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 Top Of The Line Per Hansen Signature Grade Straight Grain Billiard PipeJt Cooke 2013 Okfa Pipe Tom Eltang Estate Briar Pipe Snail Grade Ballerina Sitter W/ HornTsuge Ikebana Pipe Bent Smooth Squat Apple D Grade (kikuchi) New UnsmokedRad Davis Pipe - Rhodesian Variation SandblastKurt Balleby Straight Grain Wide Dublin Pipe * Unsmoked * Coopersark No Reserve!Mint! Comoy's Blue Riband Extraordinaire Full Bent Oom Paul English Estate PipeIlsted / Manduela X-mas Pipe Unsmoked 2012 1988 Bill Taylor Ashton Brindle Xx Bent Bulldog Pipe * Unsmoked * Coopersark Nr!Dunhill Dr **** Xl Pipe Unsmoked 1980 Poul Ilsted Large Panel Apple Pipe W/facet Shank * Unsmoked! * Coopersark N/r!!!Lot Of 2 Estate Briar Pipes Larsen Super Cherrwood & No-name Danish PickaxeEarly Dunhill Calabash Gourd Meerschaum Bowl Pipe Ad Silver Band Tom Eltang "saturn" Pipe Stunning! Castello Collection Fiammata Large Long Canadian Freehand Estate PipeVintage Estate Dunhill Pipe No 194 Inner TubeSavinelli Autograph Pipe ** Unsmoked **Stunning! Lane Era Charatan's Make Supreme Fh Large Canadian English Estate PipeBrad Pohlmann Pipe - Bright Sandblast Grain - New And UnsmokedAntique 19thc Hand Carved Meerschaum Folk Art Boxer Pug Dog Pipe Cigar Holder NrS. Bang B Pipe Wo Larsen "pearl" 360o Straight Grain Pipe Unsmoked Anne Julie Of Denmark Pipe Excellent! Pre Transition Barling Yow Long Classic Canadian English Estate PipeSer Jacopo, ;preben Holm, Wiley, Peterson's Premier, Etc. 9-pipes! - Pipestud1999 Dunhill Pipe Set,estate.super Condition--no Reserve!!!Mint! Hans "former" Nielsen Long Shank Canadian Danish Estate Pipe Must See!Mint Jody Davis Princeton Straight Grain Freehand American Estate Pipe W/ SleeveRad Davis Usa 2012 Pipe 1987 Caminetto "very Early Ascorti Era" Handcut Chubby Bent Bulldog Pipe L. NewSavinelli Autograph 1993 Collection Sandblast Estate Pipa Pipe PfeifeMoretti Pipe Fantastic Poker Natural Top Freehand No ReserveExcellent! Castello "castello" G Size Super Long Lovat Italian Estate Pipe Mint!100 Year Old(1913 Or 1917) Barling's Make Estate Pipe Cleaned&sanitized!Savory's Baby's Bottom Sealed 100g Tin From The 1970s - Pipe Stud Peterson's Sterling Silver Peterson Estate Tobacco Pipe Pipa Pipes CollectionUnsmoked Mark Twain Commemorative System Pipe By Peterson - 29/1000Mint! James Upshall X Grade Straight Grain Fh Ex L Freehand English Estate PipeAshton Xx Old Church Billiard Pipe W/rare 1930's Bakelite * Brand New! Savinelli Estate Briar Pipe Autograph Partial Blasted Stack Chimney Grade 5Irish Estate Pipe: Peterson Dublin Millenium 988-1988 UnsmokedCalabash Gourd Sherlock Holmes Style Meerschaum Insert Estate Pipe----colwrightPristine! Castello Old Antiquari Large Classic Bulldog Italian Estate Pipe Nice!Caminetto Business 118 Gold Mustache Era Pipe - PipestudAntique Dunhill Briar A 59 Estate Pipe C1939 Pat No 417574 59Vintage 1930's Model 10c Smoking Pipe Cigarette Tobacco 34" Porcelain Metal SignMeerschaum Pipe, Great Butterscotch Amber Stem + Silver Mint! Castello Collection Kkkk 3/4 Bent Freehand Italian Estate Pipe W/ Sleeve1970's Caminetto Business 210 Large Bent Apple Pipe * Clean! * Coopersark N/r!Jt Cooke Extra Large Calabash Ogf Unsmoked W/leather Pipe GlovePeter Hedegaard Op1 Pipe Sixten Ivarsson –estate Pipe- Made In DenmarkNew Unsmoked! Hardcastle Royal Bruyere 3/4 Bent Bulldog English Estate Pipe MintEstate Smoking Pipe Bari Wiking HandmadeVintage Estate Found Dunhill Meerschaum Pipe 14k Gold Collar W/case No Reserve 1960's Stanwell Long Stem Lovat 04 Mint Danish Estate Pipe-------colwrightSer Jacopo Estate Briar Pipe Maxima Carved Panel Billiard R1Vintage Tobacco Smoking Briar Estate Pipe Barling's Make 461 ElAshton Estate Briar Pipe Pebble Grain Xxx Pot Lovat Bill Taylor Era 1993 Mint Castello Collection Kkkk 1/8 Bent Poker Sitter Freehand Italian Estate Pipe