English Pipes in Colonial America

Clay pipes are everywhere in the 18th century reenacting hobby. Often we hear about how prevalent they are throughout archaeological digs. They are, in fact, found in the majority of sites inhabited by colonial Americans. In these digs there is often a mix of imported and domestic pipes. The purpose of this article is to address some of the components of imported English pipes into the colonies. Being so prevalent as artifacts, the common clay pipe has often been overlooked beyond its use as a method for deducing the timeframe of a site. Fortunately in more recent years there has been an interest from some in the archaeological community to delve into the social aspect of pipe smoking in Colonial America.

As I mentioned, pipes have been the go to artifact for use in dating sites. It is important to note that the Herrington Method (1954) and the Binford Method (1962) used for dating pipes in many archaeological reports have since come under scrutiny. Many experts do not consider the methods accurate. These methods use the size of the stem holes to date the pipes, assuming larger holes in the smaller stems definitively denoted earlier pipes while conversely the smaller holes in longer and thinner stems indicate pipes of a later era.  While there is some evidence to corroborate the collective stem hole theory, it has limited accuracy and been proven irrefutable wrong on several occasions. One of the major incidents was the dig at Martin’s Hundred where pipes with a Binford dates of 1616-1619 were found above a  slipware dish with a date of 1631(Noël Hume 1982).

The Binford and Herrington methods, as well as the several other calculations that have been derived to date pipes on stem holes, also take into small account the bowl size of the pipe. There is evidence that earlier pipes have a smaller bowl because of the expense of tobacco. As tobacco got cheaper for England to import and colonists to smoke themselves, the bowls got larger allowing for a larger quantity to be smoked for longer.

During the dig at the South Grove Midden trash pit of Mount Vernon, circa. 1735-1775, over 2,000 white clay pipes and fragments were brought up. Fifty of the different pipes and fragments were able to be identified by a maker’s mark (Atkinson 1969).

Makers marks on pipes came into fashion in 1619 after the establishment of a pipe makers’ guild in London. This guild set the parameters for the methods and pipes that were allowed to be produced. For example the “Virginian Pipe” was regulated to 8.5 inches long. This probably put the “Virginian Pipe” in the category of a short pipe since at the same time the Virginian Pipe was manufactured a roughly 13 inch pipe is also found at the Midden dig. The longer pipes such as the adlerman which averaged 18-24 inches and the churchwarden which averaged 24-36 inches came about in the middle of the century (Ayto 1979; Walker 1977).

As a note on the longer pipes such as the tavern pipe, a commonly heard myth is that the pipes were broken as they were passed from person to person for purposes of sanitation. This is not the case. The reason so many of those fragments are found is likely due to the fragility of the long stem or the pipe being broken due to clogging. Even the latter was less common as the communal pipes were cleaned by placing them in an iron rack and baking them in a fire (Ivor Hume).

One motif found on several different pipes found at Mount Vernon includes two foxes holding grapes. This is in reference to Aesop’s Fable of the fox and the grapes which would have been easily understood in the 18th century (Grigsby 1994). Evidence of General Washington referencing this specific fable occurs in two different letters written in 1788.  One letter was to Lafayette and the other to Henry Lee, Jr. (Twohig et al. 1997).  There is evidence of other fables being used in pipe design as they were commonly told in the 18th century to teach lessons in behavior.

Beyond fables and history, there are several other common themes in pipe decoration. With the amount of trade taking place over the ocean, and the colonies being coastal, it is no surprise to find pipe bowls designed with ridges like shells. Other common aquatic elements include ships and anchors. In addition, floral patterns are found on both bowls and stems including blooms, vines, and specifically acorns. Animals like horses, foxes, and eagles make frequent appearances in motifs, probably attributable in part to fables, and part to the common appearance of the creatures in the everyday (Atkinson 1969). Masonic symbols, family crests, and pipes bearing tavern signs are found in far fewer quantities in colonial digs, but were incredibly widespread in England. With all of these beautiful designs available and relatively inexpensive for the most part, the most common finds are plain pipes only bearing a maker’s mark or cartouche.

A large reason for the prevalence of the plain pipe, we can deduce, come from the sheer number that were imported. Pipes were brought into the colonies in large quantities. These quantities were measured in a gross and a cask. An invoice from Robert Cary & Co. of England to General Washington at Mount Vernon, lists 25 gross as the amount of pipes in 1 cask and a gross as a dozen’s dozen, or 144 (Ragsdale 1989).

In 1762 Washington ordered a gross of long pipes and a cask of common pipes. This equates to 144 long pipes and 2,880 common pipes (Abbot et al. 1990). It is possible that Washington ordered such a large quantity of the small pipes to disperse to the enslaved people of Mount Vernon. While there is not direct record of this at Mount Vernon, the practice is documented on other sizable tobacco plantations as both enslaved men and women smoked pipes (Chan 2007).

All of this factors in to the answer to the question: what kind of clay pipes should we be seeing? The answer is a little fluid. As far as my research shows the design or embellishment of a cast pipe had little bearing on the price. An embellished pipe cost more than a plain one but the main factor is the length. The low working class should have a short pipe. While the term “short” is not defined, a good rule of thumb is the pipe should be able to be controlled without the use of one’s hands. This leaves the hands free for labor and those pipes would have been the cheapest. As the social class goes up the length of the appropriate pipe does as well. Middle class would have had access to the long tavern pipes and churchwardens at establishments such as taverns, coffee houses, or other places of social gathering but would have most commonly smoked a small to medium length pipe that could have required them to hold it.  Upper class persons could have the long, ornate pipes that require a seated position for enjoyment, like the long church wardens in their home. As noted above, General Washington ordered a smaller number of long pipes that could have been for personal use or entertaining.

In summation; the prevalence of embossed pipes at sites insinuates that plain pipes were the most common but a person of average means could likely still afford a molded pipe of some design.  The key influence in deciding a pipe for your persona is length of stem. The lower the class, the shorter the stem. Though one fact is abundantly clear, the use of English white clay pipes reached every corner and class throughout all of Colonial society.

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