Published: May 13, 2003
CHADDS FORD, PENN. – Since the Sixteenth Century, tobacco use has resulted in the creation of an amazing variety of devices for smoking, sniffing and storing its leaves. One of the most extraordinary tobacco instruments, the smoking pipe, has provided its owners with visual and smoking pleasure, as well as prestige.
Through July 27, the Brandywine River Museum presents a special exhibition of antique smoking pipes. “The Art and Design of Antique Smoking Pipes” features approximately 80 outstanding European and American pipes of clay, porcelain, wood and meerschaum. These examples demonstrate how this utilitarian and ubiquitous utensil gradually evolved into an art form expressed in many media.
Intrigued by Native American tobacco smoking, Sixteenth Century explorers introduced tobacco to Europeans as a novelty. It soon became a fashionable pastime that launched the clay pipe industry. Early clay pipe bowls were small because tobacco was expensive. By 1750, however, prices for tobacco from the American colonies drop-ped and pipe bowls doubled in width and depth. Because clay pipes broke easily, they were plain and utilitarian in appearance. Some makers added decorative interest or stamped impressions on the bowl and stem.
In the Nineteenth Century, as pipe makers experimented with other materials to make durable and decorative pipes, three French manufacturers, Dumeril-Leurs, Fiolet and Gambier, offered clay pipes in more than 3,000 different designs featuring people, animals, plants and ornate or symbolic motifs with enameled colors and raised fanciful décor.
In the United States, clay pipe manufacturers produced less ornate, more functional clay pipes. Of notable exception among them are those made by A. Peyrau, a French immigrant living in New York City in the late 1800s who made a series of terra-cotta pipe bowls with caricature heads of contemporary celebrities such as P.T. Barnum, Joseph Pulitzer and William March “Boss” Tweed.
Pipes were made in other ceramic materials such as earth-enware, stoneware and porcelain. Beginning in the mid-1700s, English potters made elaborate showpiece pipes, known as “puzzle pipes.” Such pipes feature long coils of clay twisted and looped into elaborate, nonsensical designs intended to amuse rather than function as smoking implements. Prattware, Staffordshire and Whieldonware potteries appear to have been the most frequent makers of these novelties.
Porcelain pipes are among the most beautiful forms featuring neoclassical, Romanesque, mythological, entomological and military motifs. Many were produced in large quantities at well-known European porcelain factories, such as Meissen. These pipes proved impractical and unappealing for smoking due to the nonporous material’s inability to breathe. As a result, porcelain pipes were never produced in the United States.
Another material, meerschaum (meaning “Sea foam” in German), proved to have superior smoking and carving qualities and became the medium of choice for craftsmen in the early 1800s. Between 1850 and 1925, this soft and pliant mineral, which derives from Turkey and parts of Asia, inspired the finest craft-smen in Berlin, London, Paris, Prague, Venice and Vienna to sculpt exquisite designs in smoking implements, many woods permitted tremendous craftsmanship and use of imagination.
A distinctive wood pipe style known as the “Ulmer” originated in Ulm, Germany, in the Eighteenth Century. It was made of boxwood, walnut or bog and decorated with materials such as horn, silver, brass, amber and other hardwoods for the stem, windcap and accessories.
By the mid-Nineteenth Century, a variety of health shrub, Erica arborea, native to the Mediterranean coast, was discovered to have exceptional qualities for smoking tobacco. Commonly known as “briar,” this lightweight wood was porous and enhanced the flavor of tobacco by providing a “sweet smoke.” The briar pipe industry began in France in the village of St Claude, where, by 1892, 66 different briar pipe factories thrived. Because of the wood’s superior grain, many briars were hand carved with ornate and delicate shapes and designs.
The exhibition offers a rare opportunity to closely examine how expert craftsmanship and popular culture together created an art form. The pipes in the exhibition have been loaned from private collections.
Located on US Route 1, the museum is open daily, 9:30 am to 4:30 p, except Christmas Day. Admission is $6. For information, 610-388-2700 or www.brandywinemuseum.org.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm