PIPING HOT: History of Tobacco Pipes

Tobacco Smoking Handcrafted Pipe inlaid with gemstone Turquoise - photo by DesignRulz.com
Vintage Antique Native American Stag Horn Tobacco smoking Pipe – photo by WorthPoint

The first use of pipes for smoking was by the Native Americans who lived in North America’s eastern woodlands. Tobacco was valuable to the Native Americans, and they were known to carry pouches of the dried leaves with them and would give them as gifts or use them for trade. They would burn the dried leaves of the indigenous tobacco plant in pipes with flat bases. These platform pipes as they were called, were made of clay or stone. Smoking tobacco was done for a variety of reasons. It was used in ceremonies to bring rain during a drought. Tobacco was considered to have medicinal properties, and smoking was believed to help alleviate pains and cure illnesses.

Tobacco and smoking pipes reached Europe when explorers returned to their country in the 1500s. European pipe makers copied the Native American design at first. Numerous pipe makers sprang up in the many European countries including Holland and England. Some early European pipes were made out of a type of clay used to make fine china. Clay pipes were given away to customers by tobacco companies in 19th century America as they were inexpensive and quite common. Some pipes were made of wood such as walnut and cherry. Austria, Hungary, and Germany were well-known for their carved wooden pipes. Aside from their wooden pipes, Germany was also known for its excellent porcelain pipes. Porcelain pipes appeared around the 18th century. Pipe shapes changed as time passed until it evolved into the pipes we recognise today.

It’s Smoking!: Types of Pipes

Native American Pipes

Antique Native American Peace Pipe Buffalo Effigy Catlinite Pipestone w/Hide Bag – photo by WorthPoint

Native Americans used a variety of materials to make their pipes. They made pipes using wood, bone, steatite (soapstone), and antler. Bases of platform pipes may be carved into different shapes or animals like fish and birds. One could also find sculptural pipe bowls in the shape of animals or animal heads like that of wolves and eagles.

With regards to Native American pipes, the calumet is the most recognisable of them all. A calumet is a ceremonial pipe used to invoke the gods and ask them to bring rain or their wrath upon a tribe’s enemies. Among these decorated ceremonial pipes, the peace pipe is said to stand out. Aside from its wooden shank that’s decorated with quillwork and feathers, this calumet’s bowl is carved from catlinite, a soft, reddish stone. Catlinite was named after George Catlin, a 19th-century painter whose works featured several Native American tribes.

Although it is difficult to find genuine antique Native American pipes (they are quite rare), modern Native Americans continue to craft pipes that follow traditional styles and are quite valuable due to their aesthetic qualities.

Wood Pipes

Wooden tobacco pipe, “Ulmer” style bowl with cylin – photo by Science Museum Group

Wood, being quite a versatile material was a pipe maker favourite. Hardwoods are often used, and carvers preferred rosewood, maple, cherry, and walnut. Trees used for pipe wood are drained of their sap and dried for several years. Before it is ready for carving, the wood is steamed or boiled. Some wood pipes have metal caps or chains decorating them and may have shanks made of bone or antler.

Ulmer style pipes are popular examples of wood pipes. These pipes are U-shaped, hail from Germany, feature intricate carvings, and are a favourite among antique and wood pipe collectors. The high-quality German craftsmanship of an antique Ulmer pipe makes it among one of the most expensive antique pipes.

Kaolin, Porcelain, Stone, and Ivory Pipes

Kaolin tobacco pipe bowls and stems – photo by Connecticut’s Official State Website

Kaolin is a mineral clay potters use to make fine china and porcelain. It is also used as a clay face mask these days. Pipe makers in Europe, during the early years of pipe smoking, made use of this soft white clay for their pipes.

Porcelain pipes arrived towards the end of the 18th century. Porcelain pipes from Germany are quite exceptional. They often come in a U-shape like the Ulmer types and were hand-painted at first. When transfer-print technology was developed, pipe makers were able to have pipes with images of battlefields or relaxing countryside views. The bowls of porcelain pipes are usually detachable from the base and there are also those with detachable shanks as well.

An 18th century Wedgwood jasperware chibouk pipe – photo by The Tobacco Pipe Artistory

Wedgwood jasperware pipes are stone pipes from Britain and are an example of stone pipes. Jasperware is fine-grained, unglazed stoneware with a hardness that is similar to natural jasper; hence, the name. This was introduced by English potter Josiah Wedgwood in around 1775. These pipes are quite aesthetically pleasing with intricate neoclassical style carvings.

An example of an ivory pipe is a Dieppe ivory pipe. Dieppe is a town in Northern France and is well-known for its ivory sculptures and carvings. Like the Wedgwood jasperware and Ulmer, a Dieppe ivory pipe boasts complex carvings and a hefty price tag.

Meerschaum Pipes

Meerschaum tobacco pipe, Paris, France, 1850-1915 – photo by Wikimedia Commons

Meerschaum is a soft whitish stone that originated from Turkey. It is highly valued for it is capable of absorbing oils and tar from tobacco, which allows for a smoother smoking experience. This property of meerschaum also turns it into an appealing, smoky red. Germany was the first to carve meerschaum pipes, but by the 19th century, Vienna became the primary meerschaum-carving capital. Some meerschaum pipes have elaborate carvings of animals, human head, flowers, even mermaids. Others have bas-reliefs featured on their sides, while others were finely-polished using well-guarded polishing techniques. Eventually, meerschaum became too expensive that to continue making meerschaum pipes, artisans had to glue pieces of the stone to create a “pressed” meerschaum. Naturally, “block” meerschaum pipes are more collectable and more valuable than “pressed” meerschaum pipes.

Briarwood Pipes

Stanwell Relief 246 Sandblasted Briarwood Pipe – photo by Tobacco Pipes Smoking

Briarwood is made from tree-heath bush roots growing along the Mediterranean shore and is another great material used for pipes. It has its own entry as collectors and pipe makers categorise wood pipes as either non-briar or briarwood. Briarwood has a hardness like that of a rock which makes intricate carving near impossible, unlike when one uses other pipe materials like meerschaum. Despite this, artisans have managed to carve them into heads and faces that are also quite beautiful. Many pipes made of briarwood are sanded and polished until they glisten. Another popular technique used by pipe makers is sandblasting, wherein the outside of the pipe is given a mottled and craggy effect. Briarwood pipe shanks have flattened bottoms allowing them to stand on a surface without tipping over. There are also those that have shanks that are shaped into diamonds or ovals. Briarwood pipes often have names like pot, Dublin, billiard, bulldog, poker, pear, and prince. They are perhaps the most traditional and classical of pipes.

Corncob and Calabash

Calabash Sherlock Holmes Pipe Hand Made from The African Mahogany Wood, Meerschaum Insert Bowl – photo by Used.forsale

The corncob pipe became famous during the Second World War thanks to General Douglas MacArthur. The corncob pipe is also known as the Missouri meerschaum. Another notable antique pipe is the calabash. This pipe is associated with Sherlock Holmes (the prop pipe used by Basil Rathbone as he played the role of the world’s greatest detective in a series of films) is made from a curving African gourd with a carved meerschaum bowl.

Put a Lid on It: Tobacco Jars

Native Americans carried their tobacco in pouches. Europeans, on the other hand, made use of jars to store their tobacco in. These tobacco jars were often kept in a gentleman’s (or lady’s) study or library. Tobacco jars are made of a variety of materials. There are glass, wood, pewter, and tin. More commonly used materials, though, are pottery materials such as bisque, ceramic, porcelain, and majolica. There are also tobacco jars that feature a coat of arms. These are called armorial tobacco jars and began to appear in the 1800s. In the 19th century, figural jars – shaped like animals, people, buildings, etc. – became popular, especially during the Victorian period. Tobacco jars from mid-century (the 1950s to 1960s) are also collectable. Mid-century jars are not as ornate as earlier pieces but could still sell for a good price. Some tobacco jars are mistaken as cookie jars (especially the larger, figural jars) or powder jars. Some ceramic jars have plants, flowers, or entire scenes printed or painted on them. Some images are even accompanied by an epigraph, not unlike some decorative jars or spice jars. As it is easy to make reproductions of vintage and antique tobacco jars, one is advised to take care when purchasing one. Although some reproductions are so well-made, some collectors do not mind acquiring them.

Set of Four Blue and White Armorial Tobacco Jars and Brass Covers – photo by Aronson Antiquairs

Purchasing and Collecting: Things to Remember

Before deciding to purchase an antique pipe or tobacco jar – or any collectable for that matter, make sure to have the right information. Joseph Horowitz’ book Figural Humidors, Mostly Victorian could be a helpful resource as well as magazines like Pipes and Tobacco. Do note that books and magazines may offer only some insight with regards to what an antique or vintage piece might be like. Organisations like the Society of Tobacco Jar Collectors and the North American Society of Pipe Collectors may be contacted for information regarding pipes and tobacco jars. Appraisals are offered by experts and authentic dealers like Savinelli. Kovels, aside from selling authentic pieces, also offer valuable information for those looking for antiques. Also, take note of prices and remember that a lot of the newer pieces could cost about half the price (or lesser) of an earlier piece. Remember to look at the condition of the piece, take note of its origins, material, age, and authenticity if one wishes to avoid burning money on an item that is not what it presents itself to be.