Clay pipes had appeared in London by 1573, but little is known about those that were brought to England in 1586 by the colonists from Virginia. Late sixteenth-century documentary sources refer to Elizabethan dandies smoking long-stemmed pipes, which were either made of silver, or else of gem-studded clay. On the other hand, the lower classes made do with a straw fixed to a walnut shell. It is always difficult to reconstruct the origins of these pipes, as there is a dearth of available information and the risk of over-simplifying. However, in this case soon the pipe-making process itself was simplified, thanks to the introduction of mass production, and clay pipes swiftly spread all over Europe, clay remaining the primary material for a long time. In next to no time simple pipes for the common man were produced alongside luxury models, although the raw material and techniques were essentially almost the same. A material which was particularly suitable for smoking achieved through increasingly refined processes, a functional and pleasing design adapted to economical, mass-made models meant that the poor gave up their homemade pipes and the rich replaced their luxury metal pipes with much more satisfactory clay models.
Trying to piece together the origins of pipes in the Far East is an equally difficult task. It is generally well known how tobacco gradually spread and eventually caught on, but far less so as to the nature of the initial tools used to smoke it. The Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to ply the Asian seas, preferred cigars to pipes, like the Spanish. They were certainly aware of the pipes used by English sailors, but were probably more familiar with the simple model used in Brazil, a straw fixed to a walnut shell. Thus, an object that was not so dissimilar to the rudimentary pipes used in London in the same period. Information about the first Chinese pipes can be gleaned from contemporary sources: the tobacco leaves were burned and the smoke was inhaled through a “long tube held between the lips”. This does not provide much information, but if one views the traditional pipes in use in the vast area between China, Japan and Korea, it can be assumed that the material used for the long tube would have been a common material such as bamboo. Indeed, a late eighteenth-century essay confirms this as the ideal material for pipes, whereas ebony and ivory tended to crack when the pipe was hot. It is generally believed that the first oriental pipes were made entirely of bamboo, and that subsequently bamboo became an integral part of the pipe.
Similarly, it seems that the first Japanese models were simple and made of bamboo, but soon the kiseru were introduced, which were pipes divided into three parts. The central tube was long and straight, usually made of bamboo or another type of wood, while the mouthpiece and bowl were in metal. They were highly refined and often luxurious objects, and compared to the one-piece clay European counterparts in the seventeenth century were more solid and of superior craftsmanship. However, where smoking properties are concerned it is a different matter, as we shall see, but first it should be said that the kiseru could only be afforded by the upper classes, as well as the traders who had money to spend even though they belonged to a lower class. The rest of the population went on for centuries using rough, simple pipes that were thrown away when they start to deteriorate. This is why when referring to Japanese pipes only the luxury ones come to mind and not the disposable ones. On the other hand, in Europe the clay pipe, which was functional and mass made, was largely available to everyone with variations in quality. If we compare them to the kiseru we see that there is a great difference in shape, which is heightened by the difference in aesthetic sensibility of the two civilizations. However, this type of comparison may not be appropriate, as it could be better to say that the splendid Japanese pipes were equal to the rare, gem-studded European models.
Going back to the kiseru, the main problem the modern smoker perceives is that burning tobacco in metal is not exactly the best thing to do. So how did the Japanese smoke these pipes? They would take a small plug of finely-cut tobacco which they would then proceed to work with two fingers until it became a small ball that was then inserted into the tiny, acorn-shaped bowl. Then they would light the pipe with an ember and after one or two puffs they had finished smoking the pipe. If they were not satisfied with this they would take another small quantity of tobacco and start the whole process all over again. Smoking is still a ritual for modern pipes and smoking a kiseru was even more so. This particular process of using a small quantity of tobacco and constantly lighting up may have been the result of trying to prevent the metal from over-heating, giving the tobacco a metallic taste and also trying to avoid unpleasant build up of condensation. Then again a slight metallic taste may not have bothered the smokers at all.
Apart from the practical aspects, the kiseru was an extremely refined object that its users held in high esteem. The mouthpiece and bowl could be made of copper, silver, gold, pewter and other metal alloys, or even of Damascus steel, which was used to forge blades and sheaths. This is not as bizarre as it sounds, as the same craftsman would produce both pipes and swords. Indeed, the mouthpiece, bowl and stem (which could also be in metal) provided craftsmen with the occasion to demonstrate their superb decorative skills. The traditional kiseru was slim and light, and could measure between 15 and 20 cm in length. In other cases, the pipe was thicker and more solid with some sharp edges, rather like a weapon, and in fact was also used as an effective weapon. The kenka-kiseru (“brawl” pipes), were still used for smoking, and hung from the users’ belts, as the code of that time prohibited men from carrying weapons, so in a way they were still protected and could also attack if necessary.
If we now look at China we may find the same pipes entirely made of bamboo for the lower classes, whereas the more wealthy smokers smoked a pipe that was divided into three parts, like the kiseru. However, these were larger and had more capacious bowls, almost double the Japanese ones, but still much less compared to modern European models. However, the art of smoking tobacco in small doses frequently was just as common as in Japan. The bowls were also made of metal, and a common alloy that was used was a mixture of copper, zinc, nickel and iron known as “white copper”, which was in use at that time in Japan. However, examples of wooden pipes also exist. Mouthpieces were often made of stone, ivory and transparent jade. Some pipes were even made entirely out of ivory, and in this case copper stems were inserted in order to prevent the material from cracking. So far we have described varieties of “dry” pipes, but as we are talking about China, then we must also explore opium and water pipes, which preceded the discovery of tobacco and its use and which were (and still are) smoked in vast areas of Asia and Africa.
The water pipe consists of a jar partially filled with water which is then covered. The jar has two holes through which are inserted two tubes. One end of the first tube is immersed in the water jar and the other end is connected to a bowl above the jar. The second tube is also inserted in the jar, but above the water level and the other end is connected to an external mouthpiece. The tobacco in the bowl is lit and then drawn in. As the smoker inhales, the air pressure in the jar compared to the pressure in the atmosphere is reduced and in order to compensate for this the same atmospheric pressure pushes the air through the tube from the bowl. This smoke-filled air reaches the water and bubbles up through it. The smoker inhales the smoke through the other tube and mouthpiece. This is the water pipe, also known as a narghilé, hookah, arghila, qalyan, shisha and other names, according to the country of origin. It is likely that the water pipe dates back to before the arrival of tobacco from America, although it is hard to say where it was first used. It may have been in South Africa, Ethiopia, in Persia or India. Initially, it was used to smoke herbs and then refined and perfected with the introduction of tobacco, and gradually evolved into a variety of styles according to the country in which it is used.
The type of water pipe used in China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is especially interesting, as it was extremely small and thus easy to carry around. It was made entirely of alloyed metal that was also remarkable for its fine craftwork and elaborate decoration. Quite a few water pipes featured a design that recalls bamboo canes. Moving on from China to India, Arabia, Persia and Egypt from the seventeenth century onwards, we can see that the water pipe became highly popular. This may have been because the tubes and water (often with added flavours) cool the smoke as it passes through, which could only be welcome in a hot climate. However, countries outside China used larger, more cumbersome pipes, as they were designed to be smoked at home, or more often in public places which would also serve coffee. In this case the water pipe was (and still is) a way to meet socially, as more than one smoker could smoke from a communal pipe, each with their own personal mouthpiece. Water pipes vary according to time, place, public or private use, and may range from being simple, attractive objects to unique models of rare craftsmanship. They are familiar even to the non-smoker, being one of the most common symbols of the Orient. However, besides the wet pipe system there have always been the more familiar “dry” smoking systems.
These pipes, which spread from India to Persia, and then on to the Mediterranean, bore features faintly reminiscent of European models, and at the same time still retained some of the features that distinguished Chinese and Japanese pipes. In the vast region of the Ottoman Empire (and not only) the most common model was the chibouk. Like the Japanese kiseru it consisted of three parts: the bowl, mouthpiece and a long stem connecting the two. However, the similarities end here. For instance, the bowl was much larger, and made of clay like its European counterpart, and not of metal. The first models that were produced in the early 1600s may have been white or grey, taking after the models that were imported, but the traditional clay chibouk as seen today was in various shades of terracotta red. An endless variety of shapes and patterns could be obtained when adding different colours of clay, or else other materials. The mouthpiece, which was often the most expensive part of the pipe, would be made of finely wrought amber, whereas the stem connecting bowl and mouthpiece would be in special wood, such as jasmine, marasca or bois de rose. In this case the plants were grown to produce single, straight, flawless twigs, and sometimes more than one twig would be put together to produce stems that ranged from 1.5 to 2 or even 3 metres long. The common chibouk was quite simple and rather short, whereas the luxury version was much longer and finely decorated with precious stones. Some pipes were wrapped in refined fabric that was moistened before use, which was an ingenious way to cool the smoke. This tendency to cool down the smoke can be seen to be common to almost every pipe produced in Asia, and elsewhere, and the water pipes confirm this tendency.
Continuing on our journey along the Mediterranean region of coastal North Africa southwards beyond the Sahara dunes, we may observe countless pipes with wooden and clay bowls and sometimes those in metal. In such a continent divided up into relatively autonomous tribes, where prior to the introduction of tobacco various herbs had been smoked which led to the creation of different styles of pipes, where until the nineteenth century the influence of Europeans had been limited to a few areas, human creativity was expressed in countless ways through shape, size and material. Traditional African pipes are the most wide-ranging in styles and symbols that served a variety of purposes, often beyond that of smoking.
What about America? This is where tobacco pipe-smoking started and spread all over the world. Now, pipes that were rediscovered and reworked in Europe invaded America, either indirectly through northernmost Asia, or else directly to the North American subcontinent, first as imports and subsequently as local manufactured items. Obviously, the Native Americans continued to use their long, ceremonial pipes for a long time, whose bowls were often made of greenstone, or red stone called catlinite. Yet, the pipe tomahawk, a particular pipe that served the dual purpose of chopping and smoking, was manufactured by Europeans and sold to the Indians. It could be interesting to compare these blends of tobacco pipes and weapons with the Japanese kenka-kiseru which hung from the owner’s belt.
In Central and South America tobacco smoking varied according to the context. In some regions smoking was almost unheard of, while in others cigars were largely smoked, and yet other regions reveal pipes of different sizes and decorations depending on their purpose, ranging from a simple straw fixed to a walnut shell to pipes with bowls made of stone, wood or clay.
Thus, the world of pipes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was extremely varied. The following centuries would see a constant expansion and gradual uniformity of the pipe model, owing to geopolitical events, improved communication systems and trade, which culminated in the twentieth century. Therefore, the model for pipes that was almost universally adopted was European, or rather certain styles that had succeeded in establishing themselves above others, thanks to a centuries-old process of selection and refinement of shapes and materials.
The pipes shown in this article are part of the Al Pascià collection
We suggest a well illustrated book about the history and fabrication of opium pipes and their accessories: Armero & Rapaport, The Arts of an Addiction. Qing Dynasty Opium Pipes and Accessories (2005), a limited edition (500 copies) available from Ben Rapaport (email@example.com).