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Tobacco Pipes

Updated on December 26, 2010

A tobacco pipe has been dully described as a bowl, to hold smoking tobacco, and a stem with a mouthpiece. It is usually made wholly of baked clay or stone or predominantly of wood. Less pedestrianly, the pipe is an instrument affording a soothing pleasure to pipe smokers and a profound mortification to all non-smokers. Smokers claim that pipe smoking is a healthy habit and that it forms a wonderful disinfectant and safeguard against many ills and infections. Nonsmokers assert that it is a filthy habit, almost as bad as cigarette smoking.

One of the most interesting facts about tobacco pipes is that they have not only a fascinating cultural history but also an illuminating word history that renders the cultural history much more human.

The English word "pipe" first appeared about the year 1000 and was applied to either a musical instrument or a cylindrical tube, as, for instance, a water pipe. The special sense, a pipe for smoking, is recorded in 1594. Of the early instances of the word, the following are worth noting: (1) British, all recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary—"He must have his pipe of tobacco" (1611); "Now every plowman has his pipe to himself" (1683); "Happy mortal! he who knows pleasure which a pipe bestows" (1736); and (2) American, recorded in one or the other of the two most important dictionaries of American English—the ordinary pipe, cited in 1618; the pipe of peace, much larger and made especially for this purpose, cited in 1643.

Pipes are of many shapes, sizes, and degrees of elegance or ornamentation and hence cost a price ranging from "within the reach of all" to "a millionaire's plaything." Some are so plain that all they are good for is smoking. Others are so richly colored or painted and of such precious materials that it seems a pity to use them for anything so ordinary as smoking. Some have ornamental lids made of either silver or copper. Some are so small that they will fit handily into a pocket. Others are so large that one has to hold them firmly in one hand and rest the bowl on the palm of one's hand, or one's teeth would soon be worn down. Some, like the hookah (Turkish pipe), have very long stems to cool the hot air that might otherwise burn one's tongue. The hookah, by passing the smoke through water, not only cools it but purifies it. The hottest to smoke are the short-stemmed clay pipes, but any short-stemmed pipe, unless made of the finest material, tends to burn one's tongue.

Cherry wood, mock-orange wood, and brierroot make excellent pipes for the ordinary man and, if long-stemmed, allow him to indulge himself in pipe dreams almost as effectually as a meerschaum pipe will. The meerschaum, originally an Austrian, German, and Dutch prerogative, has become popular despite its size and weight, partly because it provides the smoker a lot of good, clean fun in the process of coloring it to the required degree of glossy yellow or light brown.

Introduction of the Smoking Habit in Europe

As Sir Compton Mackenzie aptly remarked. "At 10 o'clock on the night of October 11, 1492, Christopher Columbus from the deck of the Santa Maria saw a light ahead, the record of which in the log every smoker today should contemplate with reverence as that of an auspicious guiding star." Early in the following month, two of the crew achieved fame, for "they were the first Europeans to witness the phenomenon of smoking." Europe has never been the same, since the habit of smoking a kind of loose cheroot was introduced soon after that memorable sight. The habit of pipe smoking, which soon became even commoner, was adapted from the sight of Amerindians smoking either a pipe of peace or an ordinary pipe.

Spread of the Pipe-Smoking Habit

Although tobacco was imported into Europe from the West Indies, pipes became popular and even sophisticated much earlier in Europe than in America. The ordinary tobacco pipe (as opposed to cigars) did not become common in the United States until about 1820. The pipe-smoking habit has spread not only over Europe and the United States but also over most of the civilized world. The strength of its hold over the English-speaking world may be gauged from the facts that "Put that in your pipe and smoke it," and the figurative use of "to smoke a pipe of peace" have been part of the language since the 19th century.


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