About five hundred years ago, when the Europeans began exploring the Americas, (or as they were called at that time - the New World), they found the indigenous people smoking tobacco leaves in their ceramic and stone pipes.  When these early adventurers returned to Europe, they took both tobacco and the smoking instruments to show their fellow countrymen.  Those inventive people decided they could make smoking devices for their personal use, which they did, and later made more to send back to the New World for trade and to sell.  These were kaolin clay pipes of early America.

There is much unknown information about just when and where the first clay smoking pipes were molded in Europe and in America.  In 1573, William Harrison wrote about molded pipes in his book GREAT ENGLISH CHRONOLOGIE.  We also know that pipes were definitely being made in England by 1580 and that around 1610, the Englishman Robert Cotton, began molding clay pipes in Jamestown, Virginia.  Most of those early pipes were probably made of common or earthenware clay rather than kaolin clay and were shaped somewhat like a modern ladle.  As “tobacco drinking” (which was the term used for early European smoking) became more popular, the pipe makers began searching for a better plastic medium to use for molding these implements.  At that time, the people of China had been making ceramic dinnerware for hundreds if not thousands of years and were using white clay named for the Chinese region where it was dug. That region was called Gaoling or Kao-ling.  Sometime after AD 1600, a French Jesuit missionary living in China, sent samples of white Chinese made porcelain plates and bowls back to Europe.  These dishes were made from the mineral kaolinite or as it was more commonly called china clay, white clay or kaolin.  The European pottery makers quickly understood how this white silicate was superior to their common clay and the making of dinnerware and pipes using kaolin became a major hit.  Kaolin clay is found in many parts of the world including England, France, Germany, Holland, Bulgaria, Brazil, India, Australia, Korea, the United States and, of course, China.  For some unknown reasons, though, the ceramists in most of Europe had not extensively used the kaolin clay prior to seeing the Chinese porcelain but they certainly did so afterwards.  It is not clearly understood just who made and exported the first clay pipes to the Americas but it was surely either the English or Dutch prior to 1630.  By the 1670’s these small clay elbow type pipes were in common use throughout the New World and were sold and/or traded to fellow Euro/Americans as well as to the Indian population.  In 1698, the English reported that more than 300,000 molded pipes, many if not most of which were probably made of kaolin clay,  were exported to the Americas with the Dutch most likely sending at least that many.  Add to that the pipes sent from Belgium, Germany, France and Ireland, as well as the ones made in Virginia, and the quantity of these clay pipes being used in the North America was becoming immense.

These early kaolin pipes were simple with a small bowl for holding the burning Nicotiana and a reasonably long stem.  The bowls were small because tobacco was still rare and expensive so only a small amount was usually purchased by the pipe smoker. The method of pipe manufacture was to place a lump of the clay into a two part metal mold and clamp the two halves together.  A small metal rod was inserted through the stem clay into the bowl and a plug was pushed into the bowl area to create the bowl cavity.  The pipes were then fired until the clay was cured and most were finished at that point without any glazing though a small percentage were glazed with a clear thin clay slip.  Many of these pipes were in colonial inns and were used by consecutive patrons while consuming alcoholic beverages.  The stems were normally 6-12 inches in length and as these pipes were used multiple times by multiple smokers, small portions of these long stems were broken off where the last smoker held the pipe in his teeth, so as to get a clean mouth piece and to eliminate the harsh buildup of bitter tars and nicotine at the end of the stem.  As the individual pipes continued to be smoked and the stems reduced, they eventually became short and were known as “nose warmers” but the early nicotine addiction forced the smokers into continuing to use the shorter and shorter pipes until they reached a minimal length that was called “smoking to the bitter end” referring to the disagreeable taste of the tobacco tars buildup in the short stem.  This fascination with these kaolin pipes was not only with the Euro/Americans but also with the Indians who quickly adapted to the use of these easily traded for smoking devices.  After all, the foreigners only wanted some animal skins and/or some land in trade for the unique white pipes.  And the skins and lands were plentiful.  If foresight was as accurate as hindsight for these natives, our history would certainly have changed.

As already mentioned, the earliest European made clay pipes were ladle shaped but by AD 1600 the style had become more of what we expect a smoking apparatus to be – the elbow pipe form.  These were simple appearing pipes with no frills or ornamentations except perhaps maker’s marks in the form of a number or letter in a cartouche and the spur or pipe rest on the underside of the bowl. Before the end of that century, though, the pipes were being produced with some stylish changes.  Molded ribs and flutes were common on these pipes before the beginning of the eighteenth century after which came stylized tobacco plants and oak leaves and acorns.   In 1753 the Moravian Church bought, from Lord Granville, almost one hundred thousand acres of land in the Yadkin River Valley, North Carolina, that they called Wachovia or Die Wachau, which was part of their homeland near the Danube River in Germany.  In Wachovia, they began a settlement called Bethabara where they started molding small tan/brown pipes from common or ball clay. These pipes are today called Bethabara-style, or more commonly, reed-stem style and feature a very short molded stem into which was placed a section of hollow reed or cane as the pipe stem through which the smoker inhaled the vaporous carbon from the burning plant leaves.  Common clay reed-stem pipes were subsequently produced in New York and Virginia well into the nineteenth century and were believed to have been molded in the hundreds of thousands which should have put a major dent in the kaolin pipe manufacture and importation. But the kaolin pipes production flourished and toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, many of them had basket weave designs and fish scale replications as well as eagle claws and patriotic motifs.  Most were still in the 6 to 12 inches long range but some were molded up to 36 inches in length.  As mentioned above, there are stories that the smokers always broke or cut off the stem end before lighting up so as to have a fresh and clean teeth clamping area and there must be some truth to these legends since small sections of kaolin pipe stems have been commonly found on late Indian village sites and also where colonial inns had stood.  These pipe stem pieces were probably broken on purpose but conceivably by accident simply because the pipes were fragile and easily broken during those rough and tumble times. Most of these pipes that are found today have only a very short stub of the original stem remaining proving that the stems were certainly broken for some reasons.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, clay pipe trading with the Indians was coming to an end because many thousands of the natives had died from European introduced diseases or had been killed by land grabbing white men.  Most of the remaining eastern Indians had been physically moved west into reservations by the government, so there were fewer natives in the east with whom to trade.  The clay smoking pipes, though, continued to be made in all the previous patterns plus some were being molded with the bowl sides or the entire bowls shaped in the facial patterns of European royalty or American politicians and military generals as well as memorial buildings, birds and animals. The citizens of the United States eagerly bought and traded for these little white smoking instruments, as well as the reed-stem pipes, throughout the nineteenth century until they became obsolete because of the development of inexpensive cigarettes and cigars in the twentieth century.  But for three to four hundred years, both the Indians and the Euro/Americans indulged in the habit of “tobacco drinking” by using these simple little smoking implements of nicotine addiction – the kaolin clay pipes of early America.



Ayto, Eric G.                                                              1994


Deer, W. A, R. A. Howie & J. Zussmen                    1992


Duco, Don H.                                                             1976


Harrison, William                                                        1573


Hume, Ivor Noel                                                         1991


Kelso, William M. & Beverly Straube                        2004

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Monroe, J. Cameron & Seth Mallios                          2004

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Rafferty, Sean & Rob Mann                                       2004



Russell, G. Michael                                                    1996


Walker, I. C. & Don H. Duco                                     1980