Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor had not yet been born, yet pipe production was already divided into various stages that were assigned their own specialist craftsmen, foreshadowing the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth century English and Dutch workshops where clay pipes were manufactured. The raw clay that arrived from the quarries, washed clean of sand and other impurities, was then mixed with the raw scraps from previous processes and roughly carved into blocks which would then be ready when needed. The clay was rolled by hand into a rough shape, a long, narrow tube ending in a lump at one end. A wire was then inserted into the tube to form the bore of the pipe. The shape was pressed into one side of a two-piece mould, with the lump placed at the wider end of the mould to form the head. After that the mould was clamped in a press, with an opening for the head where a cone was inserted to form the bowl. Once the pipe was moulded, the wire was removed from the long, slim stem, and the pipe underwent a series of techniques to refine and smooth out any imperfections, as well as being decorated and stamped with the maker’s mark. The pipe, together with many others, was subsequently placed in a vessel and fired in a kiln.
It sounds simple enough, but in fact the process was more complex. For instance, the pipe had to be dried slowly, going from the initial pliable material that shaped the pipe to the harder, finished pipe before being fired in the kiln. Add to this special kiln types, different stages in the process, accessories, materials, fuel and many secrets. For example, the long, thin wire inserted in the future stem was not really pushed through the clay, but rather it was the clay tube that was slowly pulled over the pre-oiled wire, the maker being careful not to let the tip of the wire break through the side of the clay stem. Moreover, the tip of the wire only went right to the end of the tube once the mould had been clamped and the bowl hollowed out. The wire (whose handle remained external to the mould) was then pushed forward, breaking into the hollow of the bowl.
The English and Dutch followed different procedures to produce the cavity in the bowl. The former were more rapid, to a certain extent more “industrial”. Initially, an asymmetrical, finger-shaped steel stopper was inserted by hand into the mouth of the mould in one go to create the cavity, and the excess clay was forced out of the mould. Later, in the early eighteenth century in England a more streamlined vice with a lever attached to the workbench was introduced, called the “gin press”. The steel stopper was attached to the lower side of the lever so as to accurately pierce the mouth of the mould, and hence the clay when the lever was forced down. The Dutch were slower and more delicate in this process, as the acorn-shaped stopper was inserted into the mould mouth by hand and twisted round several times, the excess clay being trimmed until the bowl was perfectly formed. This was only one of a series of differences between English and Dutch techniques. In general, the Dutch procedure, techniques, time involved, tools, how the pipes were placed in the kiln and firing stages suggests that the Dutch were more interested in perfecting production.
The English were more practical, while the Dutch paid meticulous (almost obsessive) attention to quality. Never satisfied, they always sought new ideas to improve their product. Their thriving trade between the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries was largely thanks to this type of production, but not limited to it. Indeed, the authorities in the city of Gouda, which became the centre for Dutch pipe making, and the local pipe maker guilds supported and encouraged local craftsmen: they centralised the clay supply sources, monitored quality and the maker’s mark, and governed sales of the finished product by monitoring prices and relations with sellers. On the other hand, English pipe makers were spread out over numerous cities and worked less as a team, and the extensive world trade routes meant that British pipe products were delivered in many parts of the world. However, despite this the Dutch produced more and their pipes were often preferred to those manufactured by English, especially in Europe for their unique appeal.
Pipes were produced that measured from six centimetres long (for dolls’ houses) to one metre, from pipes that were quite simple with no frills to sumptuously decorated artworks. Some models had already appeared in the seventeenth century, but from 1710 the Dutch produced their best examples. They were capable of producing extremely narrow stems, bowls that had ultra-thin walls, and highly detailed relief decorations, which reveals the painstaking, meticulous workmanship involved. But the question is why were pipes decorated in the first place? The answer seems to be that the Dutch were following a fashion that was to be found in many other manufactured objects at that time, a growing trend for applied art. The use of moulds allowed pipe makers to increase the number of attractive models and make them available to a relatively large number of citizens. Pipe makers were not satisfied with familiar patterns and decorations, but wished to create new, original designs. Themes could be contemporary or classical, or symbols that would please the client, designs to suit every taste. Skilled craftsmen, perhaps artists and often silversmiths were hired to create the moulds, and they would also engrave the matrices used to stamp the packaging with the maker’s mark and name.
The Dutch were superior craftsmen, indeed. They were so good that other countries far and wide emulated their style. Apart from imitations, a more threatening phenomenon emerged: pipes began to be different, astonishing and alternative. For example, the material was still clay, but now pipes were no longer just white but came in different colours, from red to black, they were made in one piece or the stem was added in another material. Then pipes began to be created in wood, meerschaum and porcelain, and output escalated by the late eighteenth century. Rival manufacturers focused on the material used for the pipes, on techniques and features. For example, in the German states and neighbouring areas the smoker could depend on a wide choice of models when purchasing their pipes. There were smokers’ pipes, but also purely decorative models, such as those made of brightly-coloured ceramic manufactured in Staffordshire, England, with stems several metres long that were coiled like snakes, which were original and certainly not lacking in aesthetic value. Owing to all this fierce competition, the demand for Dutch one-piece pipes fell, and in fact by the mid-eighteenth century their fortune began to wane, when the following century’s golden age of pipe making was being heralded.
Porcelain was a great achievement for Western alchemists and potters. Once they had discovered the technique to produce it, soon the material was also being used for pipes, or rather the heads of pipes. The material was pliable and its white surface was just waiting to be covered in multi-coloured decorations. Indeed, soon the heads of pipes came in all sorts of colours, patterns and were often shaped into figurines. However, in the mid-eighteenth century the typical bowls of the Gestekpfeifen (combined with a separate sump) began to appear, which were cylindrical and ended in a small tube. On the one hand, this type of pipe restricted the pipe maker’s creativity, but on the other the bowls lent themselves to an endless series of decorations. It was this type of porcelain pipe head that prevailed in the nineteenth century, becoming a truly social phenomenon. On the cylindrical-like surface of the pipe head anything could be displayed. Craftsmen, who were often true artists armed with paintbrushes, could paint the same image on several models, or else produce a unique illustration for a special client. The themes were endless, but they were often characterized by categories: students, soldiers, and various professions. For many German smokers, it was important to show their status in public through the illustrations on their pipes, which were proudly displayed and which aimed to transmit affiliation, an idea, a sensitivity, a tendency and taste. These particular pipes were not only illustrated, but were also often large, striking, and great attention was paid to details in wood, metal, horn and other materials.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century sea-foam pipes appeared, at first slowly in restricted circles of enthusiasts who represented the market, but then becoming highly fashionable. The sea-foam, or “meerschaum”, was not only an ideal material for pipes given its high porosity, but also its essential characteristics facilitated elaborate carving. While the beauty of a clay pipe depended on the creativity of the person that had carved the mould, and the attractiveness of a porcelain bowl relied on artistry and colour, the meerschaum pipe owed its appeal to craftsmen who were also artists and carvers, often true sculptors. The golden age of meerschaum pipes ran from 1820 to 1850 in Vienna. The heads were often so richly carved (but also relatively fragile) that they could only be admired, masterpieces in which the function of smoking became secondary, featuring complete groups of subjects in a scene, highly intricate decorative detail and lively bas-relief work. Naturally, there were also functional smoking pipes, which were simpler, but which nonetheless retained their elegance. This class of objects featured fine silver mounts and unique amber mouthpieces. In addition to the original meerschaums, cheaper, fake mmerschaum models were produced whose material consisted of various paste mixtures including scraps of real meerschaum pressed together. A number of these were manufactured in Ruhla in Thuringia, and were called “Viennese” to make them sound more convincing. This mining community situated in the mountains, however, did not restrict its activities to imitations, but in fact became an authentic pipe manufacturing centre, almost a German version of Gouda, also producing original meerschaums, Gestekpfeifen with porcelain heads, models in terracotta and also in wood.
Heads of wooden pipes hand-carved into figurative designs often complete with inscriptions and dates given by clients were the specialty of various forest regions, especially in central Germany where the Rhine flowed through or in Alpine towns. Again, a custom-made hand-carved pipe with figurative head became an object to be exhibited that reflected the client’s personality. However, it was not always necessary to apply decorations in order to maintain a “dialogue” with a pipe. Ultimately, a fine pipe was enough. A pipe that was magnificent and much sought after until the middle of the nineteenth century was the unique Maserholz pipe, from Ulm, which was often imitated in other regions in different types of wood and also in other materials. Three types of interesting wooden pipe-heads were also manufactured in Hungary: the Kalmasch, shaped like an inverted bell, stylistically similar to a classic terracotta Chibouk; the Debrecen, named after the town, having a tall cylindrical bowl and the Ragoczy, probably named after a Transylvanian prince, whose upper part of the cylindrical bowl was slightly conical.
As regards the use of clay or more generally terracotta, the nineteenth century was unrivalled in its production of an endless variety of shapes and materials. The English and Dutch white clay pipe remained, but in many markets this was only one option, as the basic material and bright glazes provided colourful alternatives. Red terracotta pipes were typical of Debrecen and also of Marseille, but colourful, more or less figuratively designed pipes were to be found almost everywhere. Even the traditional Dutch types sometimes displayed hints of colour and typical pipes manufactured in Banská Štiavnica, a town in central Slovakia, whose more common German name is Schemnitz, were highly colourful. The heads, made from a mixture of white and red clay (the former provided strength and the latter its sheen), had a high octagonal-shaped burnished bowl (there were also other variations) whose surface seemed translucent. The Schemnitz pipe, much admired and imitated, eventually became a clearly distinct model (like the Ulm pipe) that was produced in many regions, one of these being the Veneto region, where it was produced in the town of Bassano del Grappa.
Meanwhile, the French had always been fervent snuff users. Those who preferred to smoke tobacco used pipes made in Holland or products made locally by small manufacturers. It was only during the Napoleonic era that the new emphasis placed on industry also boosted pipe production on a national scale. Although the white-ivory material available was excellent for pipe smoking thanks to its porous property, its strength caused problems, as the stems broke too easily. The one-piece format was soon cast aside in favour of the more familiar pipe with a clay head and wooden stem. Since figuratively decorated and colourful pipes were in vogue, the French pipe makers who were newcomers to the pipe scene wholeheartedly adopted this fashion following techniques that were similar (but with many variations) to those used by their colleagues who worked porcelain and sea-foam. Pipe heads were miniature sculptures and the subjects were endless. They began with classical themes, going on to craft contemporary politicians, portraits or caricatures of well-known or little-known figures, or recognizable, conventional types. The catalogues produced by the largest factories displayed hundreds of different models, almost as if they were a collection of trading cards. Other figuratively crafted models bearing different features came from the Belgian region of Meuse and from the Westerwald region in Germany.
Eighteenth-century pipe manufacture offered almost a complete range of hundreds of models, a versatile output that is quite impossible to describe fully, a triumph of technical solutions combined with creativity. Yet, such a complex and geographically diverse and mutually influenced scene was being threatened by two powerful factors. The first, plain for all to see, gave pipe makers cause for serious concern and stimulated those who smoked less: the fashion for cigars was booming. The second factor, which had been brewing for some time but only began to reveal itself in the second half of the nineteenth century, seriously jeopardised the world of pipes which had developed so surprisingly. Not so much as visible for all to see, but invisible, underground: the strange, round root of a Mediterranean shrub.