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    

S. Bang B Pipe Unsmoked Hiro Tokutomi 2002 Fish Pipe Rare Hand Carved Georgian Period Cattle Bone Shoe Form Pipe Tamper.Vintage Used Estate Pipes Silver Petersons X3 Briar Meerschaum SmokingPipe " Dunhill Root Briar Drr Patent " Used EstateUnsmoked! Patent Era 1924 Dunhill Bruyere 3/4 Bent English Estate Pipe Must See!Amorelli Rustic Bent Squat Tomato Pipe * Awesome & New! * Coopersark No Reserve!Castello Trade Mark Sb 12. Liverpool, Smooth. Beautiful Italian Briar PipeJt Cooke Okf 2003 Bent Bulldog Pipe Michael Parks V.ii Pipe Unsmoked Rare Unusual Victorian Pipe Fine Carved Erotic Naked Figure & Horse Wooden StemCornelius Manz Calabash Box Wood Cap Pipe Barling's Make 'birds Eye" Pre-transition Pipe Estate Laguiole Pipe Tamper Tool With Wood SidesVintage Sasieni Four Dot Walnut "ashford" Smoking Tobacco Pipe EnglandDunhill Shell Briar 127 Ft (smaller Lb Shape) 1972 Pipe/pfeife NofiWolfgang Becker Pipe Antique Carved Meerschaum Pipe - Amber Stem - Good Patina - Lady With Bonnet.Jim Cooke Sandblasted Large Bent Bulldog Pipe * Mint! * Coopersark No Reserve!Maigurs Knets 272 Pipe Unsmoked Vintage Dunhill Estate Pipe Shell BriarSasieni One Dot Sb Patent 141 Pipe Fish Tale LogoWo Larsen Straight Grain 5 Pipe Horn Insert Unsmoked Petersons System Standard 303 Boxed And Unsmoked Briar Estate PipeSoren Refbjerg Rasmussen Poker Nosewarmer Shaped Pipe W/ Box & Sock - PipestudEstate Pipe Savinelli Punto Oro 320ks Very Nice Nose WarmerDunhill Bruyere Rare 1938 Patent Apple, 85 Estate Pipe.Castello Old Sea Rock Kk Sitter Canadian Pipe By Carlo Scotti ** Good ** PfeifeMoretti Pipe Fantastic Freehand Black Rusticated No ReserveDanish Estate Pipe: Former Freehand Unsmoked1920 Rush 10 Gallon Gas Pump "stove Pipe" Visible 10 Gallon Beautiful Piece!Genuine Dunhill Cumberland Smoking Pipe Size 1 With Extras 1985 Bill Taylor Carved Ashton Pebble Grain Xx Pipe With Cumberland StemPipe " Dunhill Drr Patent " Used EstateBarlings Guinea Grain Reg. Exexel Pre-transition Pipe S. Bang 9 Un Pipe Hammered Silver Band 2011 Castello Castello G Squat Bulldog Pipe & Ming Kahuna Tamper * Coopersark NrExcellent! Julius Vesz 2009 "hand Cut" Large Raindrop Canadian Estate Pipe Mint!Mint! 1989 Ashton Old Church Silver Military Mount Billiard English Estate Pipe1973 Dunhill Bruyere 70 F/t Sterling Mounted Army Billiard Pipe ** Good ** ǙExcellent! Comoy's Tradition 1/8 Bent Bulldog English Estate Pipe Awesome Grain!Antique Mr&co Gbd Sterling Silver Hlmk Estate Pipe Smokers Meerschaum Pipes OldExcellent! Becker Neo Classic Large Bent Horn Italian Estate Pipe Must See!New Unsmoked! 2003 Dunhill Tanshell Large Calabash Freehand English Estate PipePhil Vigen Bamboo Pipe 2014 Ashton Xxx Claret Canadian Pipe W/ Rare 1930's Bakelite * Brand New! Stanwell 07. Design Sixten Ivarsson. Beautiful Handmade In Denmark Briar PipeVintage Tobacco Pipes/cigar Holders Original Job LotAntique Old Vintage Carvedladies Hand Meerschaum Estate Pipe 4 3/4" Bent StemBengt Carlson Sweden Pipe Unsmoked Very Mint! Ashton Pebble Grain Classic Billiard English Estate Pipe Box & SleeveVintage Dunhill Shell Briar Estate Pipe No. 46/1 Made England, Pat No. 131413/2Fantastic Meerschaum Pipe Of An Elegant Victorian Lady - Hair & Hat Detail GreatCollectors Item - Balkan Sobranie Pipe Tobacco Sealed And UnopenedBrad Pohlmann "colt" Grade Pipe Unsmoked Moretti Pipe Fantastic Super Magnum Poker Olive Wood No ReserveDunhill Made Parker "zulu" Rusticated Pipe # 42 ~ Super Briar Bark ~ OriginalNew Unused Sherlock Holmes Calabash Gourd Meerschaum Tobacco Pipe Loewe L& Co Silver Band Pipe W.o. Larsen With Beautiful Straight Grain Hand Made Pipe/pfeife Nofi