Historical accounts have it that Marco Polo on his return from China brought an extraordinarily beautiful, small translucent white vase. From then on other merchants and missionaries started to bring back objects in the same material, objects that were so rare and astonishing that they were immediately coveted by the Church, ending up in cathedrals, or else much sought-after by the wealthy, being exhibited in their cabinet of curiosities. Later, in the sixteenth century ships that traded with the East began to transport these precious objects, and by the end of the following century there was a steady flow. Nevertheless, these vases, plates, bowls, tea, coffee and chocolate sets were still rare, expensive, highly desirable items that bore an aura of mystery.
Porcelain was a specific type of ceramic material, as it was composed of a vitreous paste, with a fine, compact grain, generally white, translucent and resonant, also being impermeable and highly resistant to chemical attacks. In short, a marvel compared to ceramic ware on offer in Europe. Potters and alchemists, spurred on by the wealthy who longed for these precious products, sought unsuccessfully to discover the right formula, which had been jealously kept secret by the Chinese for centuries. Finally, after a series of half-successful attempts something interesting happened in Dresden.
Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus was a man with eclectic interests, being a mathematician, physician, philosopher, and physicist, who had travelled for a long time throughout Europe, meeting such illustrious people as Spinoza, Huygens, Newton, Leibniz, as well as being elected to the Académie Royale des Sciences in Paris. Being of a practical nature and enterprising, he set up a glass factory in Saxony that specialised in burning lenses and mirrors, in order to experiment in producing porcelain. There was no need to invent it, as it already existed, so he “only” had to determine the right raw materials and techniques to produce articles similar to those imported from China. He systematically varied the combinations and proportions of clays and silica that were fired in different ways, until finally in 1704 he found the right combination and Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony asked him to supervise the work of a young alchemist, Johann Friedrich Böttger. It is not known how and with what results the two worked together, but we do know that when von Tschirnhaus suddenly died on 11th October, 1708, the formula for a hard-paste porcelain highly similar to Chinese production was ready. The factory was moved from Dresden to the castle of Albrechtsburg in Meissen, and production started in 1710 under the management of Johann Friedrich Böttger.
The new factory initially produced a series of samples that were exhibited at the Leipzig Fair, the best way to show that Saxony was the first to uncover the secret of porcelain manufacture, and also to demonstrate how versatile the “new” material was in creating different objects. Amongst the various exhibits on show that drew awe and admiration was a pipe, which is hardly surprising as tobacco was widely popular in the German states. White clay pipes were the most commonly used, but by the beginning of the eighteenth century clay pipes in different colours, in wood or metal (in the army) or Meerschaum in small circles were habitually smoked. Now that the translucent material was produced locally it was almost a foregone conclusion that it would be used to produce pipes. Besides, in exclusive circles where porcelain was greatly appreciated, enthusiasts couldn’t wait to buy an article from the Meissen factory, and amongst them were certainly a number of pipe smokers.
The Elector of Saxony did everything in his power to keep raw materials and techniques of porcelain production a secret, even preventing Böttger from leaving the castle of Albrechtsburg, but all in vain. Ten years later the first competitors appeared on the scene, to be followed by many others in Europe, in France and German states primarily, but also in Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Russia and Switzerland. This chain reaction was probably prompted by industrial espionage, but there well may have been some manufacturers outside Saxony who had managed to refine their techniques independently to produce something similar to Meissen production. Thus, the “new” translucent material became less of a rarity and lost part of its aura of mystery. Nevertheless, it was still considered a marvellous creation, utterly beautiful, fashionable and highly sought after. This was also true of porcelain pipes, especially in Germany.
The pipes were beautifully crafted, but were they suitable for smoking? On this subject it is generally agreed that they were not very good pipes. The fascinating porcelain was pleasant to the eye and to touch, tough and heat-resistant, so that the bowl could have thinner walls and therefore the pipe was light. However, the compact and non-porous paste meant that a great deal of condensate soon built up, and this was true of the models based on white Dutch clay pipes. Solutions were sought to contrast this, and experiments were carried out with bowls made of other materials, and soon research on wooden pipes was extended to terracotta or porcelain, and vice-versa.
As regards the traditional one-piece white clay pipe, a significant change took place during the seventeenth century with the introduction of the two- or three-piece pipe in the German city of Höhr, divided into a mouthpiece, stem and bowl. It may have been a local invention, but was probably the result of contacts with Turkish culture and the chibouk pipe. As regards the problem of condensate build-up, it could not be avoided and therefore was addressed by trying to keep it in check. A few eighteenth-century pipes display strange bulges along the mainly wooden stems, in which the inner chamber was wider and consequently produced more condensate on the inner wall of the chamber. These bulges had knobs that could be removed to drain the moisture from the pipe. These knobs are only one of the possible solutions provided to tackle the problem of condensate build-up, but other more rational solutions were sought, starting with the provision of an expansion chamber at the base of the bowl, and the detachable connecting tube inserted directly to it to make cleaning easier. In many cases the two parts were inserted in the same block of wood, clay or porcelain, and several examples of this type are to be found throughout the nineteenth century. However, a more sophisticated solution was devised in the form of the Gesteckpfeife, literally meaning “pipe in parts”.
As its name suggests, it was composed of several interconnecting parts: a bowl and expansion chamber (also known as a “sump”), where the moisture collected. It was Y-shaped, with one end inserted into the bowl, and the other end inserted into a long tube, the third part, which ended in the mouthpiece, the fourth part. Another interesting feature was the addition of a flexible tube, reminiscent of the hookah. The pipe was designed so that once the smoke left the bowl, it was drawn down into the sump where it would lose moisture, and then be drawn up along the long wooden tube and cooled before reaching the mouthpiece. The shape of the pipe with its almost vertical long tube, the cylindrical bowl almost parallel to the tube and the slightly inclined mouthpiece recall a saxophone. This was the most common shape for porcelain pipes in the nineteenth century, especially in Germany, but it also inspired pipes in wood, ceramic and even in Meerschaum.
Nowadays, these Gesteckpfeife-type pipes and also the simpler saxophone-style versions seem to have strayed away from the current idea of a pipe, but at the time they were the norm and shared similar features to models produced in other countries nearby. For example, there were economic and cultural relations between Germany and the Ottoman Empire, and so it is highly likely that also in terms of the production of pipes there would have been reciprocal influence. Moreover, the techniques of growing and crafting wood (especially cherry) used for the long tubes were extremely similar and it is likely that it was the Turks who inspired the Germans. The same system of the smoke being drawn down into the sump and then up again towards the mouthpiece in the “saxophone”-style pipes, such as the Gesteckpfeife, recalls that of the hookah, where the bowl is higher than the container of water through which the smoke passes, which is then drawn up again to the mouthpiece and smoker. It is even suggested that the sumps were originally designed to contain water or were lined with damp sponge, so as to imitate the oriental pipe. Thus, it is likely that the Turkish pipe influenced to a certain degree those produced in Europe as regards material, techniques and shape.
The complex developments of these artefacts and solutions found to remedy certain problems could lead us to believe that the pipes with porcelain bowl and sump (as well as those in Meerschaum) had reached their peak of perfection. This may have been true at the time, but nowadays hardly anyone would say that they are suitable for smoking. This difference is probably due to various factors, such as types of tobacco, lifestyle and smoking experience, aesthetic tastes and the social meaning attributed to smoking. Although we consider porcelain as a common material, at that time it was regarded as something extraordinary to be admired and a status symbol to be coveted, especially in the eighteenth century, but also in the following centuries when production increased and the pipe was accessible to a wider range of consumers. Moreover, the Gesteckpfeife in porcelain was considered the height of progress. The fact that it was now easier to clean the pipe was viewed as the healthiest way to smoke and it was no longer a nuisance to take the pipe apart and then re-connect all the components. Indeed, it was considered part of the smoking ritual. However, the main reason for its enormous success lies elsewhere.
Eighteenth-century porcelain pipe bowls were a feast of colour and shapes, crafted in the form of flowers, animals, or human heads. Then the first Gesteckpfeife pipes appeared and in the nineteenth century dominated the scene, imposing their smooth-surfaced, oval cylindrical shape with a tube in the heel that fitted into the sump. The smooth surface of the bowl was perfect for figurative decoration of every kind. Apart from the paintings in private or public collections, illustrations in the eighteenth century were limited to wood and copper engravings and in the early nineteenth century black and white lithographs which were later also in colour. It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that society would have access to the enormous production of prints, contributing to the beginning of the image culture. On the other hand, painted porcelain plates, vases, cups and boxes had long been artistic artefacts displaying exquisite, colourful images, small, pocket-sized paintings to decorate the home. The same hand-painted images on pipe bowls (the pipes themselves being large and showy) were the best fashion item, and the people who carried these pipes around found a way to express themselves.
Not only did the pipe decorations express aesthetic taste or subjects, but they also expressed political views, or being a member of a regiment, profession, club or university. In nineteenth-century Germany connoisseurs could go to well-stocked shops where there was an ample choice of subjects for pipes, and they could also commission their own personal pipe illustrations, dedications, insignias or mottos. Smokers of a certain rank owned more than just one porcelain pipe, either purchased or in the form of gifts between friends. Apart from being a practical smoking tool, the pipe became a means to communicate and even a souvenir depicting a location, or else commemorating a special event. Apart from the bowl design itself, aesthetic quality also lay in the pipe as a whole. Its length could range between 30 and a 120 centimetres, and thus could become quite cumbersome. The connecting tube was in various types of wood, but also horn, bone or even ivory, with metal bands in the places where the parts fitted together, precious stones, bows and chains to tie the parts together or else to hang the pipe on a jacket. The bowl often bore a metal lid, which was also decorated. The fashion was widespread throughout the nineteenth century and travellers in Germany were amazed by the widespread use of the pipe and wealth of models, and above all by the splendid, colourful images painted on the porcelain bowls. However, all this eventually came to an end.
In 1895, 24 years after the proclamation of the German Empire the new state could count 1536 porcelain factories that exported their products throughout Europe and the world. Thus, from such a sought-after curious and fascinating material for pipes, porcelain became just a good, industrial product. The porcelain pipes themselves lost their aura of perfection and exclusiveness, going from exquisitely made luxury items to large or small mass-made collections. By the end of the nineteenth century the bowls were no longer hand-painted but through a series of techniques images were reproduced mechanically. Meanwhile, in around 1850 a new type of wood for pipes had been introduced, briar, which would eventually revolutionise not only the physical aspect of the pipe, but also the mind-set, gestures, criteria and sensory appeal associated with tobacco smoking. Briar brought about a positive, radical change in the world of pipe smoking. In a relatively short period of time all or almost all of the materials that had previously been used became obsolete. When we wonder why in the eighteenth and nineteenth century these complex, illustrated porcelain pipes were so highly appreciated, we must remember that smokers at that time were not even aware of the existence of briar.
Nowadays, porcelain pipes can be found as souvenirs in shops in Germany, but certainly not as a smoking accessory. As regards the original models of the time, these can be seen in museums and private collections, to be admired by those who discern their elegance. However, smoking one is out of the question.
The pipes shown in this article are part of the Al Pascià collection
For further information, we suggest you refer to the Ben Rapaport and Sarunas "Sharkey" Peckus book "The European Porcelain Tobacco Pipe. Illustrated History for Collectors (2014)"