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    

Antique Clay Tobacco Pipe, New York Heritage Fraternity, Saint Nicholas Society,S. Bang Ph Signature Grade Dense Grain Pipe UnsmokedJt Cooke Usa 2006 Okf Pipe Lovat Larrysson Hand Made 2013 Pipe Poker Unsmoked Rainer Barbi Aa Pipe Ser Jacopo "imago" Pipe, Silver Spigot, Collectable !!!1953 Dunhill Tanshell 483 F/t Duke Pipe * Clean! * Coopersark No Reserve!!!Vladimir Grechukhin 2013 Pipe Unsmoked S. Bang A Silver Band Pipe Very Mint! Chris Askwith Classic Bulldog English Estate Pipe Perfect! Must See!Rare Peterson's Deluxe Xl2s From 1979 Large Sterling Bent Apple Estate Pipe NrCharatan Carved Head Series Xl Cave Man Pipe 1970's Unsmoked Cornelius Manz Pipe Unsmoked Todd Johnson Usa 2010 Pipe Blowfish Disc Unsmoked Michael Parks Iv.13 Pipe UnsmokedHiro Tokutomi 2013 Miniature Black Bamboo Cumberland Stem Pipe Unsmoked Peter Hedegaard Cross Grain Signature Horn Pipe * Mint! * Coopersark No Reserve!Wo Larsen Straight Grain 3 Pipe Unsmoked Barling's Make Eb/wb Hallmarked Silver "motor" Wind Cap Pipe 1924Wo Larsen Straight Grain 3 Pipe Unsmoked Peter Heeschen Grade A Straight Grain Bulldog Pipe * Coopersark No Reserve!New Unsmoked Ferndown Bark Classic Large Canadian English Estate Pipe 925 SilverBonaquisti Sabbia Select Xxl Tanshell Poker Pipe Scott Klein Tomato Pipe Gorgeous Dark Contrast Straight Grain Hand Made Usa Edwardian Pipe Smokers Collection. Meerschaum Edwards & Dunhill. Ref OyxVery Mint! Castello Old Antiquari Great Line Freehand Estate Pipe Super Clean!Edwardian Pipe Smokers Collection. Meerschaum Edwards & Dunhill. Ref OyxLeather Cased Presentation Box Of Tobacco Pipes. Alfred Dunhill Ltd. Ref OywCaminetto Ltd. Edition James Norman Pipe With Leather Pipe Sock - PipestudLove Geiger Sweden Pipe Asymmetrical Unsmoked Vintage 1940s Hi-plane Pipe Cigarette Tobacco 35" Embossed Metal Sign W/airplaneCustom Made Poker Pipe,tobacco Pipe,briar Pipe,freehand Pipe**vintage Dunhill Shell Briar Smoking Pipe With **box, Pouch, Papers & Booklet**Ashton Year 1986 Xxx Sovereign Pipe Made By William Taylor - PipestudMichael Parks Vi.12 Blowfish Pipe UnsmokedPre Transition Barling Ye Olde Wood T.v.f. Exel Billiard English Estate PipeLoewe & Alfred Dunhill Of London Pipe Smokers Accessories & Pipes. Ref OyzTonni Nielsen 4 Pipe Irish Estate Pipe: Peterson Patent 1897 - Amber Mouthpiece - Leather CaseE. Markle Pipe Unsmoked Ashton Meerschaum Bent Egg Nosewarmer Style Pipe By Bill Taylor ** Unsmoked **Fantastic! Peterson's Sherlock Holmes Professor Irish Estate Pipe Super Clean!Early! Caminetto Excellence Extra "ascorti /radice" Canadian Italian Estate PipeBecker & Musico' Cherry Wood Silver Spigot 925 1997 Estate Pipa Pipe PfeifeJody Davis Cardinal A 08 31 Pipe Dunhill Shell Oda 836 S Panel Patent Pipe 1954Dunhill Dr C Zulu Pipe 1969 Barling's Make Special 455 Exexel Pre-transition Pipe New Unsmoked! Peterson's Iceberg Titanic Series Bow Irish Estate Pipe PetersonWilton Tilt Pivot Shop Bench Vise 4'' Jaw With Pipe Grip Jaws Made In UsaS. Bang Xl Bent Smooth Top Pipe Jack Howell 2011 Volcano Pipe Unsmoked Dunhill Chestnut 4 Churchwarden Pipe Unsmoked 1998 Dunhill Chestnut 6103 Large Oda Sized English Estate Billiard Pipe 1980s**peterson's System Standard 304 Nice Little Smooth Sitter Pipe Mint Cond**Poul Ilsted Pipe Facet Ring Grain PipeManduela Tanshell Bulldog Pipe Unsmoked Patent Era! 1945 Dunhill Root Briar Classic Bulldog English Estate Pipe Clean!Stunning! Ser Jacopo Bent Dublin Italian Estate Pipe 360 Straight Grain! Mint!Castello Natural Vergin Kkkk 293 Pipe