Take a common, medium-length English clay pipe and divide it into two parts, leaving around a third of the stem attached to the bowl. Then take a spherical “box” made up of two half-spherical domes that fit together snugly. Each dome bears a hole at the top into which each part of the pipe will be inserted, the shorter stem with the bowl one end, and the longer stem on the other. The overall effect is of a normal pipe that has a stem going through a ball in the middle. When the two domes are separated to open the “box”, each half-sphere remains attached to a part of the stem.
This is not a smoker’s nightmare, but rather the extremely serious invention of a seventeenth-century Austrian physician, Johann Jakob Franz Vicarius, who wrote a short essay in Latin which was published in 1689 under the title Novus ac proficuus valde modus fumandi tabacum (“A New, Effective Way of Smoking Tobacco”) in which he explains the whole method in a clear, detailed manner.
The core of this particular device was a piece of vinegar-soaked sponge inserted in the sphere. According to Vicarius, the smoke that passed through this sponge would be cooled down as the result of a chemical reaction when in contact with the vinegar. Thus, the smoke would be suaviorem ac mitiorem, smoother and milder. This was the vision of a seventeenth-century physician and scientist caught up in the diatribe between advocates and critics of tobacco, who was not hostile towards the aromatic weed as long as it was smoked using his method, which he was convinced would go a long way. In fact, this pipe was adopted by some in Vienna, but then it fell out of use. However, according to some German experts, Vicarius was an important forerunner of future pipe-making experiments and his invention was a turning-point in pipe history. This may seem an exaggeration, as the fact that he became famous while others sank into oblivion may be due to the fact that he wrote, signed and dated his essay, while others did not. Nevertheless, we can consider his essay as a precious, albeit partial insight into the intense activity of various pipe makers and manufacturers who were seeking new solutions for pipe smokers even at that time.
As for the sphere, its size was significant, the diameter being a third of the length of the original pipe, including the bowl. Vicarius suggests choosing boxwood turned on a lathe, as this type of wood is extremely hard, dense and easy to clean as well as not easily subject to warping. He maintains that it would be even better to use glazed clay, but once fired in the kiln the two half-spheres may not fit perfectly together. Metal versions would also be a problem, as the metal oxides could affect the taste of the smoke negatively. The scientist and creator paid great attention to the materials and limits of available technology of that time.
When the person had finished smoking the pipe, the sponge was removed and carefully rinsed, as there was a build-up of residue, especially near the bowl. Vicarius ascribes the whole cooling technique to the vinegar in the sponge, overlooking the fact that this was due to the smoke expanding in the sphere, which then produced condensate. In any case the Austrian physician was not the first to design a cavity near the bowl to capture the oily, liquid smoke residue, as such devices were already present as early as 1670, as the essay itself also mentions. What was innovative was the use of a vinegar-soaked sponge.
A few years before the beginning of the eighteenth century the much sought-after formula for the production of porcelain had finally been discovered, thanks to the enterprising work of Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, physician, mathematician, philosopher and entrepreneur, and Johann Friedrich Böttger, a young, dynamic alchemist, sponsored by Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony. When von Tschirnhaus suddenly died on 11th October, 1708, the formula for a hard-paste porcelain highly similar to Chinese production was ready. The first European factory was opened in 1710 at the castle of Albrechtsburg in Meissen, and production also included porcelain tobacco pipes. Despite the Elector’s attempts to guard the secret formula, around ten years later rival factories sprang up. Initially, the porcelain pipes were merely samples to be exhibited.
The first pipes were based on the English model and immediately found customers for their novelty and fine material. However, from the point of view of the smoker, they were disappointing. The problem was due to condensate, which was reduced in white clay pipes owing to their porous nature, and partly in terracotta pipes, but was more evident when using this translucent, vitreous paste. Thus, the one-piece English model was almost immediately discarded in favour of the Ottoman model and Western variations: the bowl was in porcelain, while the stem and mouthpiece would be fashioned in wood and other materials. As for the problem of condensate which could not be avoided altogether, there was no choice but to find ways to keep it in check, ways which had already been tested for some time. Thus, near the bowl bulges appeared along the mainly wooden stems, in which the expansion chamber (“sump”) 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. In many instances the chambers were like small spheres, similar to the model produced by Vicarius, but less evident and lacking the vinegar-soaked sponge.
As an alternative to porcelain, there was another new material on the scene that was to be found in Anatolia: sea-foam. Its highly porous nature meant that the condensate phenomenon was more easily tackled, as the pipe “breathed” through the pores, providing a lighter and smoother smoke. This mineral – hydrous silicate of magnesium – was easily crafted, although being fragile had to be handled carefully. As in the case of the porcelain models, the bowl was made of sea-foam or “meerschaum” as it was known in Germany, and the other parts were in wood or other materials. The first pipes to be introduced on Hapsburg territory were simply fashioned chibouk bowls from Turkey, which were completed in Vienna, Budapest and other German areas. However, soon the exotic Turkish bowls proved to be too simple and so the raw material was imported to be transformed into refined, complex objects by expert craftsmen for the discerning clients. Towards the mid-eighteenth century it was the dominant way of producing pipes, and from individual craftsmen production spread to small factories. However, the use of meerschaum was limited to small circles of wealthy admirers, which were growing slowly.
Meanwhile, the number of experts who used wood for pipes was growing, as the clay, porcelain and meerschaum bowls needed tubes. There were also wholly wooden pipes being made. Records state that there were already two craftsmen in Ulm in 1695 and in 1715, when the city Council turned down applications for official recognition, there were over fifty. An interesting new pipe model designed by Johann Jakob Glöckle dates back to 1733, again in Ulm. However, Ulm was not the only city to produce these wooden versions. In the Thuringian forest in Ruhla, two craftsmen began to make wooden bowls for pipes in 1739, and other cities like Nuremberg and further afield in Austria and Hungary followed suit.
In Ulm a community of expert carvers of wooden pipes developed over time who produced many variations, but it is thanks to Johann Jakob Glöckle’s creativity that the city became renowned throughout Europe for one particular model. Although little is known about him, much more is known about the model, which would become a much sought-after, much imitated status symbol for a long time. The official name was Maserholzpfeife, “mottled wood pipe”, and in fact the specific grained bird’s-eye wood made the pipe unique. The wood was either maple or walnut, or else a yellow type of boxwood, but the real distinctive hallmark of the Maserholz was the special features of its bowl, immediately recognisable for its rounded shape, with a disk-like foot from which arose a fashioned cylindrical bowl and neck that were joined together almost parallel to a thick shank. When smoked, the stem was inevitably vertical or steeply inclined until the last part when it curved into the mouthpiece, which made for comfortable smoking. The lower part of the bowl, which was disk-like and flattened on both sides, collected the condensate. More or less similar functional solutions with many adaptations appeared in eighteenth-century bowls made of porcelain, clay, wood and meerschaum. Finally, the inner bowl of the Maserholz was generally coated with tin and the bowl was usually fitted with a decorated domed lid.
Not all the stems of that period (fitted to bowls made of different materials) followed the style of the pipe mentioned above. In the 1700s each specialist provided their own solutions and styles which influenced one another. However, Glöckle’s pipe set a trend that would characterise Central European models. A more sophisticated model was introduced in the mid-eighteenth century with the Gesteckpfeife, meaning “pipe in parts”. Designed for the porcelain pipe, it was composed of interconnecting parts, the bowl and sump where the moisture collected. The bowl, which was high and cylindrical in its upper part, had its walls that converged towards the centre ending in a small, inclined tube. The sump normally comprised an elongated flask-shape with its main opening at the top and a Y-shaped tube that ended in the mouth piece in one end and inclined into the bowl’s cavity in the other end. The stem was rather long, like that of the Maserholzpfeife, and its extremity was curved at the mouthpiece. What was innovative in the Gesteck compared to the Maserholz was the division of the bowl and sump into two distinct components, the sump acting also as the shank. This facilitated cleaning when taken apart. The best solution was also the fact that when the pipe was smoked the expansion chamber (lower part of the sump) was in the lowest part of the pipe.
The fact that the pipe could be assembled and taken apart was both an advantage, but also a drawback. The problem of close-fitting parts had already been examined by Johann Jakob Franz Vicarius who insisted on the fact that the two half-spheres fit tightly together and that any gap in the connecting parts should be well-sealed. The same problem assailed many eighteenth-century craftsmen who had to deal with the limits of technology and materials when they applied bands, flanges and various systems to join and tighten the parts. Apart from potential smoke seepage, the risk was also that the pipe suddenly fell apart during smoking. In order to avoid this safety chains were applied, and it was best to hold the pipe by its sump.
The question remains why these craftsmen fashioned pipes that looked like saxophones, and what led them to produce a near-vertical stem. Although it is difficult to reconstruct the birth of this model following various attempts by many pipe makers, some evidence may be taken into consideration. For instance, the normal clay or terracotta pipes were also inclined downwards when smoked, and in the case of the rather long chibouk this was virtually compulsory. However, smoking long-stemmed pipes was also uncomfortable and stressful, unless there was another person at hand. In a certain sense, the solution of the pipe in the shape of a saxophone meant that the pipe became compact, placing bowl, sump and mouthpiece in a position that was functionally more successful. Another suggestion is that the Gesteckpfeife and other similar models were closely related to the Eastern water pipes, which were also adopted in Central Europe. For example, it is said that it was the favourite device used at the court of the Palatinate in 1720. Indeed, the two models share similar features in that in both cases the smoke goes in the same direction, first being drawn down into the sump or water container, and then back up to the mouthpiece. As regards shape, the European saxophone shape is reminiscent of the “portable” Chinese pipes. It is also suggested that the idea of the moistened sponge devised by Vicarius did not terminate with his pipe with sphere, but was inserted in the sumps of the saxophone pipes (moistened with water, not vinegar) when first produced, a practice which was still advised in some nineteenth-century manuals. There are even those who claim that the sumps initially contained water, imitating the Oriental hookahs.
During the Enlightenment, when experiments, trials and inventions all simmered together, the European smoker could choose from a wide variety of pipes as alternatives to the clay models, although the latter were still extremely popular. The markets in the various countries were not yet closely connected, and there was also the fact that tastes differed from one country to another, and what was popular in Germany, for example, was unsuccessful in England, France and Holland, also for cultural and mindset reasons. Moreover, the manufacturers of one-piece pipes had no intention of losing ground and went on with experiments, trials and inventions to make their products more appealing. Competition was rife, but no longer just concerning prices or technical features: now attention turned to aesthetic details, and the race to produce the most attractive pipes continued throughout the eighteenth century and intensified in the following century.