The History of the Clay Pipe

A selection of clay pipe parts

When Sir Walter Raleigh introduced tobacco to the people of Tudor England all the way back in the 16th-century, a whole new industry was born; clay pipe making. They’re a far cry from the pipes we know and love now, but their history has paved the way for our tobacco smoking staple.

In the very early days of pipe tobacco smoking, the clay pipes were made by hand, but as the industry took off, 2-piece moulds were constructed out of brass or iron, making the pipes easier to produce. The South West, particularly Devon, Cornwall and Dorset, were the primary source of the clay used throughout the clay pipe making process. You may think that current taxes on tobacco have made the cost of smoking a bit high, but in the 16th-century, the prices were so high due to the small amount imported, that the bowl size on the pipe was extremely tiny. The pipes, on the other hand, were particularly cheap to replace; something pipe owners had to do often in the early days, as the clay was not a strong enough material, and the long, thin stems snapped all the time!

The earliest reference to a clay pipe comes from one William Harrison, an English Clergyman during 1573, who describes the pipe as ‘an instrument formed like a ladel’. But soon everyone knew what they were! By 1619, there were enough clay pipe makers in London alone to grant a charter of incorporation to the tobacco pipe makers in Westminster. This resulted in laws being set within the city regarding trading regulations, the supply of clay used, and the hiring of apprentices to ensure the trade could keep up with the growing demand. By the year 1650, it was so popular to smoke that there were over a thousand pipe makers in London alone and many others in cities across the country.

The business took a hit going into the 18th-century, as tobacco smoking became a little less popular as taking snuff became the new trend. Pipe smoking endured in London though, as it was believed the pipe tobacco smoke warded off the plague!

Things picked up again in the world of clay pipe manufacturing shortly after 1700, following the invention of the gin press- a type of vice with a handle which allowed for the quality of pipes to be vastly improved. The gentry took the clay pipe on as a fashion piece, with middle-class smokers being identifiable through the extra long stem. These were known as ‘aldermen’ or ‘straws’ throughout the mid 18th– century. At this time, clay pipes had another important job; sometimes being used as an emergency powder measure for loading muskets during the Napoleonic Wars.

The extravagance of the Victorian’s led to more intricate design work, with increasingly fancy pipes being produced, incorporating shapes of animals, fruit or fish. Popular pipe symbols were roses, thistles and shamrocks; sometimes reflecting the origin of that pipe. These details were able to be added to the pipe, as the growing availability of tobacco had allowed for much bigger bowl sizes.

Clay pipes were enjoyed, instead of other materials, because it provided a ‘pure’ smoke that was not tainted by additional flavours from the pipe bowl. However, clays can burn ‘hot’ compared with other forms of pipe, meaning that they were often a little trickier for the pipe-smoker to handle.

As more and more smokers traded in the pipe for the cigarette, the clay pipe industry diminished, and by 1914, manufacturing had virtually come to an end. Not put to waste though, the clay pipe was used by children to blow bubbles until the 1930s!

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