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Time Pieces History Project Item Four – Pipe (and Tobacco)

First time on the blog or new to the Time Pieces History Project? Find out what it’s all about here, and then come back to this page for today’s item – the pipe.

The Pipe – Introduction to Item Four

My maternal grandfather was a larger than life character and an enthusiastic pipe smoker. He had one eye, having lost the other in a failed chemistry experiment as a teen, a deep, rumbling laugh, a habit of shouting loud enough to startle you during a game of ‘Snap’, and gave the strongest hugs I’ve ever had.

He was interested in lots of things, and I remember him telling me the names of flowers and plants while we walked. He and I would watch Star Trek together, and I’d sit through endless, seemingly identical Westerns, which he loved. We read Asterix together, and he’d clip the Rupert the Bear comic strips out of the newspaper to make me story books.

A wooden smoking pipeWhen I picture him, it’s always in a cloud of bluish smoke, with his pipe clenched between his teeth. More than two decades after he died, this pipe (one of a large collection) still tastes of his favourite Condor Bar tobacco.

He made each of his six grandchildren ‘smoke’ his pipe when we were small (obviously something that would be frowned upon today!) to put us off, and none of us smoke today, so it must have worked!

The History of Tobacco

Tobacco has been around since 6000 BC. It’s a member of the nicotiana genus, its proper name is Nicotiana tabacum and it’s related to the poisonous nightshade. When Columbus arrived in America, he noticed that the Native Americans used dried tobacco leaves to barter with. They also offered them as gifts, but it took Columbus a while to appreciate his – he threw them overboard the first time!

In Cuba, Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres take up smoking, and Jerez introduces it to his friends and family in Spain. Unfortunately for him, everyone was terrified when they saw smoke coming from his mouth, so he was arrested by the Holy Inquisition and held in captivity for almost seven years.

However, tobacco became increasingly popular and regularly traded as it spread throughout Europe. Interestingly, tobacco is the only plant that is used in every country of the world. While the Europeans of the 16th century were smoking tobacco, they had also recognised its medicinal uses and benefits too, as the Native Americans had done before them. At this time, it was even referred to as ‘the sacred herb.’

It’s thought that tobacco was introduced to England in 1573, not long before Sir Walter Raleigh brought it home. William Morris began selling hand-rolled Turkish cigarettes in 1847, and other companies soon caught on.

By the 20th century, cigarette and pipe smoking was common everywhere. Cigarette holders and cigars made smoking look more glamorous, and during both World Wars cigarettes were included in soldiers’ rations. Added to that, radio, magazine and later TV adverts told people that smoking was good for them, and figures such as the Marlboro Man (introduced in 1954) made it attractive to many.

The History of the Pipe

Pipes have been discovered in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2000 BC, and the Romans, Celts and Greeks all smoked herbs in pipes. The father of medicine, Hypocrites, even prescribed it to cure ‘female ailments.’

It’s thought that the Greeks and Romans picked up the habit from visiting the East, as Iranian horse tribes were observed smoking pipes in 500 BC. The pipes used in ancient times resembled more modern pipes, but of course they weren’t used for tobacco until the 16th century – or at least not in the West.

French diplomat and scholar Jean Nicot took a pipe back to France in 1559, and from then on, they became more commonplace.  the common man’s lexicon fully and completely.

 The first pipes used in the West were made from clay and chalk, as they were easy and cheap to produce. Norway then produced iron pipes, before Meerschaum introduced their carved versions in the 1700s. By the following century, these had been replaced by briar, which is still the favoured type today.

Ceremonial Pipe

A ceremonial pipe, sometimes wrongly referred to as a ‘peace pipe’ by English-speaking colonialists, plays a significant part in the sacred ceremonies of many Native American cultures. It is known as ‘chanunpa’ in the Sioux language, although there are many words for the ceremonial pipe. It is still used today.A red peace pipe

These pipes are often made of stone, with a range of choices available depending on the area. Red, blue, black and green pipestone are all common, as are clay and alabaster. They can be made using a sandstone, a quartz-point drill or even damp rawhide strips, which are ‘rolled in crushed white quartz and stretched with a bow handle’ to shape the pipe.

The smoking of the pipe is a way for humans to communicate with sacred beings, with the  smoke and tobacco having an effect on the smoker. While they can be smoked to mark a peace treaty, they’re also used in decision-making and even to halt a battle. They can be smoked by an individual as well as at group events.

Britannica tells us that pipe smoking rituals begin with ‘invocations to the six directions: east, south, west, north, skyward, and earthward’, and that some tribes also engaged in pipe dances to present offerings to their god figure.

Bubble Pipes

A toy bubble pipeMade of plastic, the bubble pipe is designed as a children’s toy, and for fun, although there is controversy around them, as there are accusations that they encourage children to emulate adult smokers and take up the habit themselves.

The 18th century painting Seifenbläser (soap blower) by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin caught my eye while reading the History of Everything. It shows a small boy watching with great interest as an older boy uses a thin tube or pipe to blow a bubble. The famous Pears Soap advert of a curly-headed cherub gazing at a bubble was originally a painting by Sir John Everett Millais, dating from around 1886.

The Bubble Blowers Museum says that they are among the oldest and most popular toys, and even poor families could find a scrap of wire to bend into a hoop to blow soap bubbles. The bubble pipe was patented in 1918 by John L Gilchrist, and from the 1940s onwards became brightly coloured and sometimes featuring multiple bowls.

I was never lucky enough to have anything like that as a kid, making do with those tubes that came in party bags. Although you’re supposed to be able to refill them with washing up liquid and water and blow bubbles, that was never quite the same. I think my Granda would have liked a bubble pipe too.

You can find the first item here, and learn more about me here.


Tobacco-Free Life: Tobacco History
Tobacco Pipes: Pipes History
Bubble Blowers: History


  1. Anton Lauret on July 31, 2019 at 9:43 am

    Gudrun has done it again – entertained and informed us and provided a charming personal story too – no easy feat I’m looking forward to number five

    • on July 31, 2019 at 4:54 pm

      Oh, flattery will get you everywhere! Your blog is coming later!

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