Missouri Meerschaum: 150 Years of American Corn Cob Pipes

Missouri Meerschaum corn cob factory

Missouri Meerschaum corn cob factory

While pipes in general hold a firm place in the history of numerous countries, corn cob pipes in particular are intricately tied to American history, and cob pipes have been a mainstay of Americana for well over a century. Famous Americans, like Mark Twain and General MacArthur, have become synonymous with the convenient cobs, with the pipes also having been readily seen between the teeth of pop culture icons: Popeye, Frosty the Snowman, and Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies — even Donald Duck was featured with a cob on at least one occasion.

Such history and tradition still lives and breathes in Washington, Missouri, through the work of Missouri Meerschaum, the world's oldest corn cob manufacturer. The origins and flourishing of Missouri Meerschaum are part and parcel to those of the town of Washington, and to understand one is to understand the other. A thread of symbiosis ties the cob company with the town, and one wouldn't exist without the other. It's a story not just about pipes, but of small town America, innovative ingenuity, and community.

In the same way we have the French and, specifically, the Comoy family to thank for popularizing the medium of briar in pipemaking in 1856, we owe the corn cob pipe to the Dutch and, specifically, the Tibbe family.

Portrait of Henry Tibbe

Portrait of Henry Tibbe

Henry Tibbe emigrated from the Netherlands to Missouri in the 1860s, starting life anew after a fire had destroyed his Dutch home and bringing with him his brother, Fritz; wife, Johanna; and their son, Anton. The family soon settled in the town of Washington, in Franklin County, situated on a south-reaching bend of the Missouri river. Consider for a second the timeframe and location: The United States was in the throws of civil war, and the Tibbe family had relocated to a border state torn between Union and Confederate loyalties. Washington itself directly faced the terrors of war, the town having been ransacked by Confederate General Sterling Price and his soldiers. In some ways, Henry and his family had jumped from the frying pan and into the fire; in other ways, though, the Tibbe family had much in common with other American families — facing the reality of starting over in the midst of conflict.

In spite of the country's turmoil and the trials of Reconstruction, Henry focused on rebuilding and integrating into the local community. A woodworker by trade, he established a small shop on 2nd Street in the late 1860s, specializing in spinning wheels, wooden handles, furniture, and other practical necessities.

At some point during this time, Henry was introduced to corn cob pipes, which had traditionally been crudely carved by individual smokers. Though the details of the story remain foggy, the Washington Historical Society supports the tradition that a local farmer approached Tibbe with a hand-whittled cob to ask if the woodworking Dutchman couldn't make one more efficiently on his lathe. Henry obliged and in 1869 began selling corn cob pipes in his shop. Demand for Tibbe's pipes increased so much that, in the early 1870s, Henry left woodworking to focus solely on manufacturing pipes, partnering with his son, Anton, to establish H. Tibbe & Son.

Old H. Tibbe & Son Factory

Old H. Tibbe & Son Factory

Founded upon the innovative idea of turning corn cobs on a lathe, H Tibbe & Son leaned into that efficiency-focused mindset and sought new means of improving cob pipes. The father-son duo's tenacity was best realized in the Tibbes' 1878 patent that described their process for fire-proofing corn cobs, which at that time were infamously susceptible to burning out. The simple process of covering the cob and filling its texture with a plaster-like substance revolutionized the family business and corn cob pipes as a whole; not only did it reduce the risk of burnout, but the plaster also made the cob more durable on a lathe. Such an innovation propelled the Tibbes' cobs from a cute, DIY project to a full-fledged commercial product, with their increased popularity only growing.

The Tibbes' business grew in tandem with cobs' popularity, the company evolving into H. Tibbe, Son & Co. and building a larger factory to accommodate demand for their pipes, the same building that now houses Missouri Meerschaum, the final iteration of H. Tibbe & Son. The name Missouri Meerschaum hearkens back to when Henry and Anton patented their cob design in 1883. Henry's brother, Fritz, named it "Missouri Meerschaum" as a nod to the porous mineral also used in pipemaking. Though the patent expired in 1895 and Henry passed away the following year, the name Missouri Meerschaum endured, officially replacing H. Tibbe, Son & Co. in 1907.

The Henry Tibbe Family. Left to right: Fritz Tibbe, Mrs. Henry Tibbe, née Johanna Yagers, Margarethe Yagers, Anton Arnold Tibbe, and Henry Tibbe

The Henry Tibbe Family. Left to right: Fritz Tibbe, Mrs. Henry Tibbe, née Johanna Yagers, Margarethe Yagers, Anton Arnold Tibbe, and Henry Tibbe

The Tibbe family now rests within the rich history of pipemaking, a history that's benefited from numerous family legacies — the Comoys in France, the Ivarssons in Denmark, the Barlings in England, and the Kapps in Ireland, to name a few. Even within today's artisan pipemaking industry, a familial tradition still presides, with Alex and Dasha Florov and Hiroyuki and Yuki Tokutomi coming to mind particularly.

More tangibly, the Tibbe family legacy lives on through Missouri Meerschaum, which still runs cob production from out of the original Tibbe factory in Washington, but with more than a few expansions added over the years. Phil Morgan currently supervises the company as General Manager, a role he's held for the past decade. Missouri Meerschaum has remained one of the most prolific producers of corn cob pipes for the better part of a century, and 2019 now marks the 150th anniversary, dating back to 1869 when Henry Tibbe first started turning cobs on his woodworking workshop's lathe.

In thinking back to those humble beginnings, Phil remains amazed and impressed by the immediate popularity of Tibbe's cobs. "Though he only started in 1869, Henry was already selling corn cob pipes in Europe as early as 1880," he says. "The lower price of cobs, thanks to their less-expensive materials, made them really attractive to pipesmokers," and the industry as a whole reaped the benefits of pipesmoking becoming more popular in general, "riding the wave of pipesmoking," as Morgan puts it. "All of the right factors aligned, and the timing was perfect. It was a great time for somebody to start the corn cob pipe industry.

Factory workers at Missouri Meerschaum c. 1930

Factory workers at Missouri Meerschaum c. 1930

"In terms of production numbers, that 'wave' saw Missouri Meerschaum at its heyday from the 1920s into the '60s," Phil says, "with annual shipping numbers reaching up to 20 million pipes" — that's about 55,000 pipes per day. To put that into perspective, 20 million is roughly the current population of the New York Metropolitan area, and Yankee Stadium seats just over 50,000 occupants. Imagine that all of those New York residents were pipesmokers; Missouri Meerschaum could have supplied every single one of them with a corn cob pipe, one Yankee Stadium-worth of people at a time, everyday, for a year.

By contrast, Washington, Missouri, boasts only about 15,000 residents, spread out across 10 square miles. And, yet, quaint little Washington is the Corn Cob Capital of the World, the focus from which developed the cob industry. After Tibbe's patent expired in 1895, "Hirschl and Bendheim, originally they were a distributor for Tibbes and his cobs, but they began making their own corn cob pipes. The building is still here actually," Phil says, "Right across the street from us."

In terms of production numbers, that 'wave' saw Missouri Meerschaum at its heyday from the 1920s into the '60s, with annual shipping numbers reaching up to 20 million pipes.

In Washington alone, there were about four different corn cob pipe companies that existed at the same time as Missouri Meerschaum. "We were the first," says Phil, "but our early success inspired others within Franklin County, and beyond, to try their hand at cobs. A couple other companies popped up here in Washington. Then one in Union, one in Saint Charles, another in Boonville Missouri." Phil recites the list as if expecting each town name to be the last, only to remember yet another corn cob manufacturer. "And there was one in Owensville and in Saint Clair, both small towns. Oh, there was even one in Northern Arkansas." Like spokes on a wheel, the corn cob industry rapidly expanded outward from Washington, with manufacturers sprouting in localities across the state and beyond.

Stacks of corn cobs at the Missouri Meerschaum factory

Stacks of corn cobs at the Missouri Meerschaum factory

In the same way that the inauguration of briar as a pipemaking material in St. Claude, France, sparked the establishment of numerous factory operations across France and Europe, Missouri Meerschaum and Washington were the epicenter of the corn cob industry, responsible for its growth and boasting the most concentrated milieu of cob manufacturers. The introduction of a new pipemaking material — corn cobs — initiated the same progression here in the United States as briar had in Europe, albeit on a smaller scale but an apt parallel nonetheless. The story of corn cob pipemaking mimics that of briar. It's a microcosm of the pipemaking industry as a whole: simply trade Francois Comoy for Henry Tibbe; St. Claude, France, for Washington, Missouri; and the Chapuis-Comoy factory for Missouri Meerschaum's.

The corn cob industry's growth, and specifically that of Tibbe's company, naturally affected more than merely pipemaking. Washington and the surrounding region rode the coattails of cobs' popularity, with the success and influence of cob making intricately tied to the local community and its economy.

The electrical company brought in by Anton generated enough power to run Washington's street lights and even extended to the nearby town of Union.

Phil captures the significance of this relationship well: "The corn cob pipe industry and, in particular, Anton Tibbe were really responsible for developing the economy in this area, especially when you consider it wasn't too many years after the Civil War. They needed something to bring the economy back."

Corn cob comic from 1977

Corn Cob Comic from 1977

Missouri Meerschaum's influence on the surrounding community, however, went beyond monetary growth and job opportunities. When his father died in 1896, Anton Tibbe, the "son" in H. Tibbe, Son & Co., took responsibility for the thriving cob company. As Morgan explains, "Anton was more progressive than his father, so he recognized the advantages that certain new technologies and innovations could have on manufacturing cobs." Such a forward-thinking mindset also greatly benefited the town of Washington and Franklin County at large. "Anton introduced electrical power to the region," says Phil, "specifically to power the factory's lathes which had previously been foot-operated." It had even further-reaching benefits than the factory however. "The electrical company brought in by Anton generated enough power to run Washington's street lights and even extended to the nearby town of Union." It's a gift of sorts, that Missouri Meerschaum and Morgan remain proud of even today. "We were the company responsible for bringing that source of power to the area," Phil says, adding, "which is pretty meaningful to us at Missouri Meerschaum."

As society grew and technology advanced, so did Missouri Meerschaum and, by default, Washington. "Anton also brought the first phone system to this area and the first distributed water system," says Morgan. The history and development of Washington is intricately tied to that of Missouri Meerschaum, and vice versa. In many ways, they both survived because of each other. Still, while the innovative advancements introduced by Anton and Missouri Meerschaum were integral to the success of Washington, the most personal relationship between the town and the factory remained centered around the cobs themselves: Local farmers sourced the cobs used by Missouri Meerschaum.

Anton also brought the first phone system to this area and the first distributed water system.

"Before the age of hybridization and genetically modified crops, corn naturally had cobs of a larger diameter, well-suited to pipemaking," Phil says. "Though I wasn't managing Missouri Meerschaum at the time, I still remember the bigger cobs from back then. The company didn't have to grow corn. They would give a metal ring to local farmers, saying, 'If the cobs are too big to fit through this ring, then we'll buy them from you to make pipes.'" With this agreement, farmers were now able to make a profit on something that before had been, in essence, useless trash in their eyes. They could sell both the corn itself as well as the cobs, which otherwise would have been discarded. The partnership between Missouri Meerschaum and the agricultural community made for a beautiful symbiosis between the farmers and the factory that funneled more revenue into the rural economy.

Corn cobs from Missouri Merschaum's 150 acre farmlands

Corn cobs from Missouri Merschaum's 150 acre farmlands

"This relationship diminished though," Phil says, "with the rise of genetically modified corn, which sacrificed the size of the cob for larger grain." This change, however, led to another local partnership. In the 1960s, the cob company recognized their need to grow corn themselves, corn that was suitable for pipemaking. They looked to the nearby University of Missouri for help and capitalized on hybridization to achieve their goal. "It's a special variety of corn," Morgan explains. "It's made up of four old varieties, called open-pollinated varieties. Other cob companies, such as Old Dominion Pipe Company in Virginia, also grow their own corn, but they use an old heirloom seed to ensure proper cob size." He digresses for a moment to laud Bob Savage and Old Dominion. "Bob and I were actually just emailing each other this morning. He's a great guy. We don't view each other as competitors; we're more companions in this rather small, unique industry. We're in this together. But, as I was saying, we, Missouri Meerschaum, we're the only company to have our own special hybrid of four different varietals." We're in this together. The community-minded attitude of Missouri Meerschaum doesn't just extend to the town of Washington, it's aimed toward the cob industry as a whole.

Elaborating on the corn growing process, Phil says, "We have 150 acres worth of fields, just across the Missouri river on the north end of Washington, and now instead of buying cobs from local farmers, we're actually part of the corn suppliers." (They need only the cobs, after all.) "There's even a local distillery that buys some of our grain to make whiskey," he says. "They're coming out with a whiskey that they're going to call Popcorn Bourbon, sourced from none other than Missouri Meerschaum corn."

As their own supplier of cobs now, Missouri Meerschaum is as vertically integrated as ever. "Whenever you grow your own primary raw material," says Phil, "you're about as vertically integrated as you can get." While this affords the company a great deal of control and freedom, it's not without its own challenges.

Height checking as part of the quality control process at Missouri Meerschaum

Height checking as part of the quality control process at Missouri Meerschaum

Morgan admits that "the hardest part of the business is growing the corn because you're subject to the whims of mother nature every year." From droughts to flooding to needing to consider crop rotation, growing their own corn has added more responsibilities, placing more importance on storing cobs in case of poor yields, and for when the soil is rested and soybeans are grown in place of corn.

We have 150 acres worth of fields, just across the Missouri river on the north end of Washington, and now instead of buying cobs from local farmers, we're actually part of the corn suppliers.

One such challenge related to growing their own corn bared its teeth 10 years ago during Phil's first year as General Manager. "I noticed that the cobs lacked in consistent shape and size. Fewer cobs were suited for pipes than before. It took us about two years to figure out what was wrong," says Morgan. "I contacted a retired professor from the University of Missouri, and he pointed me to a book chapter written about the pipemaking corn hybridization process from the '60s." Finding the book, Phil discovered that two of the four varietals used to make Missouri Meerschaum's proprietary hybrid seed had somehow been forgotten and bred out over the years. "I'm reading through the chapter and realize, oh my gosh, we're missing two of the old seed varietals. We'd been growing corn that was only half the hybrid it should've been."

Assembly room where MM workers assemble each corn cob pipe by hand

Missouri Meerschaum worker assembling ferrules onto shanks

"By the time we figured out what was wrong and figured out the solution, it was about a five year process to get everything back in place," says Phil. "That was the biggest challenge we've faced since I arrived here." Thankfully, proper planning over the recent years had ensured a hearty stockpile of suitable cobs, so business continued without a hitch during those five years. Still, Morgan remembers just how close the timing worked in their favor: "By the time the new, corrected crops were ready, only one pile of proper-sized cobs remained from those we had inventoried over the previous years." In fact, some customers may even remember this period. "We were pretty open about our predicament and began making and selling hardwood versions of our popular shapes, just in case our stockpiled cobs weren't enough to last."

Despite the changes and challenges associated with growing their own corn, "we still utilize the same processes that the founder used back in the 1800s," says Phil — a testament to the company's prolonged efficiency and resourcefulness. "The making of a Missouri Meerschaum corn cob still remains a highly hands-on process," he says. "We still use hand saws, and every pipe is still assembled completely by hand."

Even one of the workstations where plaster is applied to the cob has remained untouched for a century, as if preserved in amber. "We have pictures that are over a 100 years old, and it's the exact same workstation." Phil says. "Some of the racks that the cobs dry on after they've been plastered, sanded, and applied with lacquer, they're the exact same racks from pictures that are over a 100 years old. A lot of the slatted, wooden containers we have rolling around the plant, they're over 100 years old, too."

Corn cob pipes drying on old pegged racks.

Corn cob pipes drying on old pegged racks.

Other than the lathes now running on electricity, as opposed to being foot-powered, the process of cob making at Missouri Meerschaum remains largely untouched since its founding 150 years ago, and even the introduction of electricity was a change implemented by Anton Tibbe himself.

With roughly 35 employees, Missouri Meerschaum functions like a well-maintained machine, as it's done since 1869. Currently the factory ships an average of 3,500 corn cob pipes per weekday. Such a production rate for a relatively small company bespeaks a high level of organization, skill, and efficiency. The company has proven its longevity, its discipline in tenaciously turning out thousands of cobs a day, and its patience in retaining centuries old processes — with an admirable "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality — yet it's flexible enough to change seamlessly with the times and integrate new innovations as needed, navigating problems with calm wisdom as they arise.

The making of a Missouri Meerschaum corn cob still remains a highly hands-on process. We still use hand saws, and every pipe is still assembled completely by hand.

This isn't just the story of Missouri Meerschaum, though. The history of corn cobs, with Missouri Meerschaum as their progenitor, is impossible to divorce from the local community within which they were popularized. In the same way that pipesmoking is a hobby founded on community — as evidenced by pipe clubs, trade shows, and internet forums — so too is the corn cob industry. From guiding Missouri through the uncertainty and turmoil of post-Civil War America to bringing technological advancements to Washington and the surrounding area, the corn cob industry and Missouri Meerschaum are a part of American history, not only the history of pipemaking. As Missouri Meerschaum welcomes its 150th anniversary, let's celebrate that history and communal commitment — both the pipesmoking hobby and local communities are better for it.

View of the Missouri Meerschaum factory (June 2019

View of the Missouri Meerschaum factory (June 2019)

Comments

    • Tom Alu on October 13, 2019
    • Thank you for the fantastic history lesson on corn cob pipes. It was very interesting πŸ‘

    • Rick Newcombe on October 13, 2019
    • I have met Phil Morgan at pipe shows and he is always very friendly. I get the feeling that he knows more about corn cob pipes than anyone on the planet. I always keep a cob in the glove compartment of my car in case there is a traffic jam and I feel like relaxing with a pipe. Who owns Missouri Meerschaum?

    • james whitmer on October 13, 2019
    • send me the tobacco ,i like the article....buddy

    • truculentfrogs on October 13, 2019
    • Very fine and informative article. Your aim is true, Mr. Smith.

    • Malcolm Novar on October 13, 2019
    • This is quite an article about how a company produces a great product which really benefits a town and its residents. I've been smoking a Missouri Meerschaum for over sixty years since I was 16. God bless America and the Free Market System..

    • Jan M. Uroda on October 14, 2019
    • I have always enjoyed the sweetness a MM cob lends to just about any blend of tobacco! I smoke them till they are just about burned out and toss them....a new one is always waiting in the drawer!

    • Brad on October 14, 2019
    • This was such a great and enjoyable article. Miss. Meets are among my favorite pipes. As the slogan says...they aren’t my most expensive pipes, but they are the pipes I smoke the most. Thanks for the work that went into this article!

    • Phil Morgan on October 14, 2019
    • A very big thank you to Truett and Smokingpipes.com for this article! We at Missouri Meerschaum are proud to be part of the pipe smoking community, one of the most friendly and supportive groups in existence. In answer to Rick Newcombe's question above, Missouri Meerschaum has been owned for the last 30 years by a small group of investors from Missouri and Kansas.

    • Zach on October 17, 2019
    • This article is fantastic. Great company, great pipes. Please don't ever let it stop.

    • Howard R. Houck on October 29, 2019
    • I assume that my favourite -- and oldest: bought in Mexico City 56 years ago -- corncob is a Missouri Meerschaum. But it's hard to tell, seeing that it's a pigskin-covered number. I also assume that MMs have always been produced unadorned and that some other company was just having a go. Regardless, it smokes sweeter than ANY of my other cobs.

    • David Danner on October 4, 2020
    • β€œ...was in the throes of civil war...” not β€œ...throws of civil war...”

    • LV on October 16, 2020
    • Did any one noticed that this article does not appear on the SPipes reader? Is it a link connection error? Or is it just me. It doesn't appear in the articles list. Hat tip, LV

    • Benjamin G on January 17, 2021
    • "There's even a local distillery that buys some of our grain to make whiskey," he says. "They're coming out with a whiskey that they're going to call Popcorn Bourbon, sourced from none other than Missouri Meerschaum corn."What distillery is this? I'd love to try the whiskey made from Missouri Meerschaum corn.

    • Night Shayde on March 5, 2021
    • I am new to the site and to pipe smoking and I am thoroughly enjoying binge reading your articles. They are very insightful and give me a greater appreciation for the art of tobacco pipe smoking.

    • mike on March 7, 2021
    • If I'm not mistaken, the "Popcorn Bourbon" mentioned is the spirit that takes it's namesake from the famous late bootlegger, Popcorn Sutton.

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