Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Another Chapter in Early Pipe Lore, Or How They Kept Their Clays Safe

     While investigating the early history of pipe smoking, I frequently found speculation on the supposed disposability of clay pipes. One writer even claimed that a smoker would break several a day and never worry about it because they were so throw-away cheap. Clumsy brute ! In my humble opinion, the enormous number of broken pipes found by archaeologists, is just a testament to their inherently fragile nature and a reminder of the once widespread popularity of smoking in general.

"The Card Players"
 by Josse van Craesbeek 1645
Note the Pipe in the Hat
Image Courtesy of the Getty Museum

     So how exactly did the early smoker keep his or her clay pipe safe ? There is no doubt, as evidence suggests, that some folks just tucked their pipes into their hat bands, keeping them out of harms way until needed. Period imagery supports the idea that in the early 19th Century, some Native Americans wore their clay pipes attached to a small tobacco pouch suspended from their necks. Contemporarily, fur trappers did the same with their Gage d'Amour pouches, supposedly crafted by their native brides.

A Fur Trapper Painted by Alfred Jacob Miller in 1837
Note His Heart-Shaped Gage d'Amour
Pouch and Clay Pipe

Delaware Chief  Tish - Co - Han
By McKenny Hall
Image Courtesy Philadelphia Print Shop

    My interest peaked when I discovered that begining in the 17th Century and far into the 19th, many smokers used specifically designed and carefully crafted wooden ( and occasionally metal ) cases to protect their pipes. This notion of a specially designed case challenges the disposability theory and  instead, celebrates the sensibility of our ancestors, a notion I always appreciate. I felt a project coming but first I would need a great pipe to build a case around.

    A few years back, I learned about Heather Coleman and her clay pipes. Heather lives in the UK and has a studio called Dawnmist. One of her many talents is to craft historic clay pipes that I believe are some of the most authentic out there. Many of today's replica clays are made of clay slip, poured in a mold, unlike the originals that were formed by pressing solid clay in a mold. The difference is obvious when you compare the two. Heather makes hers in the traditional manner, so I went ahead and ordered her classic 17th Century example, copied from 1630-1670 originals.

Heather Coleman's 1630-1670 Clay Pipes
One of those is mine !

     While researching the surviving examples of wooden cases, it became apparent that there were two basic versions defined by how they functioned. You either had a case with a sliding lid, that allowed for the pipe's removal from the top or you had a hinged cover variety, with its swinging opening at the bowl end of the pipe case, which allowed for removal out the end. In a museum newsletter on one of my favorite sites, the Dutch Pijpen Kabinet, there was a discussion of a recently aquired pipe case having the "earlier" style sliding lid. I also found several sliding lid examples from a Christies Auction, identified as 18th Century. Some of these were carved to resemble pistols. Way cool ! Many cases appear to be professionally carved and were most likley products of specialized shops.

Three Examples of the "Sliding Lid" Variety
Image Coutesy Christies

A Classic Example of the "Hinged End" Variety
Image Courtesy Christies

     I did discover a more homey "whittled" version of the sliding top, pistol form case, on a fantastic French Archaeology site called La Natiere. This little treasure was recovered from the wreck of the frigate La Dauphine, which was lost in 1704. As a bonus, the case still held its clay pipe. Isn't that amazing ! I'm sure the sailor who made it was quite proud of his work. It also proves that some cases were home-made.

Top View of Sailor's Pipe Case from the Wreck of La Dauphine 1704
Image Courtesy of La Natiere

Bottom View
Image Courtesy La Natiere

    At this point in the process, I decided to make my version of a pipe case as a sliding lid variety. I chose a piece of easy-to-carve cedar for my first attempt, even though most of the originals seem to be boxwood or fruitwood. Before my pipe arrived, I scaled a paper template from Heather's photo of it and crafted the main two parts of the case. The hardest part was getting the tapered channels to fit properly in order for the sliding lid to function.

First Stage of the Case Replica
Roughly Profiled and Lid Fitted
Photos Lindy Miller 2011

      It didn't go unoticed that the sailor's version had an ingenious swinging slide design that kept the lid attached. I decided to make my lid removable as was suggested by other examples. This is all guesswork, you know, as I rarely get to study original examples in person.

Pipe Arrives !! Now the Interior is Hollowed Out
and the Form is More Rounded

    This is one of those projects that needs to evolve to some unknown point. I'm not sure if I should do some decorative chip carving on this one, or make another case from hardwood.  Okay.....let's finish this one with some beginner chip carving and worry about a "better" case later.

Ta - Da, It's Done and Not Too Bad
But I Love the Pipe !

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Journey to Recreate a 17th Century Pipe Tong or Smoker's Companion

     When I was researching the material for my 17th century conviviality post, I came across a curious object associated with pipe smoking in the period. I'm familiar with the notion of lighting a pipe with an ember and surviving examples of rather large,18th century pipe / ember tongs are well known but it appears that a smaller, pocket-size version may have come first. These smaller tongs are absent from the Dutch still life paintings I studied but I felt it was worth investigating their part in early smoking culture. One thing that got me interested, was the overwhelming evidence for their use in early colonial America. It's very likely that many were created by colonial craftsmen.

Painting of a German Smoker
 Using (large) Tongs to Light His (large) Pipe
  Image Courtesy of pijpenkabinet

    After surveying many examples recovered by archaeologists, I began to wonder if any completely intact versions had survived "above ground". Archaelogists call these little tools Smoker's Companions as they were apparently designed for multiple functions. I discovered that the Jefferson Patterson Park site has an archaeology section with a "Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland" chapter devoted to helping identify Smoker's Companions. Even though many of the featured examples are degraded relics, it's interesting to see the variety of interpretations of this object. A classic version of the tool was found at Jamestown and is posted on their Preservation Virginia site. The fact is, these small, iron objects seem to turn up in 17th century sites all over the east.

 Smoker's Companion, Before and After Lab Treatmennt
Image Courtesy of Crista Alejandre's
flickr Photostream

A Smoker's Companion Found at Jamestown
Image Courtesy preservationvirginia.org

A Nice Example From a Maryland Site
Image Courtesy jefpat.org

     The hunt was on, as I needed to find a more complete example if I was going to make an accurate reproduction. I love the internet when it works and this is a perfect case of why it's worth digging. The example I dreamed of turned up on a relic hunter's forum called treasurenet and lucky for me the owner had posted multiple views of his find.  It was truly a wonder to see a nearly 400 year old iron object so perfectly preserved, even though it had come out of the ground.

     As mentioned earlier, historians have speculated that this tool had multiple functions, not the least of which was its use as a flint striker to spark that neccessary ember. The larger mass of the lower part of most examples does suggests a striker. It's easy to understand the tong function and the turned up and rounded end of the upper handle definitely looks like it could be used as a tamper. Every pipe smoker knows, you need a tamper (or as they called them in the 1600's, stoppers). Lastly, the larger, rounded paddle end of the lower handle has lead to speculation that it functioned as a reamer to clean the clay pipe bowl. Sounds reasonable, don't you think, except when you consider how tiny some of the early pipe bowls were.

The Holy Grail, Lucky Me
Lucky Bob !
Image Courtesy of Bob and treasurenet.com

    So, armed with some idea of size, form and function, it was time to make my own version of this fascinating object. Let me start by saying that I am no blacksmith but I know enough to begin with a sample of high-carbon, hardend steel for the lower, "striker" part of the tool. This came in the form of a 1/4 inch thick leaf spring scrap I scored from work. With an abrasive blade on my saw, I cut out a roughly shaped piece to start . With the help of an acetylene torch, the piece was twisted on one end to roughly define the reamer. By heating the piece, I also removed some of the temper. This really helped, as I was looking at a lot of grinding and filing to bring out the final shape. The upper part of the tool was challenging for different reasons, with its sculptural form and decorative elements. For this I used a piece of 1/4 mild steel stock, which was a lot easier to work with than that old leaf spring.

The Main Two Parts of My Replica, Near Finished,
With Templates and Remaining Scrap
Photo Courtesy Lindy Miller 2011

     After the rough shaping and some tweeks (with the aid of a torch) I filed the two pieces to their final shape and sanded their surface to a near polish. The next step was to heat the lower part to the critical temp and quench in oil. My research pointed to quenching the striker area first and then later lowering the remaining part into the oil. This would hopefully harden the working part (striking surface) more and leave a little temper in the rest. Following this came the final polish of all parts with varying grits of abrasive paper. After riveting the spring in place, the main parts were joined by peening over the pivot pin.

My Replica Version of a Smoker's Companion
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     Now that was a fun project but with all the filing and shaping, it's no wonder these tiny tongs aren't all over the place as reproductions. Now....where's my pipe, I want to try this thingy out !

    Try it out I did, and here's what I learned about a possible way they lit their pipes when a ready source of fire was absent. There is a specific technique that works well when trying to ignite Amadou or Tinder Fungus with flint and steel. Once you've figured it out, it's amazingly simple. I had previously purchased some pieces of this earliest, natural tinder material from Jas. Townsend, so I was ready for the experiment. In one hand I held a nice, sharp shard of flint with a piece of Amadou (about the size of a fingernail ) on top, just back from the edge of the flint. With the pipe tongs in the other hand and the striker surface held out, I struck down on the flint, with the steel. In this manner, you can easily catch a hot spark on the Amadou (it caught on the second try !). With the pincher end of the tongs, I picked off the glowing part of the Amadou (after some gently blowing) and layed it in my clay pipe full of tobacco. WIth a few draws on the pipe, I was puffing away in no time. It might work equally well by just holding on to the ember with the tongs turned sideways and maintain contact with the tobacco until ignition. The Amadou has a pleasant smell when it's burning and didn't conflict with the tobacco's taste at all. Now that was fun and a great lesson about our amazing ancestors.