From the decorative to the mundane, I’ve always been intrigued by clay tobacco pipes. They’re some of the most curious artifacts in my personal collection because of the stories they tell. Just by looking at a pipe, I begin to imagine the type of person that would have smoked it– their social lot in life, political leanings, sense of humor, and other quirky attributes.
My fascination with clay pipes went into overdrive when I visited Keens Steakhouse in NYC a few years ago. Keens is known for two things; their Mutton Chop (yes, it’s as good as advertised), and the largest collection of churchwarden pipes in the world.
Long ago, churchwarden pipes were made of clay and were commonly found in taverns and inns. In fact, according to Keens, “The tradition of checking one’s pipe at the inn had its origins in 17th century Merrie Old England where travelers kept their clay at their favorite inn – the thin stemmed pipe being too fragile to be carried in purse or saddlebag.”
My curiosity finally got the best of me and begged that I take a closer look at these fascinating artifacts.
Origins of the Clay Pipe
The clay pipe is thought to have been inspired by the pipes used by Native Indians of the North American Continent. Subsequently, the mariners who traveled back-and-forth between the Americas and Europe soon took up the habit and passed it along to the ports they visited around the world.
The earliest clay pipes surfaced in Europe circa 1580-1600. Soon thereafter, potters from England and Holland adapted their craft to produce clay pipes. In the early part of the 1600’s, potters produced pipes with small bowls. This distinct feature wasn’t so much of a design choice as it was a necessity. During that time, tobacco supplies were scarce and the costs high. A small bowl helped the smoker prolong their supply.
Rising Popularity of Clay Pipes
As the 17th Century progressed, so did the demand for tobacco. More tobacco plantations were established and supplies became more plentiful. The potters soon took notice and began to produce pipes with larger bowls. As their craft and the styles of Europe progressed throughout the 17th Century, potters began to shape pipes with longer stems and decorative bowls – often times driven by local fashion and societal sentiments.
Pipe production remained strong through the later part of the 1600’s and the early 1700s, especially in the port cities of England and the Netherlands. However, English production faltered during the middle of the 18th Century due to various reasons. One such reason was due to the rising popularity of snuff among England’s high society. I mean, let’s face it, nothing screams high class like snorting some pulverized tobacco through one’s nostril!
Pipe styles continued to evolve throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries – giving us the greatest variety in designs. As the 1800s rolled around, pipe smoking came roaring back in the form of highly decorative pipes. Pipe bowls were adorned with simple but elegant designs featuring leaves, ribs, scallops, and floral patterns. Others showcased symbolic designs such as military motifs, Coats of Arms, and masonic themes. Face styles were also introduced during this period, featuring military and political figures.
20th Century Decline
The popularity and prevalence of clay pipes was snuffed out again when WW1 exploded onto the scene in 1914. The pipe killer this time around: cigarettes. At the outbreak of WW1, many tobacco companies began to distribute cigarettes to military personnel, which eventually led to their inclusion into military rations. And just like the mariners of the 16th and 17th Centuries, soldiers returned home with a new habit which quickly spread to the civilian population. As cigarette consumption grew around the globe, the clay pipe essentially vanished.
Pipe Stem Dating
So how does one know when a clay pipe was produced? According to many studies from the archaeological community, a pipe can be dated based on the size of the hole in the stem. The NPS states, “In the 1950s J. C. Harrington studied the thousands of pipe stems excavated at Jamestown and other colonial Virginia sites, noticing a definite relationship between the diameter of the pipe stem bore—or hole—and the age of the pipe of which it had been part.”
However, the formula only applies to pipe stems produced in England between c.1590 and 1800. “Louis Binford later devised a mathematical formula to refine Harrington’s method (Deetz 1996:27). This dating technique only applies to pipe stems manufactured in England between approximately 1590 and 1800.”
If you have any fascinating clay pipes that you would like to share with our readers, drop us a line in the comment section, on social media, or email email@example.com.