"Everything on this planet has its place and time, a brief period where it must adapt or be altered by the hand of God or Man to survive a world constantly in flux."
- Gary B. Schrier History of the Calabash Pipe
It seems as if the Calabash pipe has always been there: in literature, film, and potentially on your pipe rack. Its whimsical, distinctive silhouette is instantly recognizable, and like the clay Cutty shape before it, it's a design that's carried over into the realm of briar. The shape itself might be unique, but the story behind it is all the more so, borne of the perfect storm of nature, necessity, colonialism, and shifting social paradigms. How, then, did this stalwart shape come to be?
The archetypal Calabash is made from the hollowed-out hull of a hardened calabash gourd (from which it derives its name), achieving its desired shape through a special process undergone while the fruit is still growing. Bolstered by a mound of arid soil on each side of its large base, the gourd's gooseneck is arranged in line with the body, allowing the degree of bend to be manipulated by the farmer through pressure. During the early stages of growth, it's crucial that the utmost care be taken to keep the bend consistent and the gourd free of flaws, as a blemish-free Calabash with a tight, perpendicular bend is roughly akin to a briar with dense, 360-degree straight grain.
According to Gary B. Schrier in his book History of the Calabash Pipe, the shape's first mention in western history appeared sometime during the Boer War; at the time, marine trade routes were likely disrupted due to the conflict, so briar was in short supply. Because of this scarcity, a wartime demand opened up the market for pipes to be sold to soldiers in British-occupied South Africa, where the native Khoikhoi had been imbibing tobacco through traditional gourd vessels since the 17th century. A young salesman by the name of HL Blatter is commonly considered the nexus between these already-established Khoikhoi smoking instruments and the British Colonial Empire, affixing a meerschaum cap to the larger end of the conical gourd, and a rubber stem to the opening at the smaller end. The result was not unlike those we see today.
The not even twenty-year-old Blatter saw a booming business during wartime, as soldiers bought his hybrid designs for daily use, usually also picking up two or three extras to take home as souvenirs. After the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging ended the war in 1902, however, the market in the colony dried up, and Blatter traveled to England, attempting to pitch his Calabash pipe to reputable pipe firms. Potentially due to the design's stark contrast with the smaller, classical shapes of the era, they "laughed" at him, writing the concept off as a "novelty" and a "passing fad." It appeared early post-Victorian society wasn't quite ready to accept the concept, or so it seemed at first. Blatter returned to South Africa, distraught.
Meanwhile, on January 22, 1901, King Edward VII ascended the throne, replacing Queen Victoria as the ruling monarch of the empire. King Edward's catalyzing effect, in contrast to that of his mother Queen Victoria's, on the world of tobacco is well-known, especially amongst our hobby. He was a fashionable trend-setter, a champion of the arts and leisure, and he smoked. With the king's blessing, smoking became more widely accepted than ever by citizens across the social spectrum. Compound that with the Calabash pipe as a post-war symbol of the preserved Empire, and the grandiloquent "colonial pipe" had the boost in popularity it needed.
Blatter obtained word of this only a few months after leaving London, but upon hearing it, returned to England at once. Shortly thereafter, he had sold the entirety of his stock and was taking orders for "hundreds more." The Calabash was the talk of the day, and even as pipemaking adapted to meet the demand for more compact pieces, still the form persisted. And today, with modern artisans like Chris Asteriou, BriarWorks, and Tonni Nielsen turning out such interesting iterations of the shape from briar and other materials, it's sure to persist for years to come.