The Art and Archaeology of Clay Pipes

A short history of Clay Pipes is presented here along with photographs for your enjoyment and for help in identification. Please note these images are copyright and you should write to me if you wish to use them in your publications. My CD ROM holds hundreds more images of clays from all over the world.

The earliest clay pipes known in England and Europe are generally thought to date from c.1580-1600 and are thought to have been copied from styles smoked by the Native Indian tribes of the North/East American Continent. English mariners setting up the first colonies there were introduced to smoking which was cermonial but it was not long before smoking was taken up as a habit by mariners who travelled from port to port around the globe. The site of Historic Jamestown has recovered early examples during archaeological excavations and Sir Walter Raleigh's Colony at Roanoke Island is one of the places where the clay pipe was seen and recorded by John White.

Although the use of tobacco leaves was known by Europeans since the time of Columbus in 1492 only small amounts were brought back as an exotic herb for medicinal experimentation at first. The ancient people of Ecuador were using pipes as long ago as 500-300 BC and the region of Central America first colonised by visiting Europeans would have been very diverse in what it had to offer. It is not until the mid to late 16th Century that we begin to find written references to the smoking of clay pipes in England.

Tobacco would have been smoked, sniffed and chewed by mariners and as we so often read about the oceans of the world at this time were used by traders, fishermen and of course pirates. Exactly who arrived back smoking a pipe is not known but pirates, privateers and early sailors were the first to bring it to the attention of people here in England and the smoking of a clay pipe was taken up very quickly.

Smoking attracted a lot of publicity among the rich Courtiers and soon after the common people. Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have made the habit more popular and also offered Queen Elizabeth a pipe. Smoking also attracted a lot of bad publicity and it was not long before Religious figures and King James (when he came to power) were condemning it as a filthy evil thing. However, crops of tobacco were grown in England and by the 1620's hundreds of men, women and children were taking up smoking.

Clay Pipes c.1600-1720

The earliest clays pipes made were produced in England and Holland and had tiny bowls - no more than a pinch of tobacco being so expensive. By 1620 the habit was spreading rapidly and with crops supplying demand for consumption the price dropped. So the bowls were made bigger by potters who were now setting themselves up as pipe makers in their own right.

Throughtout the 17th Century the trend was for the pipe bowls to get bigger and the stems longer as makers became more confident and local fashions encouraged bowl styles. As usual the larger cities such as London as well as Amsterdam in the Netherlands provided the better products and regional pipe making areas also developed with their own quality products. There was a time in this Century that King James finally tried to wipe out smoking and had the crops destroyed but because the people were not favourable to this move it was decided to ban crops in England and have the Virgina Colonies import the product with tax duty applied.

By 1700 the clay pipe industry, like many others involved in trade, reached a peak and the pipe in the picture above with the makers initials on the side is a good example of how much larger the bowls had become and how the form had taken on a more refined upright shape rather than the bulbous forms of the earlier smaller pieces.

The pipe on the left of this picture is an early Devon pipe made around 1610-1620. You can see the size of it compared with a much later 1700-1720 period Devon pipe which is much more the modern size of a pipe bowl.

In the early 18th Century records of port books at Exeter in Devon, reveal that over 2 million clay pipes were being made and exported to places like Spain, America and Canada each year! Those figures do not include the numbers being made for local consumption but would also be very high. This would have been going on all over the country and especially where production was near to a Port. During the middle of the 18th Century the English clay pipe industry went into decline, mainly due to loss of trade within Europe for various reasons, America wanting to become independant, and the habit of snuff becoming more fashionable in the upper classes. Pipes continued to be made in lesser numbers and the style of bowl gradually evolved into the form that was in fashion during the Napoleonic Period of 1790-1820.

1790-1820 style Napoleonic Period

A typical ribbed pattern Napoleonic War period pipe bowl showing the shape of the spur on the base. Although decades earlier most (but not all) plain pipes had a flat heel on the base of the bowl this was gradually phased out and by about 1760 spur pipes were the norm. English pipes often remained plain although in some areas decoration began to be used more often. Themes on pipes in the second half of the 18th Century were often military emblems or Coats of Arms with large floral designs (not to be mistaken for the many produced also in the 19th Century - earlier pieces have very subtle bowl shapes). After the battle of Trafalgar a pipe was produced showing Nelson with a lowered flag on one side and Britannia on the other.

Although numbers of pipes were not produced in the same quantity as the early 18th Century it seems that around the 1790's the industry took on a new lease of life and began to increase rapidly once again to reach a peak in the 1840-60's.

Hole sizes in Pipe Stems - A way of dating?

English Pipes: 1650, 1800, 1850

In the archaeological studies carried out on clay pipes (and believe me there are many!) mathematical formula's have been applied to explore the possibilities of dating them by the size of the hole in the stem. While these have been prooved to work fairly well where large groups (usually dozens-hundreds) have been found it is not always possible to date a random piece of broken stem by the size of the hole because there are many other factors that come into play. The thickness of the stem, surface finish and porosity, alignment of sides, tool marks, junction at base of the bowl etc. are just some of these. However, the larger thick more weathered pipe stems that are often found with a bigger hole in the middle tend to be earlier from the 17th-18th Centuries, whereas thinner stems with even sides, smoother surfaces and much smaller holes tend to be from the 19th Century. It is worth mentioning also here that Dutch pipes of the 18th Century have very long narrow stems with smaller holes whereas English pipes of the same period tend to have larger holes so this is another thing to be considered according to where finds are made. During the Victorian period some pipes were made in such a hurry and without thought for the smoker that the hole in the stem was not always practical or even joined with the bowl.

In my experience as a clay pipe maker of replica's for all periods I sometimes simply take the nearest piece of wire to hand according to the length or style of the pipe I am making. I am sure pipe makers of past times did the same, especially if taking on apprentices. The Manchester firm of Pollocks even used umbrella spokes at one time! Very often smoker's prefer a hole that allows them to drink or sip tobacco rather than having to suck really hard through a hole that keeps blocking up.

Decorated Style English Pipes 1830-1860 Period

A group of typical English clay pipes dating from the early Victorian period. These have very delicate thin walled bowls and often a narrow pointed spur with initials of the maker on the side. Ribs, Scallops and Leaf designs were common then often also incorporating symbolism for taverns or masonics. A number of English makers were also producing simple face styles, usually military dragoons, turks or druids. Some of the scalloped and ribbed bowls are very elegant with the lines following the curve of the bowl perfectly. Finds of this period are very frequent in gardens as the 1840's was a peak time for production. Often only the bases of the bowls survive but they can be enough to identify the time period and sometimes the maker which is highly useful for archaeologists and local history groups. The ones featured in the picture here were made in Bristol as well as the Isle of Wight.

On the example below the mould lines are not trimmed well because it saved time in production at a period when these early English fancy pipes were in high demand. The mould engraving is often also very simple and you can see where the tools have often slipped.

Victorian Period Fancy Pipes and the 20th Century Decline

From about the 1790's a number of French decided to take up clay pipe making, often copying some of the Dutch styles of that time but also bringing in a new form of pipe which had a bowl and a fitted stem. The French became so good at making these that by the 1840's they were producing a vast range of "fancy" pipes which had a huge influence on English pipe makers and other industries around Europe. Pipe makers began to compete with the more exotic designs coming in from the continent and the English pipe industry moved into a gradual decline again. Not only were they competing with other countries products but the trade in England was also becoming more centralised with larger firms in parts of the county taking the lead and smaller country workshops closing down. The pipes styles and designs throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries were vast; covering almost any and every topic you could think of. It was a way of advertising and promoting not only a skilled maker but also a celebration of life at that time and the social history taking place. A few examples of English and French clays follow which will help you to see the huge variation of pipes to be found from this period. After WWI and the coming of cigarettes the clay pipe industry almost dies out completely. Just a few workshops continued to provide for the few loyal smokers and it is because of their work that we have a few people like myself who have taken up pipe making in the 21st Century.

RAOB pipes c.1850-1930 as well as recent

A very common pipe design occuring with dozens of variations and still made today. These were produced from about 1850 but most often date from about 1860 to 1930. They are usually short "cutty" (4 inch working men's pipe) with thick bowls or "straw" (slightly longer narrow stem of about 7 inches) with thinner more elegant bowls.

The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalo's is a society which was formed in the mid 19th century. Records show that the seeds were first sewn in about 1822 by the theatrical fraternity but the Buffs as we know it surfaced some years later. The first charter formalising the RAOB was written in 1866. There are records of early ceremonies and the first mention found of clay pipes being used was in 1848. In that Initiation ceremony the pipe was broken over the candidates head. There is no mention of the design or style of the pipe used and sometimes a plain churchwarden pipe is used instead of the type with horns on the bowl. In the modern initiation ceremony the candidate breaks the pipe near his heart (its less traumatic). In senior ceremonies a pipe is broken on the candidates shoulder. The RAOB are still very active today doing much charity work.
(Information kindly supplied by an RAOB member with thanks.)

Pipes were also made for Freemasons, Druids and other Friendly Societies which used to meet in the local taverns where clay pipes were given out free.

Irish Theme Pipes

Irish pipes are extremely common and were mainly made during the 19th - 20th Centuries and still are today. Political and Patriotic topics are usually the case with slogan's relating to Home Rule, United Ireland and names of politicians. Sometimes the head of Parnell is moulded as on the example shown here. The Harp and Shamrock also appear in many forms on these pipes and a number of plain bowls have "Dublin" or "O'Brien" or "Mayo St" impressed on the back - not all originate from Ireland and most were made in Scotland and by Northern English makers for Irish people after the decline of production in that country. Irish and Scottish pipes turn up in America in great numbers as many folk emigrated there and are very popular with smokers and family historians.

Much older 17th - 18th Century pipes were made there as well as being supplied during times when privateers, pirates and other mariners were living and visiting the region and it is likely that more about the industry will come to light in the future during archaeological research.

Sport pipes

A common theme in the later 19th century and there are many variations of the football pipe. Other sporting pipes included, tennis, cricket, golf and fishing. Sometimes clubs had batches made with their local names and slogan's on the stem.

Dickens, Negro, Sailor

Three English Figural pipes made in the 1860-1920 period. Charles Dickens, A Negro, Sailor. These are all nice pieces for people to collect and variations of them exist as well as other subjects including Women, Animals, Military people, Politicians etc. The Negro and the Sailor pipes were often used to advertise brands of the best tobacco.

Royalty portrayed on Clay Pipes

Although members of the Dutch Royal Family were portrayed on clays as early as the 17th Century it was not until the 19th Century that the majority of Royal Theme pipes were produced. Queen Victoria seems to have been very popular with versions not only showing her on the side of the bowl but with the entire bowl shaped as her head. A few typical examples are shown in this image from the Dawnmist Collection. These were made by English, French, German and Dutch pipe makers.

Claw Pipes

The Claw Pipe was created in many forms too and this one is an elaborate eagle claw with reduced stem to fit a mouth piece of another material. Some simple claw pipes appeared as early as 1830 and the one shown here is of about 1860-1920 period. Claw pipes are still made today for collectors.


Many animals were depicted on pipes including horses, dogs, cats, pigs, buffalo's, bears, foxes. This horse pipe made late in the 19th century uses the entire animal in a well balanced way.

Miniature Owl Cigarette Pipes

Smaller pipes were also made and often follow the same themes as normal sized pieces. These two owl pipes are big enough to hold a cigarette and were recovered from a 1910 period refuse dump.

Childrens Toy Pipes c.1890-1930

Pipes were not always made for smoking and smaller ones like these were made for children to blow bubbles. A number of themes include: flowers, leaves, birds, baskets and rabbits - some were made with incorporated whistles. The style of this group with the little rounded bowls and arched stems were made by English firms such as the Southern Family of Broseley but also imported from Germany (the word Germany sometimes seen on the stem). They come in several colours of clay including red and brown, also with a glazed varnish on them.

Giant Pipes

The large pipes, known as cadger's or advertiques were created as display pieces for tobacco shop windows and also for novelty value. They were also sometimes used at functions where they were lit and passed around a group of smokers. A number of variations of the St.Nicholas pipe exist as well as a Negro head, The Crystal Palace Exhibition and Football. You can read more about these by following the link on my main pipe index page.

Fish Pipes

One of my favorite designs which depicts a fish made by the Southern Family of Broseley in the 19th Century but also still made today at the Museum there. Some have better details than others and imported French versions come with bright coloured glazes on them like the other one shown here in close detail.


Floral design depicting a tulip and with coloured glazes. Originating most likely from France in the late 19th century.

My CD ROM "The Art & Archaeology of the Clay Tobacco Pipe", available only through this website, covers all the information on the web site and lots more. Photograph galleries, information on specific pipes or makers, books and publications, illustrations etc.
Follow the links from this page to purchase your copy.

Pipes by John Pollock & Co of Manchester, England.

This world famous company was founded in 1879 and was making them for 111 years until 1990 for collectors and smokers. Originals of these designs can be dug up from old bottle dumps or found in cellars and attics the world over. Sometimes it is hard to tell an original from a modern one, however, they are all made from the original moulds.

French Figurals

These amazing moulded French figural pipes were produced in huge numbers from the 1840's right up until the 1920's. Artists were employed to make masters from which three or four piece metal moulds were made. Then production of literally thousands of them was carried out in factories that employed hundreds of staff. These pipes are found all over the world and although not one-off carved pieces (like Meerschaum pipes) are very attractive to collectors. The use of coloured clays, amber wash, and hand painted glazes does make each one slightly different though.

The firms of Gambier of Paris and Fiolet of St.Omer in France appear to be the most common but there were other major names all making exotic looking clays as well as the simple plain styles that were wanted by smokers. In the group shown here characters such as Druids, Jupiter and Jacob are shown. Military Generals, Turks and the artist Rubens. I have shown the stamped marks of L.F (Fiolet) and J.G (Gambier) which can sometimes be found on the base.

Dantan by Gambier

Dantan was a famous French sculpture working for the firm of Gambier in Paris in the mid 19th century. He had the right idea and created a pipe with his own head on it, thus preserving his reputation for decades to come. Dantan had a good sense of humour as well as being a master pipe designer and created many of the humerous designs that made Gambier famous. The firm of Gambier were awarded gold medals at exhibitions for their pipes.

The Duchess of Devon by Charles Crop

Charles Crop (& Sons) was a famous London firm who produced many elaborate well made pipes from the 1840's until 1924. They designed large numbers of very realistic looking portrait pipes as well as animals, bird claws and large display pieces. Often the designs have registration numbers on them and some were copied by other makers. This marvellous pipe is thought to depict the 18th Century Duchess of Devon, Georgiana Cavendish with her very large fashionable hat as painted by Gainsborough.

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