Clay Pipes And Pipe Tampers

For most people, clay tobacco pipes bring to mind images of sailors and soldiers from the pre-civil war era, but did you know they've been around for over 300 years? Although there's no definitive proof of when they did come about, it's thought they originated in England in the late 1500s."Tobacco drinking," as it was called then, was a favourite pastime of not only men, but women and children, too. Clay pipes were easy to make so the high demand could readily be met. The first clay pipes were described as being more of a spoon shape, formed like a "ladell," as noted in William Harrison's "Great Chronologie" from 1573. As years passed, the shape and size of the clay pipe changed so that it had more of a bowl-like shape to hold more tobacco and provide a longer "drinking" time. The size then was small, with a 4-6 inch stem, 1/4 inch diameter inside the bowl and a 1/8 inch stem bore, and many were flat on the bottom so they could be placed upright on a table or other flat surface.

Refinements were eventually made so that the bowls became larger, up to 3/4 of an inch inside and not as flat on the bottom. Stems became longer, some were 10-14 inches, with the majority of them straight, although curved stems were not unusual (this was due to distortion during the firing process). Clay pipe makers begin to add a milled or plain ring at the top of the bowl and some added maker's marks or elaborately decorated the bowls by hand or with a stamp. The 1700s brought better firing processes, a thinner bowl and overall better quality. But it was during the mid-18th century when extra-long pipe stems became the fashion of the day. Gentleman of that period enjoyed showing off their "aldermen" or "straw" clay pipes with their 18-24 inch stems. Decorative clay pipes were becoming rarer, save for those with a simple leaf pattern on the seams of the bowl, which remained popular. As if the long stems from the mid-18th century weren't quite long enough, a new kind of clay pipe called the "yard of clay" was introduced after 1850. These "churchwarden" pipes had stems close to 36 inches long and were most likely not a good smoke, but more of a conversation piece as they were the fad at that time. One wonders if it became a contest among gentlemen to see who had the longest stem. Some claim that Charles Dickens came up with the name "churchwarden," and although there is no proof of this, he did help to make them popular at that time.

Decorated pipes once again became popular and Victorian gentlemen tried to outdo each other with the various types of decorations on their pipes. Some used them for advertising, some had their favorite hobby (fishing, hunting, sailing) or food stamped on the bowl, while others selected flowers or intricate designs. It got to a point where a customer could purchase a clay pipe to suit their mood, their dress or their "claim to fame." Meerschaum pipes were introduced during the latter part of the 19th century, causing the clay pipe's popularity to wane. By 1930, the clay pipe had been reduced to a toy, used as bubble pipes for children or as targets at carnival shooting galleries. Briar pipes became the rage, didn't break like clay pipes tended to and were by far more durable in the long run.

Inside the bowl of a late 1600s clay pipe shard.           Clay pipe bowls from an excavation in Halifax    


Pipe Tampers

Once upon a time -- from 1585, the year Sir Walter Raleigh introduced pipe-smoking to the Elizabethan court, to 1881, when the first viable cigarette-rolling machine was patented -- pipes ruled the world. No hyperbole here: The combination of a New World stimulant -- tobacco -- and a freewheeling European market, placed pipes firmly in the mouths of every English privateer, Dutch trading magnate, Descartian philosopher, colonial tavern keeper, tribal chieftain, Napoleonic general, Samurai lord, and Dickensian city dweller within reach. Paintings, pamphlets, the earliest of novels and the earliest of photographs -- an endless array -- show us what our ancestors knew: that the pipe was an icon of their daily lives, a hand-held pleasure, an adult (and sometimes juvenile) toy. True, the famous generals Grant and Sherman smoked cigars. But look closely at photos of their soldiers: what you'll spot . again and again . are their pipes. Those tobacco leaves burning so benignly in one's pipe bowl require care. To achieve a smooth and even draw of smoke, you need to push, or "tamp", the stuff down. Sir Isaac Newton once used a lady's finger (still attached to its owner, it seems) to "tamp" his pipe, with inflammatory results. There had to be a better way.

Japan had its purse-string netsukes, Native America its medicine pouches; Europe came up with figural pipe tampers. Like the netsukes and medicine pouches, tampers - or "stoppers" in British English - were small, portable, useful, and wonderfully decorative. Within these little vertical sculptures, every aspect of contemporary life was depicted, glorified, satirized: terriers and grinning imps, two-faced popes and Cheshire cats, Bonaparte and the weeping Eve . a waistcoat-pocket menagerie. The art of silversmiths, pewterers, ironmongers and glassblowers spanning three very creative centuries.

"In the tobacco-stopper alone was anything like taste or fancy displayed. This was the only article on which the English smoker prided himself. It was made of various materials - wood, bone, ivory, mother-of-pearl, brass, and silver; and the forms which it assured were exceedingly diversified." --
Joseph Fume, 1839

Additional materials included pewter, bronze, iron, lead(!), horn, basalt, china, clay, lava and even animal teeth. Tampers of various forms were fashioned and used by nearly every ethnic group in every continent. Diversity, it seems, is nothing new. A glimpse of a tamper in a pipe smoker's hand brought colour, thought and humour to the day. It had its own humanity: far from the history books, perhaps, but close to the lives of everyday people. The humans that we were ... the humans we've become. By the 1880's, mass manufacturing had replaced craft in most areas of life. Pipe smoking, the activity of a slower time, gave way to the faster, disposable cigarette. And tampers? They went the way of craftspeople: from the workshop to the factory. Nearly all of today's mass-produced tampers, made of acrylic, wood, steel, or brass, are functional -- and they look it. You could easily mistake one for an auto part, or perhaps a pen. In short, the modern tamper is utility, not fantasy. Antique pieces can be found, but at a price their original owners never would (nor could) have paid. Objects of everyday humanity shouldn't be costly. Our affordable solution is to reproduce them by hand, one at a time ... and to fashion some originals in their spirit, created for us by local artists. No matter who you are or where you're from, your ancestor probably used a tamper of some kind. It probably brought a smile to his face, too. That alone gives it value beyond time, beyond price.






"The Labrador Retriever"


Hand holding pipe. Size 7cm.


"The Elephant"


Mid to late 18th C bronze ring pipe tamper.

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