History Overview: Tobacco Pipe Construction

History Overview: Tobacco Pipe Construction

Since the discovery of tobacco in the Americas by European explorers, pipe smoking has been a huge influence on western culture. The tool of our trade, the tobacco pipe, has been a long time symbol of class and sophistication. But the pipe has come a long way in the centuries since its arrival from America, from a crude, earthen vessel to a fine, artistic extravagance. To track the progression of the pipe we must start with the Native American tribes who pioneered this practice for over a thousand years before any European explorers sailed across the ocean.

An American Tradition

Most native american tribes only smoked pipes on special occasions and they took great care in their construction. One of the common materials used by many midwestern tribes was called catlinite. This is a reddish colored mineral that had to be dug deep out of the ground, beneath the water table. It deteriorates quickly once exposed to the elements, but it was soft and malleable, which made it easy to carve and shape. Clay was also a popular material used by the few native american tribes that smoked socially as well ceremonially. This clay was often dug from river sides and were less ornate than those used for ceremonies.

European Craze

As tobacco began to be imported from the Americas in 16th century, Europeans quickly took to smoking these leaves in clay pipes of their own. The common clay used throughout Europe was a fine white clay known as “Koalin” or “China Clay” after the region in China where it was dug, although it can be found in many other parts of the world. This clay was a fine, dense material that offered a clean smoke, but would often burn hot. As pipe smoking became more popular across Europe, the design of these clay pipes became more detailed and artistic featuring anything from members of the royal family to everyday farming habits.


In the mid 18th century, a new material found it’s way into the pipe world.  It earned the name meerschaum, meaning sea foam in German, because of its color and weight. This mineral can be found in deposits in various parts of the world, but is most notably mined near the city of Eskisehir in central Turkey. Meerschaum pipes became extremely popular both because of the ease with which they could be carved into intricate designs, and their unique coloring that would develop over time as they were smoked. A variation on the meerschaum pipe was the calabash. This pipe was made with the dried skin of the calabash gourd, featuring a meerschaum insert. The distinctive shape of this pipe gave the user a cooler and more mellow smoke due to the large air chamber beneath the bowl. The calabash was made famous as the favored pipe of Sherlock Holmes.

Briar Saves The Day

By the turn of the 19th century the fragility of theclay pipe, and the high expense of the meerschaum caused the pipe industry to lose ground to the emerging markets of cigars and cigarettes. It was good fortune at this time that pipe makers stumbled upon briar, made from the admin burls of the “White Heath” tree that grows in the Mediterranean regions of the world. This material was hard, heat resistant, non-toxic, durable and most importantly inexpensive to produce relative to the meerschaum pipes of the day. This helped to save the pipe industry, and briar pipes are now the most widely made pipes for smoking tobacco. Briar pipes can be found in many different shapes and sizes with different stains and finishes that make them all unique and beautiful. An interesting alternative to the briar pipe is the morta pipe, made from the wood of “bog” oaks. These trees are harvested from swamps and bogs all over the world, and many have been laying there for thousands of years. This makes the wood partially mineralized and extremely hard and resistant to burning. These are a unique alternative to the more common briar pipe, and like the briar pipe come in many different shapes.

The People’s Meerschaum

In America, the 19th century also produced the first corn cob pipes. These pipes began to be produced in midwestern states, like Missouri, around the 1860s. They offered the cool, clean smoke of a meerschaum, but were far less expensive. Many will recognize some of the famous figures in American history that smoked corn cobs like Gen. Douglas MacArthur and author Mark Twain. There low cost and clean smoke make them excellent beginner pipes for those just starting their journey into pipe smoking.
Much of western culture has been influenced by pipes and the smoking of fine tobacco. It’s been a characteristic of western gentleman for centuries, and though it certainly isn’t as popular as it used to be, we are starting to see a resurgence of this elegant pastime. So lift up your pipes and smoke a bowl for the bright future of this great enterprise.

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