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 !


  1. What a great article. I am working on please touch project in the Delaware Valley re-creating the kind of things one of the early 17th century settlers may have brought with them to New Sweden Colony, including a clay pipe. These will be put in a trunk with many other similar items for children to explore.
    I looking for an inexpensive source for these 17th century clay pipe and either draw string bags, or wooden cases for them.Since we will need several of them, and our budget is small,
    I assume the cost of Heathers pipe, in clusing
    shipping form the UK would be out of our price range.

    Aleasa Hogate
    New Sweden Centre Education Director

  2. I happened to notice on your labels that you have phrases. Your blog is interesting and informative - I couldn't find an email contact so am leaving a comment in an older post. If you separate the words: pipe, antique, case etc. and singular instead of plural, more folks will find it in a search. Also, on clothing, you might include SASS or other reenactment groups. I am still relatively new to blogging, but have found this to help a bit.
    Keep it up - good read.

  3. For what it's worth ...
    A little 'beachcombing' across from the HMS Belfast in London will net you 100's of inch long broken off sections from previously 'long stemmed tavern pipes'.