Eye Candy for the Tobacco Pipe Connoisseur. 19th–century meerschaum pipes in word-pictures

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By Ben Rapaport, January 2023
Exclusive to pipedia.org

This article is about what I consider the best of breed in tobacco pipes: the bygone, carved antique meerschaum! It’s not about how expensive they are, how rare they are to acquire today, who’s collecting them, or whether they smoke better than a briar. It’s solely about acknowledging them in all their elaborate majesty, artistry, and splendor. As everyone knows, these pipes were not machine-made. Every meerschaum pipe produced during its belle epoque, 1850-1920, was made by hand: chiseled, carved, etched, incised, and engraved with special tools these artisans made for all the complex, intricate, delicate tasks. No other pipe medium requires this investment in time, skill, and effort to translate a crude block of meerschaum into a finished pipe. No other tobacco pipe medium goes through such a tedious, labor-intensive process. (Because of its composition, pressed meerschaum, also known as imitation meerschaum or massa, consisting of meerschaum dust, scraps, fragments and assorted bits and pieces is more dense and heavier than block meerschaum, and it is harder to carve by hand.) Finally, no Turkish meerschaum pipe made yesterday or today can rival or compare with those produced yesteryear.

Before I address the antique meerschaum, I have a related thought about the more contemporary carved briar pipe. It’s possible—although I have found no evidence—that the many years of producing carved meerschaums augured an era of carved briars in the 20th century, at least in this country; they were all the rage. Mastercraft and Custombilt and the stable of artisans—Jo Davidson, Louis Ted Shima, Cecil Howard, and others—who sculpted briars for Robert Marx’s Marxman Heirloom series. There were many other less-known brands offering similar carved briars. In my view, the carving of the vast majority weren’t exemplary, probably because those carving meerschaum did not transition into carving wood. Another period artisan, Lester C. Garlow, unaffiliated with Marx, sold his carved briars to collectors from Wally Frank’s New York store well into the 1960s. Several of his pipes in a Sotheby Park-Bernet auction, New York, in April 1978, realized big dollars. (See “Marblehead Biography. Lester ‘Les’ Commodore Barlow” (ussmarblehead.com, and Bruce Garlow, “A Man of Many Talents” Pipes & tobaccos, Spring, 2014, for some examples of Garlow’s exquisite work.) According to Brandon Chambers (“Briar Pipes and How They’re Carved,” Fine Woodworking, 1980): “Practically no intricate carving has been done on briar pipes since the 1980s.” Chambers was correct in 1980, because he was unaware that 20 years later, Marc Darrah would appear on the scene. Little is known about Darrah, but his carved briar pipes speak volumes about him. (See Chuck Stanion, “‘Of Extraordinary Interest’: A Sherlockian Pipe Collection,” Pipes & tobaccos, Fall, 2003, for illustrations of Darrah’s unique briar pipes.)

Back to the white goddess. No other pipe medium has ever yielded so many specimens of miniature art as the meerschaum! In those halcyon 70-odd years, a collective of artisans in Europe, England and the United States—an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 tobacco-trade workers in Germany, about 150 masters and 800 workmen in Austria, an unknown number in England and France and, according to a May 1903 issue of The Tobacco Worker, around 300 skilled carvers in the United States—produced a colossal constellation of extraordinary and breathtaking meerschaum pipes, cheroot holders and cigarette holders. Most of these workmen studied at technical or art schools or apprenticed with master-carvers. Of course, throughout that same period, thousands of poor-quality meerschaum pipes exhibiting popular, but repetitive, motifs, such as deer, dogs, horses, and eagle’s talons, were also in circulation.

My thesis, and what other knowledgeable pipe historians have concluded, is that the era of fancy and fanciful meerschaum pipes began around 1850 or soon thereafter, so it is hard to accept a story in Pipe Lovers magazine in January 1949: E. Reid Duncan, “Mysteries of Meerschaum.” Duncan describes and illustrates a large meerschaum pipe, Le Brigand au repos (The Bandit at rest) carved by a French sculptor, Louis Pierre Puget, in 1652. It consisted of seven high-relief-carved, to-scale figures of a man, a woman, two children, two dogs and an eagle. The detailed description is inviting, suggesting that raw meerschaum was available in France in that century and that Puget was adept at carving complex meerschaum pipes. Were this true, it would contravene everything that has been written about Count Andrássy and the Pesth shoemaker and pipe carver, Károly Kovács, a century later. The Duncan story is a meerschaum myth. Puget was real, the pipe is real—it’s in a private collection—but the story is unreal.

There’s ample evidence, however, that three pipes of equivalent stature from a later time are very real: (1) a table pipe crafted by F. J. Kaldenberg for the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 in Philadelphia; (2) the Columbus Landing in America pipe exhibited at the World’s Fair in 1893 in Chicago, commissioned by the William Demuth Company (mentioned later); and (3) the Battle of Bunker Hill pipe carved in the early 1900s by Gustav Fischer Sr. that was exhibited at his son’s tobacco emporium in Boston; unfortunately, only Bostonians knew of its existence. (Images of these three jumbo-sized pipes can be found on the Web.) Dr. Arthur Selwyn Brown noted: “The Germans were also fond of meerschaum pipes which they made of enormous size (my emphasis) and ornamented in most extraordinary ways” (“Various Materials Used in Ancient and Modern Tobacco Pipes,” Tobacco, July 30, 1925). Coincidentally, Messrs. Kaldenberg, Demuth, and Fischer emigrated from Germany!

I now take you back in time with a compilation of articles from various journals and sundry reports from the 19th and early 20th centuries not found in any book on tobacco pipes, including my own. These snippets, presented in chronological order, are now forever conjoined in this narrative as a matter of record. The citations are informative, revealing, and add color to the meerschaum’s history, but there’s one catch: none have any accompanying illustrations, so in the absence of images, try to create a mental picture … use your imagination to visualize the pipes.

“M. Taneur, an eminent painter of sea-scenes, during his sojourn in Russia, was presented by Emperor Nicolas with a giant écume der mer pipe, the bowl of which weighed three pounds, and had delicately sculptured upon it, in basso relievo, the principal events of the [Homer’s] Iliad. The pipe, which was splendidly mounted in diamonds, and had an amber mouth-piece of the rarest beauty, was valued at about 300£ sterling” (Charivari, July 1840).

Most official catalogs of the Great Exhibition of 1851 invested little ink to describe or illustrate the few meerschaum pipes on exhibit. George Virtue’s The Industry of All Nations. The Art-Journal Illustrated Catalogue of the Industry of All Nations (1851) is not an official, government-sponsored publication. It’s a compendium of essays and drawings of selected exhibition objects, one of which is a pipe bowl: “A silver-mounted Meerschaum, by M. Held, of Nuremberg, representing St. George and the Dragon. …The article is one upon which much ingenuity is expended; it is often embellished with great skill and taste, and is not unfrequently made costly by the exercise of great talent; indeed, a very large proportion of the young Art of Germany is employed in modelling, carving, or decorating these meerschaums. In Germany there are few more productive articles of trade; they are exhibited in the gayest shops; and their ornamentation is generally expensive as well as beautiful.”

“A fine group, carved in meerschaum, forming a pipe, with Neptune in his car, drawn by Sea-horses and cupids, mounted with silver, from the collection of Graf Jan Kowitch, of Pesth” (“The Falcke Collection,” The Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Science, and Art, May 15, 1858).

“Dr. [Thomas Frognail] Dibdin speaks of Vienna as a city characterised by a love of smoking … and he instances a gentleman he met ‘who drew forth from his pocket a short pipe which screwed together in three divisions, and of which the upper part of the bowl—made in the fashion of a blackamoor’s head—near the aperture was composed of diamonds of great lustre and value. Upon inquiry I found that this pipe was worth about £1000 of our money’” (Frederick W. Fairholt, Tobacco, 1859). A similar version of this story appeared several years later in the United States Tobacco Journal (“Meerschaum, ‘King of Pipes,’ in ‘80’s Was A Smoker’s Cherished Possession,” May 31, 1924) that added: “Upon inquiring, he [Dr. Dibdin] found that the pipe was worth about $5,000.”

“Some large and fine specimens of meerschaum are carved so elaborately into pipe-bowls, as to command two or three hundred guineas each” (The English Cyclopædia, 1860).

“All that is requisite for us to inform our readers with respect to the engraving is, that all these pipes are made of the best and most precious, or, at least, the most esteemed material of which pipes can be made—meerschaum” (“A Few Words About Tobacco Pipes,” The London Journal, August 9, 1862).

“Here and outside is an immense collection of real and imitation meerschaum pipes of every possible form, size, and value; some of the carving bestowed upon these articles is of a very superior description, and amongst other designs may be seen in the case of M. Jaburek, No. 466, a scene from the [Edwin Landseer’s] Midsummer Night’s Dream where Titania is whispering into the long ears of sweet Bully Bottom,” a reference to the International Exhibition of 1862 in London (Edward Stanford, Stanford’s New London Guide, 1862).

“M. Friedrich’s case of Pipes was full of admirably carved specimens, with chariots and horses, and an almost endless variety of figures, artistically produced upon the stems and bowls” (The International Exhibition. The Industry, Science & Art of The Age. The International Exhibition of 1862, 1863).

“Carved pipes are no uncommon luxuries, but carving of the order of Mr. Kaldenberg’s is executed, so far as we know, nowhere else in the country, and is equalled [sic] in not one among a hundred specimens of fine work imported from Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. His figures are so faultless as to suggest fine sculpture in miniature, and, indeed, will bear the most critical scrutiny through a powerful magnifier. The quality of his material, crede experto, is worthy of the workmanship, expended upon it, and leaves to the enthusiastic pipe-fancier nothing to be desired” (“Letters to The Editor,” The Round Table, February 9, 1867).

“Among New York contributions to the Paris Exposition [1867], Kaldenberg & Son exhibited a second, less-well-known meerschaum pipe at this exhibit, a hunt scene “with horses, men, dogs and deer grouped under an oak tree, the lid being a silver stag” (“Literariana,” The Round Table, February 9, 1867).

“The meerschaum is to the ordinary clay what the diamond is to agate, or gold to copper; but it must be admitted, if we judge from the specimens exhibited in tobacconists’ shops, that it has hitherto employed only a very inferior order of talent. Yet the meerschaum has a special glory that, if skillfully handled, it is ornamented in the very process of enjoyment” (“Coloring Pipes,” Appletons’ Journal of Literature, Science, and Art, June 24, 1871).

“The meerschaum pipes are varied, curious, and some of them very costly. One, the bowl surrounded with an elaborately carved group of figures, is priced at no less than 135 guineas. …Another displays an ambitious attempt to represent the Light Cavalry charge at Balaklava; the troopers are not very good representatives of English Hussars and Lancers, and it is not quite clear which side is getting the worst of it; but much ingenuity is certainly displayed in carving the meerschaum clay into such forms” (“Pipes at the International Exhibition,” The Practical Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 7, 1873). This pipe was carved by Frederick Follit, Oxford Street, London, Exhibitor No. 4588, at London’s International Exhibition of 1873.

“Austria has no rival in this class of work. The amber specimens are principally mouth-pieces for pipe-stems, and the meerschaum work consists chiefly of ornamental pipes, which are often very artistic and of great variety. They represent heads of famous personages, types of the various races and nationalities of Europe, and animals, birds and fishes in the simpler styles, while the more elaborate have bowls richly carved with hunting or historical scenes or comic representations of episodes in domestic life” (James D. McCabe, The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition…1876).

“In its sublime simplicity, therefore, or adorned with precious jewels or the precious metals, the magnesite pipe is sure to maintain its proud sovereignty” (“Meerschaum,” Cope’s Tobacco Plant, July 1880).

“Every person who goes to Genoa invests in this filigree work and in a meerschaum pipe or two; for the Genoese turn out pipes that are downright works of art. The making of meerschaum pipes is not dissimilar from the work of carving pieces of statuary from blocks of alabaster” (M. J. Carrigan, Life and Reminiscences of Hon. James Emmitt: As Revised by Himself, 1888). Here’s a write-up of the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. “A work of art in the way of carving in meerschaum has just been completed for the Exposition in Paris. It consists of a case containing representations of the Presidents of the United States, from George Washington down to Benjamin Harrison, cut in meerschaum and made into pipes. The portraits were taken from steel engravings, and are excellently done. The head and shoulders of each President are shown. ...The pipes are, in all, 8 inches long, the bowls standing about 3 inches high (“The Presidents in Meerschaum,” The New York Times, March 9, 1889).

“It can readily be understood that with a material as plastic and refined of texture, and as susceptible to surface finish as meerschaum, a sculptor of ability could produce superb effects of delicacy…” (“The Meerschaum Collector,” The Collector, November 1, 1889).

“In meerschaum goods, the prices range higher than usual, in fact the demand all round is for a finer grade of goods, both in briar and meerschaum. …A plantation nigger with an old bell-shaped straw stove-pipe hat is a fine piece of carving, but the gem of the collection, and the one that will prove most popular is The Tramp; we all love the tramp, even if we abuse him, and this pipe is a tramp’s head, and battered hat, his coat collar pulled up to his ears by the strong hand that is ejecting him out into the cold, cold world. The wrist glides into the stem of the pipe, and the expression on the face of the tramp should sell that pipe every time” (“Short Chats With Dealers,” Tobacco, November 1, 1889).

“This [pipe] was specially carved for this exhibit [Chicago’s World Fair in 1893] by one of the most expert workmen of this firm [William Demuth]. It stood in the centre of the open space in a special crystal case by itself; the meerschaum head measured sixteen inches long by seventeen inches in height, and contained twenty-one figures, surrounded by foliage and minor details representing the landing of Columbus, with the natives dispersed about the strand, the women peeping through the bushes. It was a marvellous piece of carving from the solid raw material. In most exhibition pipes the carved figures have appeared in relief, which is to say, they have been backed by solid material, but with this pipe the figures were carved distinct, and individually perfect, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, the strength being given by the interlacing of foliage so as to protect the work, which covered the whole upper surface of the stem of the pipe from the bowl to the mouthpiece. A piece of meerschaum was specially obtained from Turkey for this purpose. The stem was worthy of the pipe, consisting of a mass of cloudy and clear amber artistically cut into what is known as the ‘thorn’ pattern, and it measures eleven inches in length, with a diameter of two inches in its thickest part, having a shell finish terminating in a plain mouthpiece. It was insured for $10,000, and must have served as a live object-lesson for the pipe manufacturers of other countries” (“A Pipe Exhibit at Chicago,” Tobacco, March 1, 1894).

“There is also a side issue—a pipe made in honor of the society, and known as the St. Nicholas pipe. This is a meerschaum, in the fine collection of Mr. Ogden Goelet, of the society. It is a pipe with a curved stem and a very handsome amber mouthpiece. The bowl of the pipe is of the ordinary shape or form, but seated on the cover is the figure of St. Nicholas [the patron saint of this society], while on the side of the cover is the figure of Peter G. Stuyvesant, with his wooden leg, the first Governor of New York and the first president of the St. Nicholas Society, while on the other side is Wouter Van Twiller, the first Governor of New Amsterdam, leaning back in his chair, with his pipe in his hand, and in front of the bowl is the figure of Van Courtlandt, the first Governor of Communipaw, reclining under a tree. The artistic work on this pipe is very fine, and the carving was done by Artist Kaldenberg, of this city” (Wilf P. Pond, “The St. Nicholas Society,” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, July to December 1895).

“’One of the greatest pipe-fanciers in the world,’ again, was ‘Major General Raffalovich, of the Russian Army,’ who seems to have gone some twenty years ago on a pipe-foraging expedition to the States. His collection, not less remarkable than Mr. [William] Bragge’s, consisted of more than 600 pipes. ‘There is now in the hands of one of the most prominent manufacturers in this city,’ says this chronicler, in the tone of due gravity, ‘a magnificent Meerschaum pipe made to his order. The bowl forms the bust of a very beautiful woman, and is a correct likeness of the General’s wife taken from life. The stem and mouthpiece are of amber, fifteen inches long” (“The Smoker’s Garland,” Cope’s Tobacco Plant, 1893). And: “This pipe will be taken to Europe as a curiosity, for it seems that Gen. Raffalovich had an idea that such things could not be made in this country (“Meerschaum Pipes. How They Are Made, and the Science of Coloring Them Properly,” The New York Times, July 27, 1874). “This was made by a man named Kallenberg [sic]. He worked four months on it, and the Russian paid $1,000 for the completed pipe” (“Smoking Portrait Pipes,” Current Literature, February, 1896).

And from this same article:

“Mr. Gebhard is always on the watch for some novelty, and when he saw the collection of presidential pipes [a series made by William Demuth, NYC] he determined to be the father of a new fad. He at once left an order for a meerschaum with the bowl ornamented with the portrait of Mrs. Gebhard. … As money is not much of an object to Mr. Gebhard when he has a pet fancy in his view his order was not handicapped in any way by price. The finest possible workmanship was his only stipulation. It took a month to make the pipe, and the bill was $800. Many pieces of meerschaum were found to be slightly defective in formation after they had been partially worked up, and it was only after many experiments that the right piece was at last found. The bowl of the pipe is 3 inches in height and 2 ½ inches at the widest part. Yet it required a piece of meerschaum 8 inches in height, 7 in width and 12 inches in depth. Twenty-seven different workmen had some part in the making of the pipe. The stem is curved and very handsome, being composed of amber, gold and meerschaum. There is only about 1 inch of the latter, then comes a heavy piece of chased gold 1 ½ inches in length, and then a curved piece of delicate amber. …It was not long after Mr. Gebhard’s pipe was finished that young T. Suffern Tailer heard of it and decided at once that he, too, must have a portrait pipe. …The idea of a portrait pipe appealed strongly to her [Mrs. Tailer] love of the unique, and when the order was given she not only gave the carvers all of her best photographs, but she visited the work room every two or three days to correct any little fault which she could find as the work progressed. Mr. Tailer’s pipe is the same size as Mr. Gebhard’s, but the meerschaum ends at the lower part of the bowl. A stem of deftly worked gold runs into the meerschaum, and sunk into the gold are rows of tiny jewels, emeralds, sapphires, rubies and diamonds. A slender amber mouthpiece screws into the gold, and altogether the pipe is one of the handsomest that the makers have ever turned out. The jewels brought the cost up considerably, the pipe complete costing $1,100.”

From “A Rare Pipe,” Tobacco, September 21, 1900:

There are instances, however, where a high price is paid by art-loving smokers for a pipe, solely by reason of its own inherent merit as a finished product of artistic handicraft; and it is our pleasure to present to our readers in this issue a representation, from a photograph taken specially and solely for Tobacco, of the latest subject of artist’s skill that found a buyer at a price which, although apparently high, will be conceded by all competent judges of art to be far below an adequate remuneration for the time and skill expended in its production. This pipe has just recently been finished by Joseph Lehrkinder, 85 Nassau street, this city, who is one of the oldest artisans, if not the very oldest, in meerschaum and amber cutting in this country. It represents two years of Mr. Lehrkinder’s time and skill, and is now the property of Henry C. Clarke, a well-known Wall street lawyer, who secured it for the consideration of $1,200—surely a small money compensation for so much precious time closely applied. …The design is after the well-known painting, ‘St. John’s Bath.’ The scene is arboreal, the trunk of the tree being represented by the base on which the pipe bowl sits. Around the trunk are grouped nine female figures, seven of which are visible, two being on the reverse side. These figures are chastely and exquisitely executed, and the cutting is done so that, in the coloring, they will always be of a lighter hue than the rest of the work. The bowl itself, which is of ordinary capacity, represents the branches and leaves of the tree, and is a gem of artistic tracery and reproduction of foliage and branches which, also, will appear lighter than the trunk of the tree, but a shade darker than the figures. The stem of this pipe which, in this picture, is cut off where the curve begins, is carved in the form of a tulip, starting out at the base of the trunk, and the workmanship is in keeping with the same delicate and artistic taste exhibited in the meerschaum carving. The meerschaum is an oblong single piece of the finest Asia-Minor variety, 8 inches high by 8 inches in length, and the stem and mouthpiece are also a single piece of curved amber, slightly over 13 inches in length.

“He does not show these things to all his customers, but keeps them put away in a cabinet with a number of carved objects. One of them is an amber skull. It is less than three-quarters of an inch, but the bones and articulations are distinctly marked. The carving is so fine that a magnifying glass has to be used to see it in detail. Another is a holder, where the monk with a hollow head for cigarettes is laughing, but it requires a magnifying glass to see the lines of his mirth. One of the best pieces of carving, which also inculcates a moral lesson, is a skull as a base for a wine bowl in place. A snake crawls around the skull and holds the wine bowl in place. The wine bowl is hollowed out for cigarettes. The most costly of the pipes represents a mermaid holding a conch shell close to her breast. Her scaly tail is twined about a large branch of white coral, which will become brown when the pipe is smoked. Each scale is perfect. The mermaid has much more expression in her face than have some of the big statues in Central Park, though there is hardly half an inch of meerschaum on which to carve the lines” (“Pipes and Pipe Makers,” Hardware, November 25, 1900).

“Austrian smokers are much given to the decoration of their pipes, some being encrusted with gems to the value of £1,000” (W. A. Penn, The Soverane Herbe, 1902).

“He [American Charles Pollak, believed to have made the first meerschaum pipe in 1860] exhibited at the American Institute in New York, an immense and beautiful carved pipe representing Washington and his generals, which attracted a great deal of attention” (Anna Gertrude Bagley, “Gleanings from the Exchanges,” Midland Druggist, August 1905).

“One of the specially attractive exhibits which will interest visitors at the Tobacco Exposition next September will be that of fine briar and meerschaum pipes. A special feature will be a mammoth meerschaum pipe, exquisitely carved, and valued at upward of a thousand dollars. This pipe is 2 ½ feet in length and 12 inches in height. The stem is 12 inches in length, and was cut from a solid piece of block amber. The carving upon this pipe represents the Battle of Nancy [January 5, 1477], and consists of ten full-length figures and two horses, together with a section of ruined castle and a number of trees and vines. The artist who did the carving was engaged upon the work a greater part of his time for a year and a half” (“Here & There,” The Pharmaceutical Era, June 21, 1906). This pipe was made for the Paris Exposition of 1889.

“It [the Columbus pipe] is a truly wonderful carving in meerschaum and amber. To produce the pipe required the work of a skilled artist for three years. The carving represents the landing of Columbus upon American shores. There are forty different figures in the group, each perfect in detail. The pipe is said to be worth $40,000. It was awarded a gold medal at the Chicago World’s Fair, and constituted an interesting exhibit at the Tobacco Trades Exposition last year” (“More Exhibitors for Show,” The Tobacco Leaf, May 29, 1907).

“Although it has never been smoked, a meerschaum pipe is valued at several thousand dollars by its owner for the carving that adorns the bowl. It is the work of an Italian sculptor who spent two years on the task. The design depicts three mounted horsemen and seven hunting dogs pursuing a fleeting stag. A richly carved border and the delicately outlined branches of a tree beside the fragment of a ruined castle wall, forming the top of the bowl, are included in the design” (“Two Years Spent in Carving Meerschaum-Pipe Design,” Popular Mechanics, May, 1924).

“Specimens exhibited: large meerschaum pipe, carved in the form of a sleighing party, Russia” (A Handbook to the Cases Illustrating Simple Means of Travel, 1925). This pipe is in the Horniman Museum.

Writing about Sid Bertram who owned a tobacco shop in Washington, D.C.: “Here are $200 to $1000 meerschaums whose bowls have been carved into heads, skulls or hands by master craftsmen using needle-sharp tools and magnifying glasses to achieve the ultimate in intricate detail. …The most valuable pipe in Bertram’s collection is a foot-long carved French meerschaum depicting Napoleon’s retreat from Russia. Bertram has refused a $1000 offer for it” (Michael Day, “PIPES by Old Masters,” Popular Mechanics, December 1950).

“The carved pipes can be found adorned with any number of motifs, from heads of long-bearded sheiks, old seamen, queens, even Mephistopheles, to classics such as a hawk’s talons grasping an egg or a hand holding a skull (probably inspired by Hamlet)” (Carl Ehwa Jr., The Book of Pipes & Tobacco, 1974). (I don’t mean to denigrate Ehwa’s description, but it’s evident that he was only familiar with what I consider routine, pedestrian motifs.)

“Famous faces, animals, erotica, and even landmarks have been reproduced on beautiful white meerschaum pipes” (Henry O. Mace, Collector’s Guide to Victoriana, 1991).

“Pipes, in particular those made from meerschaum, paraded an extremely rich array of images: these miniature carvings would feature well-known themes from Hungarian history painting, ranging from the Blood Oath, through the Coronation of King Stephen I to the Battle of Mohács. Others would portray important figures from the Hungarian political scene, such as the ministers in the Batthyány government” (József Sisa [ed.], Motherland and Progress. Hungarian Architecture and Design 1800–1900, 2016).

“It is made of a white mineral known as ‘ecume de mer’ [‘meerschaum’] that was often used to sculpt pipes. …A big meerschaum pipe with the bowl carved in the shape of a zouave’s head and a curved tube up which climbs a little lion with glass eyes, which looks like a poodle” (Julia Hartley et al., French Decadence in a Global Context, 2022).

Occasionally, a meerschaum pipe gets honorable mention in a work of fiction. “He [Antoletti] lived, poor fellow, by carving meerschaum pipes for the trade, but he lived for ‘Madeline and Porphyro’ and his art. …So the pipe was carved—a work of exquisitely intricate and delicate art. On the rear of the bowl, in view of the smoker, was a female face with a wreath of flowers about the forehead, and with flowers and grapes hanging down in graceful intermingling with flowing bands of hair. These flowers ran into ragged weeds and bedraggled-looking grasses on the other side, and from these grinned a death’s head. In at the open mouth of the skull and out at the eyes, and wrapped in sinuous windings at the base, coiled a snake. The pipe was not over large, for all its wealth of ornamentation” (David Christie Murray, “An Old Meerschaum,” Coals of Fire and Other Stories, 1885). Had the author imagined this intricate, but grim, pipe as he had fictionalized his romance?

In Minna Vuohelainen’s Richard Marsh (2015), the author describes an imaginary, blood-curdling pipe. “While the majority of the two bachelors’ adventures are not supernatural, many of them feature events and objects that border on the marvellous and thus recall the Foucauldian notion of the heterotopia as a counter-site to dominant culture. Thus, for example, ‘The Pipe’ features a drugged Indian meerschaum pipe with a curiously lifelike carving of a lizard on its stem. When the pipe is smoked, the lizard, which is later revealed to be alive under the lacquer which binds it to the pipe, begins to crawl up the stem towards the smoker’s face, blurring the boundaries of reality, hallucination and horror.” More science fiction than fiction!

Back to reality. Nicholas Storey believes that the beginning of the end for the meerschaum occurred in the 19th century. “Some have sought to explain the attraction of the briar pipe for the British gentleman on the basis that plain clay pipes were seen as essentially working-class accessories and hardly the sort of thing to be seen walking around and smoking; moreover, they were frail and liable to snap. The reasonably ready alternative of the ornately carved Meerschaum was equally unacceptable as it appeared too flashy so, to appeal to the combined desire for a good smoke and sturdy, understated elegance, Comoy had hit the nail on the head” (History of Men’s Accessories (2011). As most everyone familiar with the history of the briar knows, François Comoy began making briar pipes in the 1850s.

Gradual, incremental changes did occur for both pipe maker and pipe smoker, but those changes were not wholly and solely influenced by the briar pipe. “The carving of meerschaum pipes is not now so prosperous a business as it was twenty years ago. Comparatively little of this kind of work has been done in America; only isolated artists work at it, and of these very few can turn out really fine pieces” (“A Few Words About Pipes,” The American Stationer, April 9, 1891).

From “Carving Meerschaum” (The New York Times, May 1903):

Everything—including a talented generation of the trade of the carvers in bone, ivory, meerschaum and like materials has never fully recovered from the blow it received in the hard times beginning in 1893. There were at that time probably more than 300 such carvers working in this city. Many of them were driven out of the trade into other and cruder lines of carving, and only a few of those who thus changed their medium have been able to find work of the old kind. Only a very small part of those who do such carving belong to the class of true artists ivory, bone and meerschaum. Of such highly skilled carvers the whole number could probably be counted on the fingers of two hands. …There are few native Americans who have mastered the craft. Probably a single employing carver, a native American of German parentage, is the only one now engaged in the art. …Most of those engaged in the art are Germans, though a few Frenchmen have worked here. The German-American referred to thinks that most Americans lack the patience to become skilled carvers. The American haste is antagonistic to the attitude of mind that the successful carver must maintain.

Leopold Demuth, President of the Demuth Company, described the company’s factory exhibit of meerschaums: “It is probably the only art display of pipes in the world and could not be reproduced to-day, inasmuch as meerschaum carving is a decaying art” (“Trying to Get Pipes Off Novelty Basis,” Printers’ Ink, December 31, 1914).

On the state of meerschaum pipe carving in Great Britain: “Padget Hedges, who came from London recently and who is in close touch with the situation, said the other day that pipe making and carving of blocks [of meerschaum] in London had about come to a stop. The energies of skilled and unskilled workers, he said, were concentrated upon producing other things” (“Puffs on Pipes of Pleasure and Peace,” Tobacco, March 25, 1920).

“We are told that it was it was also the two hundredth anniversary of the meerschaum pipe and the one hundred twenty-fifth anniversary of the cigar. In the case of the meerschaum pipe the anniversary was almost an obituary occasion. It is some time since we have seen a meerschaum in action, and we are reluctantly forced to conclude that the last of the working meerschaums has gone up in smoke, so to speak. Thirty years ago you couldn’t heave a rock in a newspaper’s city room without breaking half a dozen meerschaums; but now, alas, the only surviving specimens of the article (hydrous magnesium silicate, the dictionary calls it) outside of Germany are to be found in the cabinets of antique collectors” (“Something About Tobacco,” Tobacco, February 14, 1924).

“A century ago meerschaum pipes were manufactured. Many of these were highly sculptured and were art objects of considerable value. …Today the meerschaum pipe is not much in evidence, although in the arts of Europe it is still treasured by some veteran smokers” (“Various of the Materials Used in Ancient and Modern Tobacco Pipes,” Tobacco, July 30, 1925).

So, what happened and why? First, I want to mention that in Iain C. Walker, Clay Tobacco-Pipes, with Particular Reference to the Bristol Industry (1977) there is this absurd prediction: “The same observer notes that by 1856 the meerschaum was on the decline.” On the contrary, the meerschaum had just begun to surge in popularity in the 1850s; the decline came in the next century.

The meerschaum trade that had flourished in Europe, England, and the United States from the mid-19th century into the early 20th century came to an almost simultaneous end. It was the confluence of two different forces that contributed to this denouement: an unfounded fear that all known deposits of meerschaum had been exhausted and manufacturers of meerschaum pipes and cigar holders everywhere would go out of business, and the advent and acceptance of the briar pipe. I believe that the end was predictable and inevitable for another reason: pipe-smoking had become cosmopolitan and large, elaborately ornamental meerschaum pipes had no place in gentrified society. As I wrote in A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes more that 40 years ago: “All good things come to an end at some point in time. The delicate and slight, even the massive bulky meerschaums were impractical, never fashioned for a hurried Twentieth Century industrialized of assembly lines, crowded buses and middle-class income.” By the end of World War I, the carved meerschaum pipe had been superseded by the smooth, geometric look that would be, for the want of a better description, an Art Deco pipe. The glory days of the old-style, elaborate meerschaum pipe with amber mouthpiece is gone; it’s a dinosaur among discerning smokers. Today, it is the domain of collector–connoisseurs.

“Meerschaum Pipe Carving: Another Art Fading into History” (vagabondjourney.com, December 27, 2011) posited that today’s Turkish market is slowly disappearing. “The old meerschaum carvers are retiring, some are dying, and the youth of Eskisehir do not seem to be standing in line to take their place. In this world of department stores, computerization, and corporate ladders, and the lure of the fruits of the new consumer culture in Turkey, slow and steady arts such as hand carving meerschaum are falling into the background and may soon fade into history.” “The pipes are considered handsome enough, but in general, the details on contemporary [meerschaum] pipes are less ornate and more formulaic than those on their forebears” (“Whether there is a future for today’s Turkish carvers,” collectorsweekly.com).

Michael Bywater, a British writer and columnist for The Independent, paints a fairly accurate picture of the past in Lost Worlds. What We have Lost, & Where Did It Go? (2012). The book is a witty, eclectic, and endlessly fascinating glossary of the missing and the disappeared, everything we no longer have: important things, such as civilizations and languages, and small things, such as train compartments, snuff, galoshes, smog, your mother’s perfume, and the carved meerschaum pipe. “If you are the sort of fool who wants to poodle about with a stone, carved in the shape of a Pasha or a lion or a naked woman or an egg in an eagle’s claw, hanging out of your mouth, disgorging smoke, you still can. But it won’t be the same. Once, meerschaum was used for the finest tobacco pipes, tipped with amber, carved with delicacy, cured in a long and intricate process involving—O horror!—sperm oil, warm, fragrant and unctuous, fresh from the great head-cisterns of the sperm whale … And so the meerschaum’s glory days are over.” How right Bywater is or, as the British are wont to say, “This bloke is spot on.”

I conclude on a cheerful note. You can always count on Delalande Antiques, Paris, for elegant pipes en écume de mer from the 1800s. This is a recent accession posted on the website, un bonbon pour les yeux! Rather than a word-picture, I offer a picture with words.

Courtesy, Delalande Antiques

The verbatim description: “Magnificent meerschaum pipe representing a PAINTER clinking glasses with his MUSES. He is seated on an old armchair with the brush and palette in his left hand and the glass in the right hand. In front of him a round table with food. Three cheerful nude models are standing facing him, in front of the bowl two angels carrying a cup in their hands in a [?] of brushes and flowers decoration. The lid in amber and gilded silver. Pretty rolling ring with flowers decoration and amber stem. Dimensions: length of 45 cm x height of 16.5 cm. France made circa 1890/1900.”