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Long before the coming of Europeans to North and South America, long before they discovered what would later be called tobacco, it was custom in primitive communities to breathe the smoke of burning roots, palm leaves, aromatic plants, and herbs for their narcotic or intoxicating effects. Later, humans chose to inhale this smoke in a device fashioned out of crude materials that would eventually bear the name "pipe."

In the fifteenth century Native Americans introduced tobacco to Europeans, and soon the social custom of smoking tobacco gained acceptance and became a fashionable pastime. As tobacco's popularity increased, and its use spread around the globe, smoking spawned an industry of artisans who created an assortment of utensils, accessories, and accoutrements for tobacco's use, storage, preservation, and display. One of the most elegant, intriguing, and artful utensils for smoking tobacco is the pipe, a utensil whose use waxed and waned in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because snuff became a celebrated habit in the eighteenth century, and the cigar and cigarette were introduced in the nineteenth century. Today, cigars, cigarettes, and pipes peacefully coexist, whereas snuff-taking, at least in the United States, is largely a thing of the past.

What Is a Smoking Pipe?

The pipe is a smoking device that consists of a tube with a mouthpiece on one end and a bowl on the other. Anyone who has studied the history of pipes in depth, however, would say that this definition is shallow and bland because this complicated smoker's utensil, expressed in a variety of formats around the world, defies a simple generic definition. In 1965 Carl Weber, an American pipe maker, opined:

The pipe has survived its threatened eclipse by cigar and cigarette for a number of reasons, but the primary one is simple. It is the most attractive, most effective means yet devised by which the smoker can obtain full pleasure from tobacco.

For historians of tobacco culture, educators, archaeologists, craftsmen of smoking pipes, and, particularly, pipe collectors, the following quotation from E. R. Billings's Tobacco: Its History, Varieties, Culture, Manufacture and Commerce (1875) describes the pipe's historical importance and its positive cultural impact on our world:

Of all the various branches of the subject of tobacco, that of the history of pipes is one of the most interesting and one that deserves every attention that can possibly be given. Whether considered ethnographically, historically, geographically or archaeologically, pipes present food for speculation and research of at least equal importance to any other set of objects that can be brought forward.

Tobacco pipes have been made from just about every natural and man-made material. During the expansion of tobacco culture around the world, the pipe evolved as a national expression, appealing to each country's culture, employing available indigenous materials, and taking shape and form within the region or locality in which it was made. To describe them all would require a lengthy itinerary traveling nearly the entire globe, because as the habit of smoking encircled the earth, nearly every race has adopted the pipe in some form.

Native Americans produced pipes using such materials as steatite, argillite, limestone, pipestone, and catlinite (a soft red siltstone named after George Catlin), and most of these pipes were used principally for spiritual ceremonies, given as gifts, or for barter with European explorers. However impractical (because ivory cannot withstand dramatic changes in temperature), the walrus tusk, native to many parts of Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia, has been used as the principal medium for the pipe. Another early example was the trade pipe, a simple utensil made of tin or iron. European voyagers to the New World offered these trade pipes to the Native Americans in exchange for local goods. Although far-fetched, at an early time in Europe after tobacco was introduced, some even assembled a do-it-yourself smoking pipe made of half of a walnut shell and a chicken bone.

For about 400 years, skilled craftsmen in the Western Hemisphere produced pipes that were both beautiful in design and exhibited excellent smoking qualities. Artisans experimented with a wide range of materials, such as pottery, stoneware, amber, antler horn, bone, gutta-percha, gold, and silver, but these mediums were not ideally suited as smoking pipes because either they did not withstand heat or they produced an offensive odor or taste when smoked. Many of these pipes were regarded as eccentric or offbeat folk art, but those that have survived are often remarkable examples of inspired imagination, individual innovation, and creativity.

The most eye-appealing and pleasant-smoking pipes were made from four mediums: clay, wood, porcelain, and meerschaum. Between 1600 and 1925, millions of pipes were manufactured of these four materials, a considerable percentage of which depicted classical and dramatic subject matter, as well as whimsical, fanciful, bizarre, and, to the delight of some collectors, erotic and scatological motifs. Thus, the earliest tobacco pipes, once utilitarian and commonplace utensils, mere conveyances for holding tobacco, eventually evolved over several hundred years into an art form. These four mediums predominated in the Western World. Of these four, two—wood and meerschaum—have survived the test of time, and are still being produced today in large quantities for smokers and collectors alike. Each of these is explicated in the following sections. (The corncob pipe, an unattractive, extremely inexpensive, yet distinctively American form, invented after the American Civil War, and still being manufactured today, has never had much of a following.)

Pipes of the Western World

CLAY. The clay pipe was the first practical smoking pipe, introduced at the end of the sixteenth century in England, and its usage soon spread to the European continent, where factories were later established in Belgium, France, Germany, and Holland. Fragile, yet cheap to produce, the cost of a clay pipe was markedly less expensive than the price of the earliest commercially sold tobacco, so, accordingly, the makers produced small pipe bowls. As tobacco became more readily available, the size of the pipe's bowl was commensurately enlarged. The very earliest clay pipes were plain and utilitarian in appearance, but by 1750, when clay pipe manufacture for domestic use became a thriving industry in Europe, a status it enjoyed for the next two centuries, some factories began producing pipes embossed with various decorative designs on the bowl and stem to distinguish one maker from another and, of course, as marketing one-upmanship.

In the nineteenth century, as some pipe craftsmen experimented with other materials, clay pipes began to feature ornate designs of people, animals, plants, and symbolic motifs in a variety of styles, shapes, sizes, and finishes. The French were undoubtedly that century's nonpareil clay pipe artisans; three French clay pipe manufacturers—Duméril-Leurs, Fiolet, and Gambier—collectively designed and manufactured more than 5,000 different clay pipe motifs while their factories were in operation. A majority of these pipes exhibited fanciful raised decor and were fire-glazed in brilliant colors, each pipe bearing the raised letters of the company name and an identifiable model number on the shank.

Because Colonial America did not have a noteworthy clay pipe industry of its own, it imported almost all of its clay pipes from Europe. After the American Revolution, potters in the United States began molding pipe bowls in both earthenware and stoneware, producing typically less ornate, more functional clay pipes, but occasionally making some featuring faces, animals, or simple decorative designs. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, clay pipes imported from Europe stimulated American makers to copy foreign styles and to create original designs. One memorable clay maker in the late 1800s was A. Peyrau, a French immigrant living in New York City, who made a series of terracotta pipe bowls featuring bizarre, yet comedic, caricature heads of contemporary celebrities, among them P. T. Barnum, Joseph Pulitzer, and William March "Boss" Tweed. Today, Peyrau's pipes are considered some of the finest clay pipes ever produced in the United States.

Although a few clay pipe producers continue in operation today in North America and Europe, their collective output is not significant because the clay pipe is no longer popular. It has neither the cachet nor the smoking appeal that the meerschaum pipe and the briar pipe have today.

PORCELAIN. Porcelain pipes, unpleasant to smoke because of the non-porous material's inability to breathe, are nonetheless remarkable examples of sculptors' and molders' dexterity. In the mid-1700s a few European factories such as Meissen, Mennecy, Nymphenburg, and Sèvres created polychrome pipe bowls in baroque, neoclassical, and Romanesque styles.

Later examples, illustrating mythological, entomological, and floral subjects, were produced at many European porcelain factories. Between 1850 and 1870, of the approximately 18.7 million pipes produced in one pipe-making center in Ruhla, Germany, 9.6 million were porcelain. The bowls frequently exhibited hand-painted portraits, landscapes, hunting scenes, or commemorative events, and were fitted with three- and four-foot stems of hardwood, ivory, or horn. After the Franco–Prussian War and until World War I, a pipe format known as the Regimental was produced in large quantities, particularly in Germany, Austria–Hungary, and Denmark, and presented to soldiers to honor their military service. The Regimental was a unique and vibrantly colorful style of pipe, with its porcelain bowl depicting martial scenes and accompanied by an exceptionally long cherry wood stem. Today, a few German potteries produce porcelain pipes for domestic use, but many are bought by tourists as mementos of their visit.

POTTERY. Another variety of pipe closely aligned with the evolution of clay and porcelain pipes was the pottery pipe, the most notable of which were produced at potteries in Staffordshire and Whieldon, England. These elaborate showpieces, known as puzzle pipes, were amusing whimsies, not functional pipes, a product of excess clay and spare time. They are distinguishable by their unusual design: long, polychrome-painted, soft-paste coils fashioned into twisted and looped designs.

European-designed porcelain and pottery pipes were exported to America, but the annals of the U.S. tobacco industry indicate that no American company produced either porcelain or pottery pipes, probably because Americans, in general, never were able to acquire a taste for smoking tobacco in such pipes.

WOOD. In their search for a durable, non-breakable, and pleasant-tasting material, wood turners during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries experimented with more than twenty-five different domestic and exotic woods as possible substances for producing pipes, as shown in the following list.


By the mid-nineteenth century, one variety of the heath shrub, erica arborea, native to the Mediterranean coast and commonly known as briar, a porous and lightweight wood, proved to have exceptional qualities for smoking tobacco, and its superior grain inspired hand-crafted pipes executed in ornate and delicate shapes. History recounts that the briar pipe industry began in the French village of St. Claude where, by 1892, more than sixty different briar pipe factories thrived.

Today, briar pipes are made in almost every European country, Japan, and the United States, from mass-produced pipes at the low end of the price spectrum to exquisite, limited-production, one-of-a-kind, handcrafted specimens costing thousands of dollars. The briar rivals the meerschaum as the better of the two readily available and popular smoking pipes.

MEERSCHAUM. The aristocrat of smoking pipes, known by such appellations as "Venus of the Sea," "Queen of Pipes," and "White Goddess," is made of meerschaum, the German term for "sea foam." Known to geologists as sepiolite, this claylike mineral's composition is hydrated silicate of magnesium. In addition to the ease with which this substance can be intricately carved, pipe enthusiasts prize meerschaum's ability to mellow, mutate, and metamorphose over time through a range of colors from its original white to hues of brown as it absorbs the byproducts of tobacco.

The discovery of meerschaum's qualities as an excellent pipe material is shrouded in mystery and myth. But since the mid-eighteenth century, tons of this substance—mostly from mines in Anatolia, Turkey—have been converted into exquisite smoking implements. Early meerschaum pipe manufacturing centered principally in Berlin, London, Paris, Prague, Venice, and Vienna. These cities contained warrens of ateliers bustling with skilled artisans working alongside craftsmen of related guilds—such as jewelers, metal smiths, and wood turners—who made the pipe stems, mouthpieces, wind covers, and other pipe fittings.

Soft and pliant, meerschaum became the medium of choice for the more dexterous craftsmen who executed precise facsimiles of works by contemporary sculptors, muralists, illustrators, etchers, and engravers. Some carvers, however, used their own imagination for the images they sculpted. In its golden age, from 1850 to 1925, meerschaum was used not only for pipes but also for cigar and cigarette holders.

Information about the evolution and growth of the American meerschaum pipe industry is sparse. As one early-twentieth-century writer reported, the American meerschaum trade began approximately in 1855 when a New Yorker, Frederick W. Kaldenberg, met an Armenian named Bedrossian, who brought two cases of raw meerschaum from Asia Minor to the United States (Morris 1908).

It was not long before these two cases of meerschaum were turned into pipes of special shape and design, which brought the literati, the artistic and the mercantilenabobs of the great City of New York, to the workshops of the artisan who had wrought the first meerschaum into pipes in the United States.

Smoking Pipes in Other Regions

THE NEAR EAST. As mentioned previously, the pipe in many quarters of the world is a national expression, and this is especially true in the Near or Middle East, where two customary pipe formats are found—the chibouque (or chibouk) and the water pipe. The chibouque is peculiar to countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, such as Turkey, Egypt, and Syria, and is best described as a long pipe comprised of a baked terracotta clay bowl shaped like a cup or bowl and, most often, a long pipe stem made of a jasmine branch or other fragrant wood, some as long as five feet.

Known in the west as the hubble-bubble, the hookah (called nargileh, shisha, or kalian in different countries) is a class of pipes from the Islamic world that originated in India as a tradition, fashioning a water pipe from an empty coconut husk. The style evolved into a device found in two configurations, one for personal use at home and one for travel. The typical hookah consists of a base, a "chillum" that holds the leaf tobacco, a stem, and a flexible tube. The base is the component on which the craftsman expends his artistic energy, and the bases of the better hookahs fabricated of glass, ceramic, or silver can be exceptionally ornate and elaborate.

The hookah uses a small charcoal tablet to gently heat tobacco that rarely burns, but is filtered as it is drawn through the water-filled base and inhaled through the tube. The tobacco might be mixed with a special blend of fruit shavings or flavored molasses to produce a deliciously fruity aroma, or it might be cultivated tobacco that yields a strong aroma.

Smoking a hookah is a ceremonial experience shared in the company of friends. Both the chibouque and the hookah have transcended national boundaries and are now found in the West, where they are for rent at many bars, coffeehouses, and hotels, and where anyone can partake in this social endeavor.

THE FAR EAST. For several centuries, the Orient has had at least two distinctive styles of tobacco pipe: the Japanese kiseru and its lengthier counterparts, known by different names in Korea and China; and a different type of water pipe, used in China, Cochin China, and Annam (now Vietnam).

The common kiseru is a three-part pipe, consisting of a metal bowl, a metal mouthpiece, and a bamboo or wood stem that connects the two metal components. Some, made especially for the Imperial family, shoguns, and local lords, were ornate masterpieces worthy of being characterized as art. The classic Chinese water pipe is a boxy metal contraption that is functionally similar to the hookah in that the tobacco is filtered through water.

Nowadays, the cigarette has all but replaced traditional pipes except for the occasional tea ceremony and private use in the home. Countries such as Borneo, Indonesia, and Brunei have their own national pipe expressions but, collectively, theirs have never had an impact on or influence in pipe design beyond their own borders.

AFRICA. Because Africa is a continent of many countries, diverse peoples, and myriad tribes, each with its own customs and culture, one must ascribe to Africa myriad assorted pipes made of different materials, each attributable to a different place in this land mass. It is difficult to generalize about the form or functions of African pipes other than to state that the calabash gourd (botanically Lagenaria vulgaris or Lagenaria siceraria), assorted woods, terracotta and other earthenware, bronze, brass, tin, iron, bone, ivory, and assorted other materials have been fabricated into pipes for not only smoking tobacco, but also kief, hemp, dagga, and various herbs and roots. So few serious studies have been conducted about the pipes of Africa that, even on careful inspection of its construct or composition, it is hard to determine whether a particular pipe was specifically designed for tobacco, or another intended use. What is certain is that the peoples of Africa continue to produce an endless assortment and variety of pipes in a broad array of mediums, each with the character and personality of its maker and its locale.

The Gentle Art

What can be said of all this? It is a fact that smoking is a worldwide cultural phenomenon, and pipe smokers are a rather unique group who attribute a special aura to the pipe, claiming that it denotes the "gentle art." Art is an apt description because not only can the pipe be an art form, it is also represented in works of art, stories, and songs that document, celebrate, and, occasionally, condemn it.

The tobacco pipe occupies center stage in the engravings of the seventeenth-century Dutch artists Jan Steen, David Teniers, and Adriaen van Ostade; in the eighteenth-century illustrations of British painter and printmaker William Hogarth; and in the caricatures of George Cruikshank, James Gillray, and Thomas Rowlandson, also of England.◆ The pipe plays a significant role in the nineteenth century's trompe l'oeil works of America's William Harnett and John Frederick Peto, and in the twentieth century's canvasses of Russia's Marc Chagall and the Spanish cubist Pablo Picasso.

See "Visual Arts" for a Jan Steen illustration that portrays tobacco in an unfavorable light.

Who Smokes a Pipe?

P ipe smoking is a common practice among both genders, the young, the middle-aged, the old, people from every walk of life. In the past, surveys have attempted to determine the mean age, gender, economic stratum, and epicenters of pipe smokers. Depending on when the survey was conducted, the results and conclusions always vary, because the number of pipe smokers ebbs and flows with each generation. The price range of pipes, attitudes about smoking, and health issues all play a part in this ebb and flow.

Most agree that there are millions of pipe smokers around the world, and the burgeoning number of local, regional, and national pipe clubs in the last twenty-five years evidence this. Pipe smokers are a brotherhood, bound by a common love of this ubiquitous utensil, and as affiliates or associates in this elite club, nationality notwithstanding, they come together frequently at various trade shows, exhibits, and pipe-smoking competitions around the world to share their experiences with their pipe-smoking brethren, ogle new products for the smoker, taste new tobacco blends, and trade anecdotes about this or that pipe. Despite differences in language, nationality, income bracket, and education, they are bound by a simple device made of wood, or meerschaum, or clay, a universal symbol of camaraderie.

Although criticized in some art and literature, the pipe has been praised in hundreds of published poems, couplets, rhymes, and paeans penned by the well known and the anonymous and in many languages during the last three centuries. Nonfiction literature abounds on the history and manufacture of the pipe, but one of the most famous fictional works about man's love for the pipe is My Lady Nicotine: A Study in Smoke, written in 1890 by Sir James M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, The Admirable Crichton, and Margaret Ogilvy. Even the occasional musical score has been written as a tribute to the pipe, such as "Put On Your Slippers and Fill up Your Pipe" (c. 1916).

To conclude, pipe smokers around the world uniformly agree that the pipe, whatever its shape, style, format, or medium—for no single pipe is the perfect pipe for all—is the most perfect way to smoke tobacco. And pipe collectors, a complementary group who may or may not be pipe smokers, derive equivalent pleasure for yet a different reason: owning antique, vintage, or new pipes, elegant miniature masterpieces in wood, meerschaum, clay or porcelain, each spawned from imagination, each crafted with skill and dedication, each executed by some master artisan in his time.

See Also Africa; Archaeology; Calumets; China; Connoisseurship; Consumption (Demographics); Islam; Japan; Literature; Middle East; Music, Classical; Music, Popular; Native Americans; South Asia; South East Asia.



Armero, Carlos. Antique Pipes: A Journey Around the World. Madrid: Tabapress, 1989.

Billings, E. R. Tobacco: Its History, Varieties, Culture, Manufacture and Commerce. Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Company, 1875.

Crole, Robin. The Pipe: The Art and Lore of a Great Tradition. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing, 1999.

Dunhill, Alfred H. The Pipe Book. London, England: A. & C. Black, 1924. Reprint, London, England: Arthur Barker Limited, 1969.

Ehwa, Carl, Jr. The Book of Pipes and Tobacco. New York: Random House, 1974.

Fresco-Corbu, Roger. European Pipes. Guildford, England: Lutterworth Press, 1982.

Goes, Benedict. The Intriguing Design of Tobacco Pipes. Leiden, The Netherlands: Pijpenkabinet, 1993.

Liebaert, Alexis, and Alain Maya. The Illustrated History of the Pipe. (Translated and adapted from the French, La Grande Histoire de la Pipe (1993) by Jacques P. Cole.) Suffolk, England: Harold Starke Publishers, Ltd., 1994.

Morris, Fritz. "The Making of Meerschaums." Technical World, April 1908, pp. 191–196.

Rapaport, Benjamin. A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes. Exton, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1979; Reprint, Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1998.

——. Collecting Meerschaums: Miniature to Majestic Sculpture, 1850–1925. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1999.

Weber, Carl. The Pleasures of Pipe Smoking. New York: Bantam Books, 1965.

Wright, David. The Pipe Companion: A Connoisseur's Guide. Philadelphia, Pa.: Running Press, 2000.

snuff a form of powdered tobacco, usually flavored, either sniffed into the nose or "dipped," packed between cheek and gum. Snuff was popular in the eighteenth century but had faded to obscurity by the twentieth century.

argillite A smooth, black sedimentary rock. American Indians sometimes carved tobacco pipes from argillite.

gutta-percha a form of hard rubber made from the sap of a Malaysian tree. Widely used in the nineteenth century, gutta-percha was largely replaced by plastics in the twentieth century.

briar a hardwood tree native to southern Europe. The bowls of fine pipes are carved from the burl, or roots, of briar trees.

atelier a small workshop or studio.

nabob a very wealthy person, often having political and social influence.