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    

Superb 9ct Gold Meerschaum Amber Stem K&p Kapp & Peterson Egg Pipe & Case 1906Antique Civil War Union Officer Soldier W/ Tobacco Pipe Tintype Photo In CaseEarly 1900's Dunhill London Pipe 3 England Inter Tube Patented March 9, 15-"44" Chheda Usa 2012 148 6 Pipe Vintage Tinsmith Table W Stake Plate And Pipe Anvil Pexto Blacksmith ReclaimTrever Talbert Sandblasted & Smooth Calabash Pipe * Unsmoked! * Coopersark Nr!Rad Davis Xl Stamped Natural Virgin Tanblast Pipe W/ Cumberland Stem - Pipestud2013 Ardor Tobacco Leaf Design Rustic Egg Pipe * New In Box! * Coopersark Nr!Wo Larsen "pearl" Silver Band Pipe Unsmoked S. Bang A Pipe *****nice Vintage Pipe Peterson's Sherlock Holmes Craggy Bent Pipe Exc/cond*****Manduela Silver Band Pipe Unsmoked Rare 1920's Vintage Dunhill London Pipe 'a" Inter Tube Pat. No. 5861/12-4 184 Chheda Usa 2014 191 3 Pipe Mint! Moretti Massive Super Thick Apple Nosewarmer Freehand Italian Estate PipeAntique Oak Desktop Cabinet , Tobbaco Box , Pipe , Smoking Jt Cooke Pipe Peterson's Sherlock Holmes Bulldog Style PipeSavinelli Autograph 0 Straight Grain Freehand Pipe * Unsmoked! * Coopersark N/r!1986 Ashton Lx Pebble Shell Pat. Pending Calabash Style Pipe By Bill TaylorExcellent! Ferndown Reo Large Panel Bulldog English Estate Pipe Super Clean!Tsuge Ikebana B Dublin Style Pipe ** Unsmoked ** Eatate W.o. Larsen Smoking Pipe, Handmade In Denmark Dunhill Chrome Pipe Tamper.Tom Eltang Saturn Pipe Gorgeous! 1963 Dunhill Shell Briar Classic Liverpool English Estate Pipe Nice!Baldo Baldi Largetan Blast Ring Grain Dublin Pipe * New * Coopersark No Reserve!New Unsmoked! Peterson's Sherlock Holmes "squire" Irish Estate Pipe W/ Sleeve!A Beautiful Vintage Sherlock Holmes Calabash Gourd Meerschaum Tobacco PipeAntique Carved Meerschaum Peasent Grape Picker, Estate Pipe.****nice Vintage 1/2 Bent Rhodesian Pipe Ser Jacopo Delecta Hand Made****Unsmoked! Family Era Sasieni Claret One Dot English Estate Pipe Nos & Very Mint!Mike Butera 627 Pipe Top Of The Line Unsmoked 2005 Dunhill Shell Briar Group 5 Calabash Pipe W/sterling * Coopersark No Resrv!Rare Unsmoked Miniature Castello PipePeterson's Dublin Sterling Silver Estate Pipe 171/1000********beautiful Vintage Peterson's Dublin 04 Zulu Shaped Pipe Mint Cond******Danish Estate Pipe: Former Handmade UnsmokedPeter Hedegaard Pipe '89 Bill Taylor Ashton Old Church Xx Panel Billiard Pipe * Coopersark No ReserveEstate Pipe 37 Pipes For Restorers 4 Stems,4 Bowls,dunhill,gbd's,comoy's, Lorenz2014 Ashton Xx Pebble Grain Billiard Pipe W/ Rare 1930's Bakelite * Brand New! Peterson Wicklow 999. New, Unsmoked. Sterling Silver. Beautiful Irish Briar Pipe2014 Ashton Xx Old Church Bent Bulldog Pipe W/acrylic Stem * New * Coopersark Nr1983 Dunhill Shell Briar 42041 Bulldog Pipe * Clean! * Coopersark No Reserve!!!Excellent! 1974 Dunhill Bruyere Classic Bulldog English Estate Pipe Must See!Peterson's Silver Spigot Bulldog Estate Pipe - Made In The Republic Of IrelandEstate Pipe By Colin Lunn Oxford - Sterling Silver Band - Cavalier ShapeSer Jacopo 'maxima' , 6 1/2 Inch Long Canadian Pipe, Craggy!!Castello Unique Straight Grain Collection Grade Pipe W/ Box & Sock - PipestudS. Bang Pipe Charatan Supreme S100 Fh Lane Era Pipe Unsmoked 2011 Dunhill Ht Collector Shell Briar PipeDunhill Pipe In Leather Pouch With Patent Number, No ReserveLars Ivarsson Bamboo Pipe Tamper Nice Stanwell Pipe Of The Year 1997 Silver Des. By Tom Eltang Castello Collection Fiammata Kk Silver Band Pipe Dunhill Rhodesian "the White Spot" Silver Band Estate Pipe - Made In England Ashton Xx Old Church Tanblast Very Deep Ring Grain Sitter Billiard Pipe *l. New*Excellent! 1950s Patent Family Era Sasieni Four Dot "eton" English Estate Pipe