The Calabash is one of the most iconic and timeless pipe shapes of all time, becoming a significant and historical design within pipe making as well as appearing in multiple forms of media. It's a whimsical and distinctive shape that's immediately recognizable, with the archetypal gourd Calabash being perhaps the most famous and well known version, which is named after the hard-shelled ornamental fruits used to craft them. The origins of the Calabash and its mainstream introduction to pipe smoking is remarkably fascinating, with one visionary salesman being largely responsible for its early success and exposing pipe smokers to the unique composition by reportedly being the first to export them. However, it's important to first examine the contextual factors within the historical time period that led to the initial success of the gourd Calabash.
History of the Gourd Calabash
The gourd Calabash originated along the southern tip of Africa sometime during the 1600s and later became immensely popular among soldiers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom who fought in the Second Boer War from 1899 to 1902. After the war, those soldiers returned home, bringing their gourd Calabash pipes with them as souvenirs. However, these pipes were more than a simple novelty as they were appreciated for their smoking properties in addition to their unusual shaping that dramatically departed from the comparatively traditional and reserved pipes produced by factories during that time.
these pipes were appreciated for their smoking properties in addition to their unusual shaping
H.L. Blatter was 16 years old when the Second Boer War began and he followed his brother, Ernest, and sister, Marguerite, from their hometown of Birmingham, England to South Africa to start their own business. The siblings originally opened a small store on a side street before moving to a busier section of Cape Town a few weeks later, with the family shop greatly benefiting from the soldiers stationed within the country's busy port city. Maritime trade routes were disrupted during the war, creating a briar supply shortage, and because of the scarcity a wartime demand opened the market for pipes to be sold to soldiers in British-occupied South Africa, where the native Khoikhoi had been consuming tobacco through traditional gourd vessels since the 17th century.
In an article that appeared in the July, 1948 edition of Pipe Lovers magazine, H.L. Blatter wrote, "For the next three years during which the war was being fought we encountered good business. The thousands of soldiers were free spenders and a war boom was on. We were kept busy in the manufacture of these gourd pipes since the soldiers all wanted to take one or two back home as a souvenir."
The Blatters successfully modernized the African gourd pipe through affixing a tobacco chamber crafted from clay or meerschaum to the larger end of the conical gourd, and a rubber mouthpiece to the opening at the smaller end. Blatter elaborated on the smoking attributes of gourds, noting, "It is ideal for a pipe because it is light in weight, has a large air space which is conducive to a cool smoke, colors well, and takes a meerschaum or clay tobacco bowl insert."
After the war, Blatter noted the financial struggles the family business encountered:
When the war ended in 1902 and the business boom was over. There were some refugees who lingered, but they were not sufficient to keep the business at the same tempo it had been going for these three war years.
And so, with plenty of pipes but no customers I had a choice of two things to do — either find some new customers for my Calabash pipes, or else sell out and move to Canada.
I went to England to see if I couldn't create a market there for the Calabash, but all of the pipe firms just laughed at me. They said the gourd pipe was just a novelty — a passing fad — and would soon be forgotten, in spite of the fact that it gave a good smoke.
I returned to South Africa discouraged, leaving the unsold pipes in England. It didn't seem worth the trouble and expense to bring them back with me.
As it turned out, Blatter's timing was flawed. After returning to London the following year, Blatter found the Calabash pipe was in high demand and sold all of the pipes in his inventory, and received orders for hundreds more. Blatter recognized how significant this event was, writing, "This, it might be said, was the real beginning of the Calabash pipe outside of Africa. The pipes which had been sold to the soldiers and taken home with them as mementoes had been of tremendous advertising value, and as the word got around all smokers were eager to purchase one of these odd pipes made of a gourd grown in South Africa." Blatter also explains the time-consuming process of fashioning gourd pipes since each one is unique and handmade, "Each meerschaum insert is fitted into a cork ring to insure an air-tight connection and permit no seepage of air, and this in itself is an individual operation with each pipe."
as the word got around all smokers were eager to purchase one of these odd pipes made of a gourd grown in South Africa
Blatter further elaborates on the benefits of Calabash pipes:
A well-made Calabash will appeal to the discriminating pipe smoker as possessing the much valued characteristics of the long German pipe but in a much more convenient form. Since the bowl occupies but a small part of the hollow neck, there is sufficient space to form a receptacle below the bowl that answers the same purpose as the lower bowl of the German pipe in keeping juices from entering the stem and mouth.
Qualities and Characteristics of Gourds
Gourd is renowned for its light weight, durability, and water-tightness, and has been cultivated throughout Africa since at least 500 B.C., according to Leslie Lund's comprehensive 1991 book One Half Holds the Sky... The African Calabash: Symbolism and Techniques. The book mentions that Egypt likely introduced the rest of Africa to gourds, with anthropologists speculating that early hunter-gatherer groups may have used gourds as containers. The various shapes and sizes of gourds have allowed them to be used in several ways, such as resonators for musical instruments, buoys for fishing nets, ladles, inkwells, and as sacred tools for religious ceremonies in some cultures.
In terms of the gourd's development as a plant, Lund notes, "When it first develops the plant is green. In maturity it is a light yellow color. Finally, when ripe it turns either a rich honey color or a deep orange. The shell is hard and smooth, the inside rough like coarse paper. The thickness of the sides depends on the variety. With age and use, the color of the gourd may change to brown, burgundy, or even black."
For those who wish to read additional information about Calabash pipes or simply appreciate well-written pipe texts, Gary B. Schrier's book History of the Calabash Pipe is a must-read. It offers an incredibly detailed analysis on the history of the gourd calabash pipe, how gourds are grown, the design's evolution over the decades, and manufacturing methods from past and present. It also provides an expanded English hallmark guide to assist with dating and brand identification, explores famous admirers who smoked Calabash pipes, and features an entire chapter that examines the relationship between Sherlock Holmes portrayers and the Calabash pipe.
Process for Growing Gourds
One chapter from Schrier's book that attracted my attention outlines the production steps used by calabash farmers, with processes used by the Crafford family on their Toorkloof farm in South Africa serving as excellent examples. The first step involves careful planning on the farmer's part with Schrier noting that the farmer must decide "how much ground to plant, what size the gourd necks should be grown, and how deep the bends should be. Additionally, he must ensure adequate experienced labor is at hand, and that sufficient water resources for irrigation of the field are nearby." (pg. 78). Following the planning stage, the ground is ploughed, usually in late summer, and then fertilized. After a few weeks the field is furrowed to allow for proper irrigation flow, enabling the seeds to germinate two to four weeks later.
In addition to maintaining the crops, farmers must also be vigilant and guard against pests and insects. Creatures such as fruit flies, gerbils, millipedes, and snails pose a tremendous threat to maturing gourds with the most challenging and devastating insect being the caterpillar. Once a butterfly deposits her eggs in open flowers, thousands of baby caterpillars emerge and begin devouring crops. Schrier notes, "Maturing calabashes become scarred and unusable by caterpillars eating their way across the surface of the gourd. Regular spraying of pesticides is mandatory, as well as setting traps for gerbils and mice." (pg. 79).
farmers must also be vigilant and guard against pests and insects
One of the most important aspects of the gourd growing process is ensuring the gourd follows a consistent and proper bend. Extreme care must be taken during this step as the maturing crop is fragile and can be easily damaged. Schrier notes, "The gourd must be manipulated on the vine so that the neck is placed in-line with the belly of the gourd, bent slowly, with a curvature not too open or closed." (pg. 83).
the maturing crop is fragile and can be easily damaged
The gourd, resting at all times on the ground in a shallow divot (not on the erroneously reported peg-board form) is supported on either side with small stones and clods of earth to resist wind and growth, forces that continuously try to undo the farmer's carefully laid work. This setting is checked weekly and, depending on the weather, during the hottest time of the day, generally between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. (pg. 83)
Harvesting begins in February, with Schrier noting, "The gourds are whitish-green in color, have a dull, hollow sound when rapped by expert hands, and the axil of the tendril is dry and shriveled." (pg. 84). Afterwards, the gourd necks are sawed to create the iconic Calabash silhouette and then boiled in water. While briar burls are boiled to remove sap and any remaining life that lingers in the wood, gourds are boiled to specifically remove the thin outer skin.
Schrier explains the boiling device and process:
The apparatus used is crude but very functional. A brick structure is built around a large, elevated 480-liter-capacity steel kettle. The kettle has a top opening for filling and a side vent for draining. A chimney with damper control creates the draught. The kettle is filled, and a wood fire is lighted at 5:30 p.m. Soon after the boiling point is reached, the necks are added. The fire's intensity and water level are maintained until 7:00 a.m. the following morning when the necks are removed. (pg. 85)
While the gourd is still damp after boiling, the outer skin of the necks is removed, a process that is typically done with a rotary, water-filled mechanical tumbler. The gourd neck's inner mass is then removed through the large opening, usually with a spoon or knife before being rinsed one final time. After rinsing, Schrier explains, "the necks are carefully placed, standing on their sawed ends, on wire-screened racks. Initially, the necks are dried in the sun for three hours; thereafter, they are stored for six days in a well-ventilated shed. If the gourds are dried too quickly, they crack, and mold sets in." (pg. 86).
Growing gourds is a meticulous, time consuming practice but showcases the dedication of generations of family farmers who continue to pass the tradition down to their children. The Calabash pipe design continues to be reimagined by artisan pipe makers as well as pipe factories around the world, typically trading gourds for briar and occasionally incorporating exotic or vibrant accenting materials. The Calabash shape offers endless possibilities to creative minds and gourd versions continue to be produced in modern times, albeit in significantly smaller quantities compared to decades ago. However, I'm sure many Calabash enthusiasts are happy to see the shape around no matter what medium is used to craft it.