When Sir Walter Raleigh brought tobacco to England from the new world, he smoked a clay pipe. Elizabethan portraits showed gentlemen (never ladies) hoisting long-stemmed, small-bowled white pipes. In time, the wealthy moved to Meerschaum and briar wood pipes, but the clay variety remained the choice of the working class and in the provinces, and clay pipes are a common find in American archaeology. How do you know if you have one?
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Look for the distinguishing characteristics of a clay pipe. First, clay pipes tend to be one piece and without a removable stem. They also tend to be white in colour, though not necessarily; a more expensive clay pipe may have been painted with enamel and fired into a pleasing colour and shape, to include a coat of arms, or in the shape of a nude woman or an animal’s head. Regardless, if the bowl and stem are a single piece, it is likely a clay pipe.
Inspect the finish of the bowl. If it is clearly painted then you have a clay pipe. Meerschaum was valued for its white ivory-like finish and wooden bowls were rarely painted; rather, they were carved and stained.
Inspect the surface of the pipe closely with a magnifying glass. Does the material appear porous, or very smooth? Meerschaum pipes are made from a fairly rare and costly mineral. This mineral can be polished to the smoothness of a billiard ball or piano key, while clay cannot.
Inspect the stem. If the bowl is of an indeterminate material, but, the stem is of some type of quill, then it is likely a clay pipe that has been repaired. Thick quills (for example, from a goose or turkey) were commonly used to repair old pipes.
Identify the pipe by period and location. Victorian clay pipes tended to be moulded into figures, while a single piece with a small, tipped bowl and a long stem is more typical of America during the colonial and Civil War times and in provincial Europe.
Inspect any case or frame that came with the pipe. An expensive clay pipe usually came with a customised case to protect it. Some pipe makers would build a wooden or sometimes pewter “cage” which protected the clay from breakage. These were not used for briar wood or Meerschaum pipes.
Tips and warnings
- Not all clay pipes had long stems. The “cutty clay” pipe was one made with a long stem, used by several people in a tavern. A fellow who wanted a fresh stem would break off the stem for a fresh mouthpiece.
- White, plain pipes tend to have little monetary value, but are of course interesting antiques. Have a more elaborate pipe appraised by an antiquarian.
- Buy a fresh clay pipe if you intend to smoke it. These burn hotter than Meerschaums or briars, but they are an unusual and elegant choice. They are also readily available from a few niche makers.
- Clay pipes add an authentic flair to a renaissance fair costume, or to a Revolutionary or Civil War re-enactor's uniform.
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