6: Pipe


Unknown Artist, Clay Pipe, ca. 1660-1700 (Europe, England?), clay.

This clay pipe is the remnant of a period where tobacco held a dominant place in the social and economic spheres of the world.  Dated approximately 1660-1700, it is a fragment of that is thought to be a full length European smoking pipe and would have originally have had a stem that that was between 33 and 45cm longer than what we see currently.[1]  The lack of intricate details and distinctive features makes it difficult to identify its origins or accurately date the work.  Older style pipes frequently had the least acute angles in contrast to newer pipes which possessed a larger, more upright bowl.  In early English clays, the bowl and stem of pipes were made as one piece, as opposed to later pipes that had a bowl and stem which could be separated.[2]  In most cases, makers’ marks were stamped on the pipes under the bowl as a way to identify pipe-makers, yet in this example we see there is none, making it more difficult to identify.[3]

While the nature of pipes and pipe design in Europe developed over time, pipes primarily take the form of a long tube with a bowl in which to put the tobacco at the end, made from wood, clay, or another hard material.  Pipes were created as a way for users of tobacco to enjoy its properties without chewing or swallowing the product.  While tobacco is commonly viewed as one of the most important New World goods in terms of its socio-economic consequences, it was used by native peoples long before conquerors and colonizers interacted with the Americas.  The nature of pipes and pipe design developed over time, mostly by Europeans because they chose to use tobacco in ways that were different from the Native Americans.  The style of pipe smoking that is found in Europe originated in North and Central America, and followed the same patterns of travel to the Old World that the tobacco trade followed.[4]

In Mesoamerica, tobacco had significant cultural and social significance for many indigenous peoples prior to European influence.  Tobacco was used in festivals, rituals, and as a part of many native traditional practices, especially among North American groups.[5]  The substance was valued for its hallucinogenetic properties, which it possessed because it was much stronger than the tobacco smoked today.  Many cultures used tobacco and its effects as a way to connect to the divine.  Tobacco was a center of culture; many sacred rites could not be performed, healers could not cure, and midwives would be unable to adequately assist with childbirth without it.  A level of status was also held by those who used it, as the elite members of many New World societies would use lavish pipes as a sign of prominence.[6]

When Europeans came to the New World, tobacco was at first of no interest to them, outside of general observations in their writings scrutinizing indigenous practices.  However, Europeans began to adopt the habit by the middle part of the sixteenth century.  In contrast to the Native Americans, who used tobacco for religious purposes, most of the European purposes for tobacco were medical or social.  In the early days of European tobacco use, primarily by the Spanish and Portuguese, it was used only by lower ranking soldiers and the lower classes–due to its effects on reducing hunger and fatigue–because leaders and elites did not see any value to the substance in terms of cultural or social status.[7]  The English, however, rapidly adopted tobacco smoking as fashionable, and the upper classes took a quick liking to it.  Smoking tobacco in England may have been a social habit among both the upper and lower classes as early as 1590.[8]  Later, throughout the continent, Europeans would attend public smoking houses and use pipes in order to show their status or wealth.  Tobacco changed the social structure of Europe in its usage and associated status.

Moreover, Europeans and European colonists in the New World used tobacco for many believed medical purposes that had no foundation in truth.  They saw it as a way to remedy many diseases or ailments.  One example of a European belief in the powers of tobacco was the consumption of the substance in order to balance the “four humors,” which were yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm.[9]  They also believed, perhaps more plausibly, that it could calm the senses and provide a narcotic effect that both relaxed and calmed.[10]

Economically, prior to the 1590s when tobacco smoking in Europe began to increase in popularity, tobacco did not seem a lucrative trade good, and was therefore ignored by colonizers and merchants.  The Portuguese were the first to capitalize on tobacco as a trade good, and had the original monopoly on it through the early part of the 17th century.[11]  Other European superpowers active in the New World began to take note of the wealth the Portuguese were deriving from the tobacco trade. The Spanish took over and exploited the market and, after the English settled their first colony of Jamestown in 1607, the tobacco growing industry massively grew in the British colonies.[12]  As the supply increased and the market was saturated with British tobacco, the price of tobacco plummeted, and the huge fortunes that were being made by the Spanish decreased.  Tobacco was still a lucrative trade good because the demand was extremely high in Europe, but the British controlled the industry.[13]

It is in the context of social, medicinal, and economic functions of tobacco around 1700 that the pipe fragment can be more fully understood.  The tobacco trade transformed the world economy as well as the social and cultural practices of the time.  From a belief in mystical properties to plantation owners trying to make a fortune, the period in which this pipe is dated was an era in which tobacco was not just a product.  Rather, tobacco was important to all levels of society, and this small pipe gives a window into the massive trade network and cultural changes that the plant produced.

Maggie Rabenberg and Pam Ialenti


[1] Alfred Dunhill, The Pipe Book (New York: Macmillian, 1969), 175.

[2] Thurstan Shaw, “Early Smoking Pipes: In Africa, Europe, and America,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 90, no.2 (Jul-Dec 1960): 274-275.

[3] Dunhill, The Pipe Book, 163.

[4] Dunhill, The Pipe Book, 75.

[5] Charles Reagan Wilson, “Tobacco” in The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 4: Myth, Manners, and Memory (North Carolina: The University of North Caroline Press, 2006), 180.

[6] Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 43 and 64.

[7] Shaw, “Early Smoking Pipes,” 281.

[8] Ibid., 289.

[9] Wilson, “Tobacco,” 180.

[10] Jason Young, “The History of Tobacco and Its Growth Throughout the World,” accessed 1 May 2016, https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/trade_environment/health/htobacco.html.

[11] Shaw, “Early Smoking Pipes,” 278.

[12] Dunhill, The Pipe Book, 88 and 165.

[13] Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures, 64 and 105.