Above, sky and stars; below, earth and sea, and where the two meet, the horizon: the universe is an enormous, round gourd according to the Hausa tribe in Nigeria. In Burkina Faso, the Gurunsi people scrutinise the round shape of gourds to predict seasonal variations and to divine destiny. The evocative fascination of the slightly sinister, carved, lit Halloween pumpkin appeals to everyone, and the elegant pumpkin that turns into Cinderella’s magic coach until midnight has conjured up so many dreams.
But how can a simple vegetable, a garden product, fascinate us so much that it becomes the stuff of myths and tales? The answer is that for thousands of years gourds have not only been eaten, but have also been made into useful objects: their carved, dried, and decorated shells have been transformed into all kinds of vessels, ladles, headgear, fishnet floats, resonators for musical instruments, masks and other ritual objects. Useful, essential and ubiquitous in daily life, the gourds have thus ended up by occupying the mysterious reign of imagination. Going back to practical matters, some of these sturdy, light, waterproof vessels served as smoking devices even before tobacco was used, when various aromatic herbs were burnt, including hemp. These were generally not dry pipes, but pipes with water through which the herbs were drawn before reaching the smoker’s lips.
The war that broke out on 11 October 1899 in the southernmost part of Africa was particularly harsh. During its most intense phase, 450,000 soldiers of the British Empire fought against 52,000 European farmers who refused to become Queen Victoria’s and then King Edward’s subjects. However, these were no ordinary farmers: they were Boers, descendants of the early Dutch colonies who landed on the Cape of Good Hope in the 1600s, and of the French Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution in France. As British domination gradually expanded, they had increasingly moved inland to maintain their autonomy and identity, thereby wresting land from the natives through brutal conflicts , moving around on carts pulled by oxen, each time ploughing the land from scratch, and finally founding the Orange Free State and Transvaal. These were extremely proud, tough people, who were experts in fighting and had a deep knowledge of the land, whom the British struggled to crush despite their superior numbers. The native Africans were proud but wounded, being involved on their home ground in the conflict in various ways and subjected to all sorts of injustices from both sides. The Boer War ended on 31 May 1902, with the Treaty of Vereeniging. One of the side effects of the war was a pipe.
From the beginning of the war, and gradually as events called for more troops, Cape Town had been filling up with soldiers from Britain, India, Canada and Australia, and everyone smoked. The pipes that these soldiers had brought with them were made of briar, often spigot-mounted billiard pipes: the tip of the stem that slotted into the shank was tapered and fitted with metal, often sterling silver, and the shank was mounted with a band of the same metal. This enabled soldiers to separate the stem from the shank while still hot without damaging it, but was no protection if dropped. In a war which was largely fought on horseback, many soldiers barely knew how to stay in the saddle, and this was fortunate for those who made, sold and repaired pipes in Cape Town and Durban. However, it was sometimes impossible to repair pipes, and as the demand for pipes rose, pipe stocks and briar became scarce. What was the alternative? Another material to make smoking devices existed in these regions: the natives adapted the hollowed-out, dried hull of the gourd, filled it with water and drew the smoke through it. If this was the only alternative, it was rather a poor one, being too unfamiliar for Europeans.
Belonging to the family of the Cucurbitaceae, the Lagenaria Vulgaris is an annual climber with white flowers whose fruit has a smooth, thin-walled rind. Its fruit (the gourd) is almost cylindrical and elongated with a wide bottom that gradually tapers to a narrow neck whose stem is attached to the vine. The gourds are typical of the mountain areas to the east of Cape Town. When turned into water pipes, nothing was thrown away: the dried body served as the water chamber and the bowl and downstem was inserted into the widest part of the gourd. The modified neck served as the stem. However, European style pipes made out of gourds proved to be more difficult, until somebody (we know neither who nor when) had the bright idea of using only part of the fruit. They may have been European or African, but whatever the race they must have observed the gourds as they ripened, and if it was a farmer, so much the better, as they could follow the fruit as it ripened. Since the shoots were low on the ground, initially the fruit was suspended but as it grew, the fruit gradually dropped to the ground due to its weight and its neck adapted by bending. Once the fruit was on the ground, it gradually swelled, and the neck had to readapt its shape in order to maintain its connection with the vine. Thus, the necks would come in all shapes and sizes, and some may have caught the attention of the observer, who was probably familiar with pipes, and remind him of the shape of a bent shank. This may not be exactly what happened, but this must have been the kind of intuition from where the idea originated.
On the African continent, the term “calabash” (the etymology is unclear, perhaps Arab or Persian) means “gourd” or “vessel”, which is a hollowed-out gourd. In the smokers’ world it refers to the unique dry pipe that appeared for the first time in South Africa, fashioned out of Lagenaria Vulgaris, arising out of an intuition that gradually developed during a series of trials and errors. It is likely that quite some time elapsed between the first models that were produced for personal use and offered locally in small batches, and the perfected models to be seen on display in Cape Town. However, at the time of the Boer War this evolutionary phase must have already been advanced. At the same time the work sequence was taking shape, beginning with the dedication of the farmers, which still occurs even nowadays.
A gourd that is harvested is only suitable for a Calabash if its neck has certain features: its bend is unique, regular, resting on one plane, wide or narrow according to the buyers’ requests; the support surface of the bend should be aligned with the body of the gourd. If the plants were left to their own devices, there would be precious few gourds available for manufacturing. This is the reason why it is necessary to monitor and hand-train the plant during growth. The required features are gradually re-established by repositioning the gourd on the ground with the aid of small stones or clumps of earth tucked around them. These adjustments, which occur at least weekly, need to be carried out with care during the hottest time of the day when the necks are more flexible, as otherwise they would snap off. Great care is also taken with irrigation and pest control.
Once the gourds have been harvested, a saw carves a kind of trumpet shape out of the neck and part of the body, while the rest is given to feed livestock. These ‘trumpets’ are then thrown into boiling water to remove the surface film, dried carefully so as to avoid mould or breakage, and finally sorted out according to size and quality. At this point the pipe manufacture gets involved, ready to perfect what good nature and humans have already done.
Although the shape vaguely recalls a pipe, the simple piece of trumpet-shaped gourd is not yet a smoking device, among other things because it would last very little when lit. Something needs to be added and modified. A bowl needs to be inserted into the widest part of the gourd. Initially, this was made of tin or plaster, but meerschaum soon became the ideal material. At the other end, the neck is cut down to the required length, to which the stem is fitted, thereby achieving an elegant, sinuous line. Best of all, a short extension is fitted to the neck, often made of briar, in which the stem is fitted. In this case a downward and upward curve is achieved. Just a few more finishing touches, and the ‘trumpet’ has become a calabash.
At the time of the Boer War this was no solution for those who simply wished to substitute their briar pipe during their rides. However, those who did try this new pipe once never left it. Whether this was an emergency pipe or colonial device, as many seemed to think, nevertheless they had to change their minds because the calabash was, and still is, one of the best pipes that smokers have ever used.
Who sold and repaired pipes in Cape Town before the war and after? A certain Goldie & Co., for example, of whom we know nothing, or a certain C. D. Fox who introduced himself as “Wholesale Tobacco & Fancy Goods Merchant, Calabash Pipe Manufacturer and general pipe hospital”. Then there was Henry Vos, a goldsmith, who had already manufactured Calabash pipes by 1900, or a certain Blatter & Co. whose name is written in pen on a diploma of the International Industrial Exposition in Cape Town, 1904-05: the company had won a gold medal for “colonial made pipes”. In the guide to the same exposition an advertisement stated that the Blatters were the “original makers of the calabash pipes”.
The Blatters consisted of three brothers with some experience in smoking devices. Indeed, both their father and uncle, who were originally Swiss, manufactured them in London. Ernest and Marguerite were not yet twenty, when in the autumn of 1899, when the Boer War had just broken out, they left for Cape Town taking with them their pipe manufacturing tools, a good stock of briar and excellent business acumen. Henry Louis, just sixteen, joined them three months later. They soon moved from their first small shop on the outskirts of town to the town centre, being besieged by thousands of soldiers in search of pipes or with pipes that needed repairing. In 1948 Henry Louis wrote:
“For the next three years during which the war we encountered good business. The thousands of soldiers were free spenders and a war boom was on. We were kept busy in the manufacture of these gourd pipes since the soldiers all wanted to take one or two back home as a souvenir. I might mention that calabash pipes and ostrich feathers were the only articles sold to the soldiers that were truly of South African origin. Frankly, we could not produce these pipes fast enough. When the war ended in 1902 and the business boom was over, there were some refugees who lingered, but they were not sufficient to keep the business at the same tempo it had been going these three war years”.
It should be noted that the Boer War lasted two years, seven months and around twenty days, not three years. However, Henry Louis’ exaggerated statement leads us to believe that the Blatters manufactured Calabash pipes throughout the war from the time they arrived in Cape Town. They would surely have needed time to settle down and above all discover gourd pipes, which already existed, albeit rough versions with crooked necks, and bowls made of tin or plaster. Perhaps there is some truth in the belief that the Boers already used them, and that there were small local manufacturers in Cape Town and in the surrounding towns. It is certainly true that the Blatters benefited from their experience in London, refining the products and introducing some meerschaum bowls that made all the difference. However, to say that it was Henry Louis who created the Calabash, as mentioned in a 1952 specialist magazine is rather exaggerating things. In any case, the diploma from the Exposition (1905) reveals that the Blatters were leaders in gourd pipe production, which were still being manufactured exclusively in Cape Town and the surrounding areas, and almost ignored in the rest of the world.
Once the soldiers left, sales plummeted, and they still had plenty of unsold Calabash pipes left. It was in 1902 when Henry shipped them straight to London. There he got busy looking for buyers, but the response was cool, irritated and almost mocking: pipes made of gourds were mere curiosities and war souvenirs, which would be largely forgotten in the years to come. He left them in storage and returned to Africa. However, the following year the buyers were singing a different tune and called Henry back to London, purchased all the Calabash pipes at a good price, and ordered hundreds of others. These were the golden years of manufacturing vast numbers of pipes and shipping them to London, but from 1906 orders almost ceased altogether, for a simple reason. The gourds were locally available for Calabash manufacturers in Cape Town, but they had to import almost everything else, which was rather expensive, while in London materials, equipment and specialised labour were readily available. Only the gourds were lacking, and these would be easy to import. The London companies soon signed agreements with the prominent growers of Lagenaria vulgaris in the Cape region or with their agents, thus cutting out the Blatters altogether, who saw which way the wind was blowing, and decided to move on. They settled down in Montreal, where their descendants today still continue in the business of pipe making. All credit goes to them for completing the process of perfecting the Calabash and being responsible for its world-wide distribution.
Thus, London and later other places substituted Cape Town, but gourds were (and are) still being imported from there. Many tried to grow them at home, somehow obtaining the seeds, of which the African growers were highly protective, but these experiments were doomed to failure, above all due to climate conditions. Only three hundred kilometres from Cape Town, in the surrounding area of Ladismith, on dry land at an altitude of three to six hundred metres in the scorched valley of Little Karoo, could (and can) the right product be grown for the marvellous Calabash. Marvellous then and now, for several reasons.
The pipe’s design consists of sinuous lines and finishes, but also of colours: the gourd part of the new pipe is a pleasing blond colour, which turns to a dark gold and then amber when smoked. Other features of the gourd are a neutral taste and good absorption, and both of these also feature in the meerschaum bowl. Both the gourd and bowl are light, thus making the pipe light to handle. As for toughness, the dried gourd stands high with other materials. However, another feature makes this pipe unique: the hollow part of the gourd is only partially occupied by the conical bowl. When the smoke passes from the air passage in the centre of the pipe, it flows into the large expansion chamber, which cools the smoke and prevents moisture from entering the stem. The result is a pipe that is as light as a feather, well balanced, producing a dry, smooth smoke, and enhancing the tobacco taste.
In short, many good reasons not to deprive oneself of the pleasures of the Calabash. What had initially been a curiosity has lasted for over a century, having had its ups and downs, but still today the secret dream of many smokers.
The golden age of gourd-pipes lasted until WWI or just after. Business moved from Cape Town to London and some other Anglo-Saxon settings. The British capital was the heart of the business, and key companies were Adolph Frankau & Co. proprietor of the BBB brand, followed at some distance by Freidrich Edwards Co. and then (with inferior, often reduced production) by Barling, Carrington, Charatan, Comoy, GBD, Loewé, Freidrich Oppenheimer & Co., Orlik and others. The Blatters dominated the marketplace in Montreal, the Kaufman Bros.& Bondy in New York, and the Briar Pipe Co. , and the Colossus Pipe Factory in Manhattan.
Compared to pipes made of briar or meerschaum, the Calabash was certainly no less inferior as regards luxury or price, and often exceeded these. Once the pipe had arrived in London, the bowl was no longer lined with tin or plaster, but instead meerschaum was used, whether as a block or regenerated. The stem could be in ebonite but also in very fine amber, again in a block or regenerated. The shank extension, generally made of a short piece of briar, could be lengthened with a ‘tube’ of ivory, or a hollowed-out albatross bone. Silver abounded in the form of rings, ferrules, caps and windbreak fittings. The luxury that was typical of the Edwardian era emanated overwhelmingly from these objects that were often kept in boxes that were just as elegant. The top-of-the-range models had removable bowls to facilitate cleaning. The size tended to be reduced, as was the bend in the neck.
At the end of the war, the world had changed radically, and the wide range of different models and elaborate decorations gave way to more sober elegance. The New York marketplace emerged forcefully alongside London, aiming at expanding the massive market in which the Calabash pipes were often sold by mail order, in drugstores, as well as in elegant stores. Especially in the USA, gourd pipes grew in size together with the bend in the neck. While Frankau continued to expand in Britain, on the other side of the Atlantic it was the turn of the Kaufman Bros with the Kaywoodie and then Pioneer brands, while in Austria Bauer was beginning to produce Calabash pipes. The Blatters continued manufacturing in Canada.
After WWII, it was the Americans and Austrians who dominated, with some renewed interest occurring between 1975 and 1990 when a few famous pipe manufacturers of briar pipes produced a limited edition of their special Calabash pipes. Subsequently, business slowed down and the few specialists that are left currently work in Austria and Turkey. This could be either sign of a slow decline or a pause for reflection. The seductive power of a graceful, highly functional pipe certainly never wanes, despite its necessarily high price, which is linked to the labour-intensive work involved in its production.
Nor does the enthusiasm of collectors decline, who seek models from all eras at auctions and specialist sites on the Internet. Especially sought-after models include the early Blatter, renowned BBB, the highly refined Loewé, the patented Carrington, Albert Baker with gold-plated finish, the legendary Orlik, Barling, Charatan, and Comoy, but also more recent models such as the unique Fischer or else the Pioneer and Kaywoodie, which are typically American. Some enthusiasts set their sights on non-Calabash pipes, which are inspired, however, by the Calabash shape, imitating the shape of the gourd pipe, but without using gourd as its material.
There are also pipes that simply emulate the Calabash pipe’s smoking features: it was the Russian pipe maker, Michail Reviagin, around 2009, who sought to obtain the same dry, smooth smoke in a briar pipe. Naturally, an expansion chamber was necessary, but where could it be placed? The only available space would be in the shank, which would need to be enlarged.
Following Reviagin, many others aimed to achieve the same type of pipe, and they named it the ‘reverse calabash’. It is unclear where the reversal lies, as the expansion chamber in the head of the calabash was only moved to the shank in the briar pipe. Yet, that is its name, which has remained. The new pipes had excellent features and quite a few admirers. Some were puzzled by its shape which was unusual compared to other models. Nevertheless, they were skilfully made objects by important craftsmen, produced in limited editions and sold at prices that reflected the work involved.
An idea started to circulate in the creative minds of Al Pascià that it is a real shame not to be able to offer such a high-quality pipe to a larger number of smokers. However, in order to achieve a really different and innovative reverse pipe it was necessary to ‘reverse’ a way of thinking. First of all, it should be no problem if the pipe is not slender in shape. Indeed, its curves should be highlighted, giving rise to its name: Curvy. A positive, chubby pipe, like certain figures in paintings by Botero. Secondly, the shank was too heavy also because the expansion chamber within was tube-shaped. Redesigning the shank cone-shaped would result in a more harmonious exterior, and a round interior chamber which would be easier to clean. Thirdly, the artisans should be bolder in the final finish, meeting all tastes and creating new ones, ranging from the classic grain pattern of the briar pipe to bright colours, and unusual combinations of colour. Finally, with all due respect for the master craftsmen, curvy would be manufactured in large quantities by numerically controlled machines, thereby cutting labour costs and the price.
Following three years of discussion, trials, developing and perfecting the pipe, Curvy was finally launched in 2015 and immediately drew attention to itself, a bolt from the blue, a coveted object that is also affordable. The old and new Calabash pipes look at it with affection, as one would look at a good, but slightly cheeky grandchild.