich harvest has been reaped from the Thames, Crouch, Blackwater and there may be many others. Bowls in good condition have been discovered, but the most prolific finds are pieces of stem one inch to two inches lone, in some cases bearing the impressed name of an inn. With the advent of the long- stemmed pipes known as ” churchwardens ” in the eighteenth century, the custom of supplying them to inn customers developed. As a concession to hygiene, a piece of stem would be broken before the next client regaled himself and the accumulated portions of stem discarded in bulk into the rivers. These are still found in large quantities.

The best clay pipes were made in this country but the French also using a white clay made some very attractive specimens during the nineteenth century. These were occasionally embellished with enamel colours. They consisted mostly of clay bowls while the stem was made of cherry-wood. French ” clays ” are often marked with one or all of the following: town of manufacture, maker’s full surname and the word ” depose ” followed by a number which would indicate that the design was patented. The letters were in relief, instead of being impressed as on the English counterpart.

Red clay has been used for pipes in Belgium while in Turkey and around the Southern Mediterranean a red or brown clay has been made into pipe bowls smoked in conjunction with long wooden stems, having an amber or tortoiseshell mouthpiece. These bowls are engraved with designs in the Arabic style and gilding is often finely done.

german pipe bowlsA type of pipe generally associated with the German-speaking countries consists of an elongated porcelain bowl, connected to the stem by means of a hollow slightly V-shaped container of porcelain, horn or wood—the bowl fitting into one leg of the V and the stem in the other. The object of this container is to act as a sump for the moisture and nicotine, this is considered to improve the fragrance of the tobacco.

Pictured left: A Quantity Of German European Porcelain Pipe Bowls 19th Century And Early 20th Century. Depicting Various Military And Patriotic Subjects, Hunting Scenes And Copies Of Paintings, Together With Various Stems. Sold for £456 at Christies, London, The Fine Art of Smoking sale, May 2006. Image Copyright Christies.  

The earliest of these bowls were carefully hand-painted by artists attached to the porcelain factories and in some cases the lower containers were also painted ” en mite “. Hunting and martial scenes were favourite subjects but many other activities as well as portraits and still life were de- picted. With the discovery of transfer printing in colours, about the middle of the nineteenth century this medium began to supersede the more laborious process of painting.

Relief ornamentation was also occasionally used on these pipes, the pattern often being a different colour from the main body of the bowl. These ” German ” bowls were at times closed by a metal lid which was either quite plain openwork or elaborately pierced and chased, becoming on occasions a gem of the metal-workers’ craft.

The stems of these pipes, ranging from one foot to four feet in length, can be either of plain cherry-wood ending in a flexible tube with a mouthpiece of bone or horn or very ornate, consisting of bone, horn, antler, wood and metal.

The famous porcelain works of Dresden produced some delightful examples of pipe design which are now, unfortunately, very rare. Equally rare are the pipe bowls made in this country during various periods by Messrs. Wedgwood in their famous basalt, terra-cotta and jasper wares.

english stoneware tobacco pipes 18th 19thPipes of Staffordshire pottery coloured in bright underglaze colours were made in many shapes —an interesting design having a coiled stem like a snake, with the outer end forming the mouthpiece while the inner end shaped like a snake’s head was enlarged to form the bowl.

Pictured left: Various English Glazed Stoneware Pipes 18th & 19th Century Crisply Moulded And Sponged In Various Coloured Glazes. Sold for £420 at Christies, London, The Fine Art of Smoking sale, May 2006. Image Copyright Christies. 

The favourite material for wood is, of course, the briar root. This plant is not the wild rose or briar but a low shrub (Erica arborea), which grows in many Mediterranean countries. Cherry-wood ranks second in popularity amongst wooden pipes and the rough-looking bowls on which the bark has been left have a charm of their own. Beech, elm and bog- oak too have been used, and during the late war a pipe factory at Marsa in Malta, when the supply of briar was exhausted, turned some very fine pipes out of oak. Rosewood too has occasionally been used and these pipes are said to impart to the tobacco a fragrance unlike that of any others.

prattware coiled snake pipe

Pictured right: A Pratt Ware Coiled Snake Pipe, Circa 1790 The Bowl Moulded With Stiff Leaves Issuing From A Serpent’s Mouth  7¾.In. (19.7Cm.) Wide. Sold for £420 at Christies, London, The Fine Art of Smoking sale, May 2006. Image Copyright Christies.

Pipes have been made in so many shapes that they would be almost impossible to enumerate. The head of practically every celebrity from kings to authors has appeared on clay or wooden pipes and the reader might have noticed in tobacconists’ windows carved wooden pipes with the familiar features of Sir Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Lord Montgomery. The personalities depicted give an indication of date only for the more modern pipes of say the last fifty to sixty years, but characters who were famous before that time were often modelled long after their passing on. Pipes showing Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott and others were made as recently as twenty-five years ago and there may well be some more recent makes.

With the Regency came the fashion for seaside holidays and with this the desire to take home a souvenir or a present for friends. The pipe manufacturers were not slow to take advantage of this craze for mementoes and throughout the nineteenth century ” fancy or novelty ” pipes were produced, mostly on the continent, to be sold in every British resort. Most of these ” novelties ” were a departure from the orthodox. Bowls were shaped like clogs, boots, skulls and even railway engines, while on the stems of ” clays figures of men, women and children were often moulded and suitably coloured.

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