History

Tobacco pipes: their history and intrinsic significance

In those areas of the Americas where the tobacco plant was native, smoking pipes made of stone and pottery were in use from pre-Colombian times (c500 BC to AD 1500).

Pre-Colombian ceramic pipe from Argentina [Photo: Daniel Schávelzon] Pre-Colombian stone pipe from Argentina [Photo: Daniel Schávelzon]
Pre-Colombian ceramic pipe from Argentina
[Photo: Daniel Schávelzon]
Pre-Colombian stone pipe from Argentina
[Photo: Daniel Schávelzon]

Once tobacco had been ‘discovered’ by the Europeans in the 16th century, the habit of smoking rapidly spread all around the World and pipes became widespread from around AD 1600. The first European pipes were made of clay in moulds and fired in earthenware-style kilns. Two main traditions can be seen:

Both of these traditions became important in those parts of the world where European colonists were established and stimulated local production. Meanwhile, local traditions of pipe making evolved in other parts of the world, such as in Asia and Oceania.
Combined knife and smoking pipe in metal, Japan 
[Photo: Felix van Tienhoven] Bamboo pipe from Oceania in the World Museum, Liverpool 
[Photo: Barney Suzuki]
Combined knife and smoking pipe in metal, Japan
[Photo: Felix van Tienhoven]
Bamboo pipe from Oceania in the World Museum, Liverpool
[Photo: Barney Suzuki]

In Europe pipes in other materials such as iron, bronze and silver were also made from earliest times. The discovery of a hard, clay-like substance in Turkey called meerschaum (écume de mer in French) which could be hand carved into highly elaborate forms provided a luxury alternative to clay.

Meerschaum pipe in the National Museum, Budapest [Photo: David Higgins]
Meerschaum pipe in the National Museum, Budapest [Photo: David Higgins]

From the later 18th century a number of makers used porcelain as the medium for pipe-making, allowing highly skilled painted decoration to be applied. In the mid-19th century briar pipes made of the upper part of the root of a Mediterranean shrub (Erica arborea) became important, first in France and then throughout Europe and the wider world.  These briars eventually ousted the clays as the chosen smoke of the common man. The collection and study of pipes has long interested explorers, anthropologists and archaeologists. They provide an intimate entry point into the understanding of both past and present societies worldwide and are often items of considerable artistic and technical worth.

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