Truncated History of Pipe Tobacco and Pipes

We all can thank John Rolfe for the “invention” of pipe tobacco. He sourced plant tobacco seed from Trinidad and planted it in Virginia in 1612. Much of his first harvest was shipped back to England and it became the rage in court helping to popularize pipe tobacco smoking across Europe in the 1600’s and 1700’s.

In the early days consuming pipe tobacco was referred to as “drinking” the actual smoke from a pipe. And, speaking of pipes, these go back 2-3,000 years, with Native American tribes making pipes out of stone material with animal carvings to make them more distinctive.

native american pipe with carvings

Moving forward in time, most early European and American pipes were made out of clay, with long stems to impart some coolness to the smoke. Early clay pipes were easy to break and meersschaum pipes started coming into vogue in the mid 1700’s with materials imparted from Africa and Turkey.

Meerschaum is a germ term simply meaning “foaam of the sea” as it is made from actual skeletal remains of microscopic creatures from the sea bed, with the best meerschaum typically found in Turkey near Instanbul. It’s a chalk white material which lends itself well to hand carvings; but early meerschaum pipes were prone to cracking, helping to usher in the era of smoking with cigars and cigarettes by the turn of the 19th Century.

Most modern pipes are made from briar wood which is a great material for a pipe: it’s fine grained, light, hard, heat resistant and non toxic and it’s pipe made from briar wood is much more durable than clay or meerschaum. Briar pipe were first made in the French village of St. Claude in the Jura Mountains, which was known for its fine carvings using wood from the burl tree. Originally known as “Bruyere” the wood became know eventually as briar.

Every pipe has these standard design features;

  • The tobacco chamber, draft hole, smoke channel define the overall quality of a modern pipe and these are commonly known as “drillings.” Good airflow is the critical element that makes a pipe function properly, a pipe must have the proper air flow from bowl to the button, with a smoke channel that is consistent in size.
  • To smoke propoerly, the height of the smoke channel must decrease to accommodate the mouthpiece tapering down to the button, the smoke channel should increase in width, gradually transitioning from a round cross section to the flattened oval opening of the slot. Many high volume inexpensive pipes are made without the proper attention to these details; airflow has to work but the draw of the pipe and the overall experience can suffer accordingly.

Pipes do Come in All Shapes and Sizes Kind of Like People 

Most pipes fall into two primary categories: straight and curved, but you can find pipes made in just about any configuration imaginable. Many pipe aficionados think the straight pipe is an optimum way to smoke pipe tobacco. In many cases this is due to the lack of moisture build up in this type of pipe

Over the centuries many styles of pipe shape have appeared and faded. in today’s pipe world they are generally thought of in terms of classic English shapes and Danish, or sometimes somewhat artistic if you will freehand shapes.

The classic traditional English shapes were in fact popular for several hundred years until about the early 1950’s, when Denmark pipe makers began to experiment with alternative shapes in an effort to inject more individual artistic expression into creation of a new and less regimented style of shapes.

Many of these early creations, shaped by hand tended to incorporate the natural shape of the briar burl and direction of the grain. Making the design characteristics somewhat limited.

classic meerschaum pipe

How to Buy and Clean a Pipe 

A slightly used or what is commonly called an “estate pipe” is a great way to get introduced to pipe smoking. This kind of pipe has one huge advantage vs. a brand new in the box pipe; i.e. they have been broken in if you will by the first generation smoker and you can find a great classic pipe that will cost you half the price of a new version of the pipe. Clean and sterilize it using any type of potable alcohol and a pipe cleaner to remove any caked in or on residue.

  • Start with pipe cleaners you pick up at any tobacconist and make sure you use grain alcohol, not Isopropyl.
  • Break down the pipe by separating the components, unscrewing the stem from the bowl.
  • Put your pipe cleaner in alcohol and run it in and out of the stem until it has no trace of ash and toss the pipe cleaner after you’ve used it.
  • Use a scraping tool to remove resin and tar build up from the bowl and fold an alcohol drenched pipe cleaner in two and rub the sides of the bowl and make sure you clean the “tenon” (the air hole) thoroughly.
  • Clean the exterior of the pipe too by wiping the bowl with alcohol or even a soft cloth and make sure to let the pipe dry thoroughly.

We sell a wide variety of pipes and we recommend your perusing our pipe section of our web site. And, whether you buy a pipe from us or elsewhere the best place to look for a pipe is online as most smaller artisan pipe shops are no longer in business. We also sell a wide variety of pipe tobacco.