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.
2. Railroads . a. Also called smoking car. a passenger car for those who wish to smoke. b. a compartment for those who wish to smoke.
3. an informal gathering, especially of men, for entertainment, discussion, or the like.
May 20, 1941 - America has not yet (officially) entered World War II. If you were to mention the "anti-smoking craze", the average citizen would likely respond with an incredulous look and a diplomatic nod, perhaps followed by an utterance of "Uh, huh. You don't say, fella? Well, I must be going." And in the town of Milford, Connecticut, the ladies of the local Young Women’s Republican Club were wondering why their husbands were so keen on collectively disappearing on selected evenings, going off to smoke those stinky pipes and cigars, drink that awful scotch, to lose money at each other at cards, and to return home in the early morning exhausted and disheveled. What could be the fun in that? Well, there was one way to find out. They gave it a go themselves. And to the good fortune of posterity, a photographer from LIFE magazine was at hand to document the debauchery that followed.
Cards? Smoke? Check and check:
Assemble an impromptu strip-tease troupe? Why not:
Wrestling? Well, it would be another six years before the lines "Anything you can do I can do better; I can do anything better than you." would first be sung, but these girls weren't going to wait:
The audience, well on their way towards producing a proper pea-soup strength tobacco-fog, certainly seemed appreciative:
At some point, a kindly park ranger apparently stopped by to help the maid light her cigarette. Certainly nothing unusual in that:
All in all, it appears to have been a rousing success. Goldilocks here, for example, evidently rousingly succeeded in discovering the simple joy, no doubt long kept a carefully, jealously guarded secret by her husband, of losing at cards:
A pair of ceremonial calumets, as depicted by George Catlin, mid-19th century.
The calumet, a catch-all term for the original tobacco pipe indigenous to North America, was an object of singular significance. Though often referred to simply as "peace pipes", there were in fact ceremonial calumets specifically created and adorned for numerous roles, including the declaration or prosecution of war.
Though a good pipe, being an object of some considerable labor investment (especially when shaped only by non-ferrous hand tools) would be a natural choice for the ceremonial occasions of tobacco use, it's also important to note that the tobaccos available were much harsher than those products of careful selective breeding that we enjoy today - not to mention that one common leaf, Nicotiana rustica, contained three times the nicotine as our strongest popular variations of Nicotiana tabacum. Furthermore, they were often mixed with other dried herbs as well. Tobacco was a commodity to be used only sparingly and on special occasions - "padded out" in mixture and puffed on through long-stemmed pipes which would help tame the blend. (Similarly, the Tainos of Cuba, the first smokers met by Europeans, rationed their own tobaccos by rolling them into cigars with a plantain or palm leaf wrapping.)
Access to the very pipestone itself (otherwise known as catlinite, after George Catlin) from which the calumet was most commonly carved was highly valued as well, to the point that amongst the peoples who inhabited areas where pipestone supplies originated, quarries were considered neutral ground, thus assuring that even within the context of oft-perpetual intertribal conflict, a supply would be secure. Given the importance of smoking the calumet in sealing bargains or, most famously, coming to terms of peace, this can be interpreted as quite a pragmatic measure - I would hazard a guess that a violation of this tradition would go over about as well as the killing of an emissary in the Occidental or Oriental spheres; a profane transgression against a trust both idealized as sacred and highly functional, which could see an entire kingdom, or even an empire, justly ground to dust in retribution. In short, the pipe of autochthonic North American societies was of such importance to politics not only within the tribe, but also in effecting relations (peaceful or otherwise) amongst other tribes, that the act of sacrilege in denying its availability or desecrating its symbolism was a line none could cross without expecting to earn a dire stigma, as well as consequences. When a pipe was puffed on in ceremony, the smoke was seen as carrying the participants' prayers, oaths, pacts, or decisions to the attention of the Creator-deity or other important and potent spirits - effectively serving to accomplish what we would now call "putting it in writing". In this light the pipes of a tribal leader or "medicine society" were both religious artifacts and, in and of themselves, akin to the highly-respected scribes who would follow lords, kings, and other powerful figures in European, Mediterranean, and Asian societies previous to the widespread use of the printing press.
The red pipestone bowl of Sauk leader Black Hawk’s personal calumet, preserved at the Black Hawk State Historic Site, Illinois.
Given the high esteem in which the indigenous pipe and its array of ceremonial and symbolic roles were held, it should come as little surprise that its storage and transportation required means fitting to its station. As with the pipe itself, the pipe-bag was an artifact of no little labor, and subject of much care and attention; Native-made traditional pipe and tobacco bags, still produced to this day, are on par with modern artisan-made briars in terms of the skill and cost involved, typically featuring extensive symbolic decoration laid out in careful beadwork, embroidery, and/or quillwork.
Northern Plains pipe bag and Sioux pipe bag, both circa 1870, from the Pierre L. Fabre collection.
While public-domain images of modern calumets are hard to come by, in searching for pictures for this entry I did come across a Flickr set of some of the best examples of Native pipe-bowl art, the Hopewell-period Tremper Mound trove discovered in Ohio just shy of a century ago: The Hopewell Effigy Pipes
When I first had the idea to do a brief blog post about clay pipes, I soon realized that it is actually a huge subject that could fill many books (and actually has). This particular post is not meant to be a concrete piece of history, nor is it intended to classify all clay pipes and tobaccos. Still, a brief bit of fun is in order. Most of us have smoked briar pipes, some smoke meerschaum; there is the occasional cherry-wood pipe or noble cob thrown into the mix, but what about the common clay? For starters, there is little debate that there were more pipes made out of clay than any other material, since it was the vessel of choice (and mass market) from c1500-c1900. Briar came into popularity in the latter part of the 19th century.
The example shown here is lesser known to most of us. It's a simple clay bowl that could be made out of stoneware (in this case), redware, or pretty much any clay that you could dig up just under the good soil in the back yard. Some fancy pipes have a light glaze on them, but the majority of these were either unglazed or polished in spot-areas from natural ash glazing or salt glazing. An obvious advantage to a bowl like this is that the stem (normally the part that breaks) could be a simple reed (as is the case here), turkey or goose feather, or a hollowed stick from the likes of a cherry or walnut tree. Pipes made in this way were very easy to transport. The bowls could be kept in a box or bag and the wooden stems would be kept separate to take up less space. This particular design looks like a typical detailed stoneware pipe from the 1800s. Since the style changed very little, it's rather difficult (if not impossible) to determine if this pipe was made two decades ago or two centuries ago.
That's why I like it. This style of pipe was often traded to Native Americans - as many goods were - along with tobacco. Many a re-enactor has a pipe like this in his tricorn, felt hat, or in a leather pouch with a twist or rope of tobacco (which was much easier to store than ribbon). Cutting off a coin of tobacco (Samuel Gawith Brown Bogie in this case) and breaking it up into ribbons to fill the clay takes me back to a past time when men sat around a campfire roasting meat, talking in a tavern, or simply enjoying their tobacco alone with their thoughts.
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