The first people to smoke tobacco in pipes were the Native Americans who lived in the eastern woodlands of North America between 500 BCE and 500 CE. These early smokers burned indigenous tobacco in clay or stone platform pipes, so named for their flat bases. Over the next thousand or so years, the bowls of these pipes became more sculptural, frequently carved into the forms of ducks, wolves, and other animals.

Easily the most recognizable Native American pipe is the calumet, a decorated, ceremonial pipe that was smoked to bring rain to parched lands or the wrath of god upon enemies. The peace pipe, whose wooden shank was often decorated with feathers and quillwork, was actually a type of calumet. What set it apart from other calumets was its bowl, which was carved from a soft, reddish stone now called catlinite, named for 19th-century painter George Catlin (more than 500 of Catlin’s paintings and drawings of Pawnee, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, and other Native Americans are now in the Smithsonian).

In the 1500s, European explorers returned home from the New World laden with tobacco and Native American pipes. At first, pipe makers copied these designs, but pipes quickly evolved into the recognizable shapes that we know today.

Some of the first European pipes were made out of a type of clay called kaolin, the same mineral potters used to produce fine china. Thousands of pipe makers sprang up in England and Holland. Meanwhile, in 19th-century America, clay pipes were so common and inexpensive that tobacco companies gave them away to customers.

Wood was another favorite material of pipe makers. Carvers gravitated to hard woods such as walnut, cherry, rosewood, and maple, but they didn’t just use any piece that was lying around. Before a tree was cut for pipe wood, it would be drained of its sap, dried for several years, and then boiled or steamed. Germany, Austria, and Hungary became known for their carved, wood pipes, in particular the U-shaped Ulmer and Debrecen styles. Metal caps and chains decorated the pipes, and sometimes antler or bone was used for the shanks.

The Germans also excelled at porcelain pipes, which appeared around the end of the 18th century. Similar to U-shaped Ulmer pipes, porcelain pipes were initially hand painted—later, they were covered with transfer-printed scenes of rolling countrysides and war-scarred battlefields. Typically, a porcelain pipe’s tobacco bowl detached from the pipe’s base; sometimes the pipe’s wooden shank did, too.

Meerschaum pipes were first carved in Germany, but the material itself—a soft, whitish stone—was from Turkey. Meerschaum was prized because the stone absorbed the tars and oils i...

By the 19th-century, Vienna was the meerschaum-carving capital of the world. Pipe makers crafted U- and L-shaped pipes with intricately carved shapes ranging from animals and human heads to mermaids and flowers. Some meerschaum pipes featured bas-reliefs on their sides; others were finely polished using techniques that were so closely guarded, the polishing recipes often went to the grave with the artisans who had possessed them.

Eventually, meerschaum became so costly that pipe makers would salvage pieces of the precious stone and glue them together to create "pressed" meerschaum. Needless to say, these so-called "genuine" meerschaum pipes are nowhere near as collectible as authentic "block" ones.

The last great pipe material is briarwood, which has French roots—literally. Briarwood is made out of the roots of the tree-heath bush, which grows along the Mediterranean shore. The wood is hard as a rock, which means that while it doesn’t lend itself to carving that’s as intricate as meerschaum, artisans have carved beautiful heads and faces into briarwood pipes nonetheless.

Briarwood pipes are probably the most classic and traditional of all pipes. Their shapes have names like pear, billiard, pot, Dublin, bulldog, poker, and prince. Sometimes the bottoms of the shanks on briarwood pipes are flattened so they can rest on a table without tipping over; other times the shanks are shaped into ovals or diamonds. Many briarwood pipes are sanded and polished until the grain glistens, but it’s also popular to sandblast the outside of the pipe to create a craggy, mottled effect.

Two other antique and vintage pipes are worth mentioning. The corncob, also known as the Missouri meerschaum, was made famous by General Douglas MacArthur during World War II. Then there was the calabash, which was made out a curving African gourd and a bowl carved from meerschaum. We associate the calabash with Sherlock Holmes thanks to the eye-catching look of the prop pipe smoked by Basil Rathbone in the film series. In fact, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never mentioned the calabash when he created his legendary detective in 1887.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Match World

Match World

This ambitious site showcases the 20,000-item Rankei Library matchbook collection, owned by the Japan Match Manufac… [read review or visit site]

Kensitas Silk Flowers

Kensitas Silk Flowers

Don Wearmouth and his wife showcase the 230 beautiful silk designs that were distributed free with Kensitas cigaret… [read review or visit site]

Matchbox Labels

Matchbox Labels

Jane McDevitt's huge Flickr photoset of matchbox labels, primarily Eastern European, from the 1950s and 60s. These … [read review or visit site]

Truth in Advertising

Truth in Advertising

This gallery of cigarette magazine advertising from the 1940s and 50s contains no surgeon general's warning, just p… [read review or visit site]

Matchbook Museum

Matchbook Museum

James Lileks' gallery of 400 matchbooks from coffee shops, hotels, motels, bars, banks, restaurants and more. Lilek… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rainer Barbi C Horn Insert Pipe Unsmoked Castello Old Antiquari 4k Bent Bulldog Pipe * New & Unsmoked! * Coopersark N/r!1970's Viggo Nielsen Straight Grain Bent Pear Pipe * Pristine! * Coopersark N/r!Former Free Hand Golden Contrast Xl Blowfish Cross Grain Pipe Tsuge Ikebana Straight Grain Bent Dublin Pipe * Coopersark No Reserve!!!2014 Dunhill County 3621 Churchwarden Pipe * New In Box! * Coopersark N/r!1960 Dunhill Shell Briar Lb Billiard Pipe * Very Mint! * Coopersark No Reserve!A Vintage Used Dunhill London Made In England Tobacco Smoking Pipe.Grant Batson Unsmoked "hurricane" Sandblast Pipe With Sleeve - PipestudJess Chonowitsch Tanshell Canadian Pipe Jim Cooke Ring Grain Sandblasted Brandy Pipe * Mint! * Coopersark No Reserve!!!Becker Unsmoked Strawberry Wood Poker 4-clubs Pipe W/ Cumberland Stem - PipestudA Vintage Used Dunhill Shell 507 Tobacco Smoking Pipe Pat No 417574.Grechukhin 2013 Long Shank Apple Pipe Unsmoked 1990's W.o. Larsen Straight Grain Pipe By Peter Hedegaard * Coopersark N/r!!!Vintage Comoy's Briar Pipe Blue Riband Canadian Oval Shank Pipe In Very Good CndVintage Comoy's Briar Pipe Blue Riband Extraordanaire Canadian Oval Shank PipeNew In Box Peterson's Sherlock Holmes Meerschaum Pipe W Sterling Band & "p" Logo1980's W.o. Larsen Straight Grain Pipe By Tonni Nielsen * Coopersark No Reserve*1913 Dating* Bbb Own Make - Sterling 1913 Hallmark, Great Looking Pipe!2 Vintage Peterson Sherlock Holmes Ebony Pipes Hallmarked Irish Silver BriarS. Bang A Golden Contrast Pipe Tonni Nielsen “viking” Grade Straight Grain Amber Stem Pipe Unsmoked Dunhill Drr Patent Era Pipe Made In 1936 - PipestudBengt Carlson Sweden Horn Insrt Pipe Vintage Sasieni Four Dot Buckingham Large Lb Family Era Pipe Very Nice Dunhill Shell Briar 40 F/t. Group 4 Carved In 1970. Very Nice English Briar PipeA Vintage Used Dunhill London Made In England Tobacco Smoking Pipe.1980's W.o. Larsen Straight Grain 9 Pipe By Teddy Knudsen * Coopersark N/r!Dunhill Dr E (*****) Pipe Unsmoked 1967Stanwell Flame Grain,horn Style,briar Estate PipeHs Studio Pipe,reversed Calabash, Briar Wood Pipe---- UnsmokedA Vintage Used Dunhill Shell Tobacco Smoking Pipe.Alfred The White Spot Dunhill's Pipe * Unsmoked * Group 4 Military MountCharatan's Make De Luxe 12 ,rueben Era 1930's Briar Estate Pipe.Hiro Tokutomi Japan 2007 Smooth Setter Vase Cumberland Stem Pipe Unsmoked Sixten Ivarsson 1967 Pipe Straight Grain Free Hand Paolo Becker Strawberry Wood 3 Clovers Pipe Peterson's Gold Spigot Series Bent Military Billiard Pipe * Mint * Coopersark NrVintage Buffalo "bufco" Forge Blacksmithing Hand Crank Blower, Arm Pipe, And PanPeterson's Dublin Meerschaum Pipe W/ Sterling Silver Shank End CapPeterson Vintage Deluxe Sterling Silver 20s P-lip Bent Estate Pipe Pipa PfeifeA Vintage Used Dunhill Shell 48/1 Tobacco Smoking Pipe.Chris Askwith Unsmoked Nosewarmer Dress Black Caned Apple Shaped Pipe - PipestudAshton Xxx Old Church Poker Pipe With Jade Cumberland * New! * Coopersark N/r!Former Nielsen Tan Sandblasted Elongated Egg Pipe * Coopersark No Reserve1947 Dunhill Patent Shell Briar 315 Prince Pipe * Coopersark No Reserve!!!Ashton Xx Brindle Pipe With Cumberland Saddle StemVintage Comoy's Grand Slam Patent Pipe W/ Box Etc. Little Smoked Or Unsmoked Benner Straight Grain Danish Billiard Pipe * Unsmoked! * Coopersark No Reserve!Savinelli 611ks Punto Oro -estate Pipe- Made In DenmarkNew Unsmoked! Mark Tinsky American Sunrise **** Large Apple Freehand Estate PipeCastello Sc 56 E Stamped Sea Rock Briar Pipe - PipestudVintage Dunhill Ec Pipe Made In England Pat No. 417574/34 Briar Estate PipeJ. Alan 08 251 Smooth Fugu-blowfish Pipe Unsmoked Alex Florov Usa 12 Free Hand Volcano Pipe Unsmoked Sven Knudsen Dantonian Cross Grain Large Billiard Pipe * Mint * Coopersark N/r!Castello Sea Rock Ggg Canadian Pipe * Huge! * Mint! * Coopersark No Reserve!!!Dunhill Lb 1938 Shell Briar Pipe PatentVintage Rare "comoy's Blue Riband No. 5 Estate Smoking Pipe #6