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    

Tom Eltang Star Grade Eskimo Pipe With Dynamic Birdseye Grain - PipestudNew Unsmoked! Cavicchi 360 Straight Grain Freehand Italian Estate Pipe W/ SleeveJess Chonowitsch Large Brandy Sandblast Pipe W/ Sterling Silver Band - PipestudHiro Tokutomi Japan 2010 Bamboo Pipe Unsmoked Superb Ser Jacopo "zaffiro Maxima Fiammata" Pipe. Extremely Rare! No ReserveRad Davis Sandblasted Belge Shaped Pipe W/ Cumberland Stem - PipestudDunhill Ao London “inner Tube” Ad Silver Mounted Pipe J. Alan Gracik Poker Shaped Pipe W/ Two Knuckle Bamboo Shank - PipestudPaulo Becker Ukelele Two Hearts Pipe With Leather Sleeve - PipestudJ. Alan 1044 15 Bamboo Pipe Unsmoked Ser Jacopo "delecta" Vintage Coral Dot Horn Flock Pipe. Rare! No Reserve!Cavicchi Straight Grain 5-ccccc Long Shank Dublin Pipe - PipestudHuge Collection Of Genuine Antique Scrap Egg Yolk Amber Pipe Pieces Approx 385gCastello "sea Rock Briar Kk" Pipe. No Reserve!Dunhill’s Shell Patent Pipe Former Denmark Pipe Scott Klein Usa 16 Black Bamboo Pipe Geiger “fig On Branch” Reverse Calabash Pipe Unsmoked Superb Dunhill "shell Briar 36 F/t 4s" Gold Band Pipe. Very Rare! No ReserveDunhill 59 F/t Shell Briar Pipe W/ 14 Karat Gold Band & Made In 1969 - PipestudDunhill Cumberland 3103 Silver Mounted Pipe Unsmoked Two Vintage Barlings Ye Olde Wood Estate Pipes In Fitted Case 170Dunhill's Shell Briar Lb Style Pipe W/ Patent Numbers & Dated To 1927 - PipestudComoy’s Blue Riband 368 Pipe Unsmoked Castello Sea Rock Kk Pipe Unsmoked *exquisite* 19thc Koppenhagen Perched Eagle Meerschaum Amber Estate Cheroot PipeMichael Lindner Usa Tanshell Artisan Grade Pipe Superb Cased Antique 1910 Egg Meerschaum Silver Amber Estate Pipe Pipa PfeifeManduela Boxwood Insert Pipe Ashton Old Church Xx Pipe Unsmoked 2015 Exceptional Museum Quality Rare Old Northwest Coast Haida Argillite Pipe Old Castello "sea Rock Briar ", Extra Deep Rusticated Briar, 60's Pipe, Rare !!!Horace Dejarnett Black & Tan Large Snail Shaped Pipe - PipestudSuperb Porsche Design "909" Pipe. New And Boxed! No ReservePeterson's Deluxe 4s Pipe With Hallmarked Sterling Sliver Band - PipestudSuperb Baldo Baldi "thumb Made" Impressive Pipe. Smoked Few Times! No ReserveDunhill 4208 Rhodesian Shaped Shell Briar Pipe Made In 2014 W/ Box - PipestudFerndown Bark Pipe Butz-choquin Large Gourd Calabash Pipe W/ Briar Shank Trim - PipestudMint! Ser Jacopo Double Maxima Large Thick 1/4 Bent Sitter Italian Estate PipeDunhill 1967 Shell Briar 660 F/t "sitter" Saddle Billiard 4 SDunhill "collector Shell Briar Ht Xl" Year 1990 Pipe. Very Rare! No Reserve!Castello Early Gg Hawkbill Shaped Pipe With Registration Numbers - PipestudKai Nielsen Unsmoked Large Vvvv Grade "flame Grain Old Briar" Pipe - PipestudSuperb Dunhill "bruyere 111" Inner Tube Patent Pipe. Extremely Rare! No ReserveStanwell Regd.no. Bamboo Pot Pipe. Rare, W/ Box And Papers.1948 Vintage Model Tobacco For Pipe & Cigarette Old Country Store Tin SignVintage San Felice Cigars Tin Sign Tobacco Cigar Cuba Cigarette Pipe Cuban TampaTonni Nielsen Pipe Peterson's Sherlock Holmes Meerschaum Pipe W/sterling Band ***unsmoked***Michael Lindner Usa Aa1 2014 Pipe Canadian Rustic Tawny Vintage "p" Block Meerschaum Bent Billiard Estate Pipe Pipa PfeifePatent Era! 1933 Dunhill Shell Briar Classic Billiard English Estate Pipe Clean!Ingo Garbe Pipe Dunhill 61032 Cumberland Pipe From 1972Rare Giant Paolo Becker Billiard Pipe Mint Condition Hardly Smoked Stunning!Antique Victorian Meerschaum & Amber Bull Estate Pipe With Amber HornsSuperb Dunhill "shell 519 4s" Year 1955 Pipe. Extremely Rare! No ReservePeterson Green Spigot #999 Pipe W/box & Sleeve Sterling Silver Hardware- Nice!!Barlings Make Yow Exel Fossil 447 Pipe Pre-transition Lovat