Think of a tobacco pipe, and the first image that pops into most people's minds is a briar pipe. Oh, sure, most of us have a few non-briars -- a meerschaum or two, maybe a "Missouri meerschaum" corncob, a clay, perhaps a prized calabash -- but most of the wood pipes are briar. It's not too difficult to find pipes made from other woods, such as cherry or olive, and there are lots of other exotics out there, but, still, briar is the standard.
Briar isn't just the usual material for a pipe, it's become a synonym: You can use the word "briar" in place of "pipe" in a sentence and it will make perfect sense. But why is that? How did briar become the most accepted material, more or less, for tobacco pipes?
The traditional story, repeated in almost every history of pipes, is that a French businessman was traveling through St. Claude in the early 1850s, when he stopped to spend the night at an inn in a little village. Some versions of the tale have it that he'd left his meerschaum pipe behind at his previous stop, others say that it had broken in his saddlebag. Either way, he was horrified at the prospect at facing an entire evening without the solace of a good smoke. Asking the innkeeper for advice, he was directed to an old woodcarver who promised to have something ready for him by the morning. Sure enough, at breakfast the traveler was presented with a beautiful pipe carved out of briar. As the French say, voila. The briar pipe suddenly became wildly popular and everyone lived happily ever after.
Personally, I say that story smells worse than a handful of old, dry oak leaves stuffed into an uncleaned churchwarden. (The pipe, not the person.) Let's see... a woodcarver in a then-obscure rural village just happened to have a chunk of properly seasoned wood, gathered from the root burl of a tough old tree that has little other value. Then, skipping those steps in the process that are hugely labor-intensive and require years of foresight, the woodcarver, without a pattern from which to work, was able to solve all the problems of chamber size, wall thickness, draw hole positioning and stem placement overnight?
At least we weren't asked to believe that the Pipe Fairy left a polished bent brandy with beautiful flame grain under the traveler's pillow. In a village that soon became the center of carving pipes from briar, a large supply of which just happened to be locally available. Well, why not? After all, I believed everything that nice gunnery sergeant told me at the recruiting station 35 years ago.
On the other hand, it might have had something to do with the fact that other materials being used to make pipes just weren't able to meet the demands of a growing pipe-smoking population. Not only was the demand for pipes in the 1850s increasing, but the way pipes were being used was changing: Instead of being exclusively smoked at a home hearthside or in a pub -- London even had smoking clubs where men would gather to enjoy a bowlful or two -- people were carrying pipes with them.
The stone pipes originally used by the American Indians, from whom we learned the joys of tobacco, are slow to make and heavy to carry. Clay pipes, the most common material for European pipes for a couple of centuries, were easily broken. Ceramic pipes, which had become popular in the Low Countries (Holland and its neighbors) were more expensive than common clays, but not much more durable, particularly when carried around. Meerschaum was, and still is, obtainable only from a fairly small area of Turkey. Plus, meerschaum is a fairly soft stone and can easily break.
That leaves wood. It's relatively cheap, easy (sort of) to work and is less likely to break than the other materials that had been used. It seems likely that the traditional story of the origin of briar pipes is probably just a convenient just-so story told by someone who was enjoying a nice pipe in the company of friends.
But why briar, specifically? Well, that's another story. You'll just have to be patient, while I look for my pipe.
Bryan R. Johnson is a freelance writer who lives deep in the North Woods, where pipes and tobacco are delivered by dedicated men on snowshoes.