Clay pipes

Clay pipes

After the meal was over the white clay pipes were fetched out of the corner and lighted... [Theodor Storm "The Rider on the White Horse"].

Men are frequently depicted smoking slim and long-stemmed clay pipes in paintings by the Dutch and Flemish old masters of the 17th century: Smoking in this way was depicted as a moralizing symbol of gluttony and vanity. At the time, the custom of tobacco smoking was already firmly established. Clay pipes were the first method chosen by smokers to allow them to indulge their pleasure. At the time, however, there weren't too many alternatives:

cigarettes and cigars hadn't been invented and clay seemed to be the best raw material for use in pipes, due to its physical properties. With the advent of tobacco pipes made from wood and meerschaum in the 19th century, clay pipes were increasingly marginalized and became a niche product. Nowadays, handmade clay pipes are given by many pipe smokers to guests, or as a cheap alternative to enable them to try out new tobacco varieties. These pipes were however of great interest to more than just smokers.

The archeological aspect

Due to their wide distribution and the durability of the material used, the remains of handmade clay pipes are often discovered at the site of archeological digs. Due to their design or distinguishing characteristics such as decoration or maker's marks, they can usually be attributed to a time and place with a significant degree of confidence. These insights allow conclusions to be drawn about the age of other finds from the same excavation site. Although they were initially often categorized merely as secondary finds, historic clay pipes have since assumed the status of "index fossils" among archeologists and historians.

If you're interested in this aspect of clay pipes, the "KnasterKOPF" journal (which is a specialist periodical discussing on clay pipes and historic tobacco consumption, with extracts in English, Dutch, and French) is recommended. The journal contains articles about clay pipes from scientists, archeologists and historians from all over the world. Due to financial difficulties, publication was discontinued in 2009 after twenty editions had been published. However, many articles can still be read on the KnasterKOPF Homepage.

The way back home

To understand the historical significance of handmade clay pipes, and the ways in which they were distributed throughout Europe, an excursion into the annals of history is essential.

The cultural history of clay pipes is closely interwoven with that of tobacco, and its consumption as a herbal medicine as well as through smoking. The few missionaries on board the ship that transported Christopher Columbus in his second voyage to the newly-discovered shores of America were joined by the hermit and monk, Ramon Pane. Upon his return in 1497, he was the first to report on the use of tobacco plants by the indigenous inhabitants of America. For him, the use of tobacco as a cure-all treatment for all kinds of conditions was of greater interest than the ritual of smoking tobacco.

Further reports of tobacco plants made their way to Europe after the voyage of the Spanish Conquistador, Hernando Cortez. His infamous conquest of the Aztec Empire (from 1519 - 1521) was also accompanied by priests and missionaries. They observed the natives' use of tobacco leaves to heal wounds and were introduced to the custom of smoking tobacco.

The reports from the New World attracted the attention of European physicians. It seemed as though their constant quest for a miracle cure was about to come to a successful end. In the mid sixteenth century, the first tobacco plantations on European soil were established in Portugal, Spain, and France. The plants thrived and soon news spread throughout Europe of the new "herbe de la médicée," (the herb of the Medicis).

While the inland populations increasingly turned to tobacco as a panacea to cure all ills, the dried herb found other uses in the port cities. Sailors brought the first clay pipes back to their homes from overseas and smoked them before the eyes of a curious population. Apparently, the first smoking sailors were sighted in the English port of Plymouth in 1586. This newfangled custom quickly attracted followers. Joining the group of the so-called "tobacco drinkers" (the term "tobacco smoker" only became prevalent in the mid-17th century) required two things: tobacco and a clay pipe. This was the true beginning of the history of the European clay pipe.

The clay pipe takes over Europe

As a large part of America that had been colonized at that stage formed part of the British Empire, it will not come as a surprise that clay pipes were first manufactured in Europe in 1590. The handmade clay pipes were heavily based on the Indian "calumet": a long, narrow beam with a small bowl. The small size of the bowls could also owe something to the fact that tobacco was expensive and not widely available at the time. These pipes, with their small bowls, became known as "fairy pipes" in the humorous vernacular.

Over the course of time, the pipe manufacturers began to add decorations and ornamentation to their models. At the same time, the length of the stem of the pipe grew, with lengths of up to 75 centimeters not being uncommon. In order that these pipes could still be smoked, a foot or a spur was attached to the bowl. The pipe smoker could rest the pipe on this while smoking.

Pipe smoking was definitively established as a practice throughout Europe, thereby increasing the distribution of pipes themselves, as a result of the Thirty Years' War (1618 - 1648). Germany was one of the many theaters of battle in this mass slaughter. Legions of mercenaries from England, Holland, Spain and later, Sweden, swarmed over the land bringing death and ruin - and the practice of smoking. As if the war were not already bad enough on its own, plague set in across Europe almost simultaneously. The "Black Death" also contributed to spreading the smoking habit. Tobacco smoking was reputed to protect against infection with the deadly disease and to provide a cure. Desperate people clutched at any straw available to them and literally smoked as if their lives depended on it.

First pipe makers in Germany

The continually increasing number of pipe smokers strengthened the demand for cheap, handmade clay pipes. Initially, they were imported from neighboring Holland, but as early as the first third of the seventeenth century, pipe manufacturers began to set up business in Germany. The first known pipe maker was founded in Mainz in 1634. Cologne was another very early site of clay pipe making. However, this information relies on archived records, and no physical trace of an historic pipe maker from this period has yet been found.

Since the history of clay pipes has been systematically researched, over 250 historic manufacturing sites have been identified.

Clay pipe manufacturers in Hesse, Saxony, Lower Saxony and the Westerwald all achieved success beyond their immediate regions. The area around Mannheim and Frankenthal also played host to a large number of pipe makers, who took advantage of the proximity of local tobacco plantations.

The way in which pipe makers work has changed very little over the centuries. As before, a handmade clay pipe is (as the name suggests) almost entirely made by hand. The number of clay pipe makers has however reduced significantly, so that only a small group keep the craft alive. Let's take a look at one of them at work to learn how authentic, handmade clay pipes are made.

Manufacturing a clay pipe

When clay arrives from the clay pit, it is relatively dry and difficult to mold. Before the process of manufacturing the pipe itself begins, it must be mixed in with enough water to obtain the desired consistency. This step was previously carried out by so-called "casters." Only then does the work of the "Euler" (as pipe makers were known in the Westerwald). The prepared clay then goes into the clay-cutter. It is then milled once again to achieve the correct consistency.

A metallic disc with multiple holes is placed in an opening located at the base of the clay-cutting machine. Clay is pressed into predetermined thicknesses and lengths in a process that is similar to a mincing machine. Each of the clay rolls contains the precise amount of clay required for each pipe.

The next step in the process requires a lot of experience and extreme precision: the pipe maker must accurately clamp the metal pipe mold in the press. Even deviations of less than a millimeter can make the completed pipe unusable.

When the press is fully set up, the pipe maker places a prepared clay roll into the mold. The press is then used to place the second half of the mold under high pressure. By pushing "tamping" into the bowl, the clay is pushed to the end of the stem. The all-important hole in the stem is still missing from the proto-pipe. A thin wire on a guide carriage is carefully slid into the stem. The wire remains in the pipe until the clay is baked.

After pressing, the still wet and very sensitive pipe is dried in the air. Once the clay has hardened sufficiently, the pipe maker carefully removes any remaining burrs and bumps with a knife. The nearly-complete pipe is then dried further in the air.

The final step involves baking the clay in a furnace. Many pipe makers use their own, private "secret ingredient" to ensure the best possible quality for their clay pipes. Once they have cooled off, the pipes are finished and ready for a final quality control.

Cellar in which the clay is stored and prepared
Cellar in which the clay is stored and prepared
Clay is molded in a press
Clay is molded in a press
Tank in which the clay is prepared
Tank in which the clay is prepared
Cutting the rolls of clay
Cutting the rolls of clay
Placing the clay roll into the press
Placing the clay roll into the press
Finished, pressed clay pipe
Finished, pressed clay pipe
Air drying
Air drying
Furnace
Furnace
Not all clay pipes pass quality control
Not all clay pipes pass quality control

Caring for a clay pipe

Compared to high-end briar wood or meerschaum tobacco pipes, handmade clay pipes are very cheap. Nonetheless, clay pipes offer certain advantages: as the clay has absolutely no taste whatsoever, the pipe doesn't need to be broken in: instead, the bowl can be filled with tobacco right to the rim from the beginning.

The process of cleaning a wooden pipe, which is required from time to time, is complex. A clay pipe, on the other hand, can simply be annealed in the embers of a fireplace or a grill. This eliminates all condensate residue within the pipe.