Hydrostone and Resin Pipes
Ben Rapaport, October 2022
Exclusive to pipedia.org
Surfing the Internet recently, I came across ads for raw hydrostone made from baked terracotta clay promoted as a reusable humidifying stone that keeps tobacco and herbs smokeable “so that you never have to worry about any of it going to waste.” The stones are made from uncoated natural terracotta clay baked in kilns. Amazon and other online sellers offer these humidifying tablets, about 1.5 inches in diameter from producers such as Envolvo, Rawlife, Master Cheef, and Maybao. The Danish Pipe Shop calls them “Hydrostone Humidifiers.” It was evident that I had not been paying attention to all the new-fangled products beyond e-cigarettes and other non-combustible tobacco products, because hydrostone—not the tablet, but the pipe—was very familiar to me.
My experience with hydrostone tobacco pipes dates back a half-century, and I remember the person promoting them, Michael “Mike” Seiden, an antique meerschaum pipe collector and dealer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had placed ads in several issues of Hobbies magazine in the Fall of 1971, when I read about him and hydrostone pipes. What’s a hydrostone pipe? My curiosity was piqued. As I learned from a dictionary, hydrostone is a very strong, light-weight, quick-setting white plaster used in tooling and in high-quality art-object applications, e.g., patterns, figurines, commercial casts, and sculpture.
I was attending the U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, at the time, so I contacted him and made a weekend trip to Cambridge to meet him. I never asked about his formal education or work experience, but he obviously had a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry. He showed me a few pipes he had made as exacting cast replicas in hydrostone of his meerschaum pipes and cheroot holders, each married to a vulcanite mouthpiece. They were not promoted as meerschaum pipes; they were not fakes; they were replicas or reproductions. He had good intentions, believing that those who purchased one would know that (1) it was made to look like a real meerschaum pipe, and (2) it was not meant to be smoked. I didn’t buy any of his pipes, but Mike had introduced me to my first non-traditional—and very impractical—pipe medium that would not be a good smoke, but a material that could probably be used in the restoration of a meerschaum pipe. I would soon learn about another odd material associated with pipes.
Going from hydrostone to resin pipes requires a side trip through fake pipes. Fake meerschaum pipes are not a new thing. If you follow Mark Twain, you might have read about his being feted at a get-together in July 1863 in Virginia City, Nevada, where several of his friends gave him “…a handsome, but fake, meerschaum pipe” during an elaborate public ceremony. One source noted that it was a “…punning gift of a ‘mere-sham’ meerschaum.” Another described the gift as “…a ridiculous looking pipe, with a straight bowl about five inches high, and about a yard of blue ribbon floating from the stem.” (Read a more detailed account of this pipe caper by Chuck Stanion, “A Pipe Prank Played on Mark Twain” [smokingpipes.com]).
For whatever reason, there were many plays on the word meerschaum, such as mere-sham and mereshame, but I’m not sure why. It was a conundrum: “When is a German pipe not a German pipe? ... When it is a meerschaum (mere sham)” (A. Cantab, Charades, Enigmas, and Riddles, 1862). And as a joke: “Why is a Review like an inferior species of tobacco pipe?” “Because it’s a meerschaum (mere sham)” (“The Joke Market,” Punch, Volume XXI, 1851). “Why is a meerschaum like a water-color artist? Because it draws and colors beautifully.” But meer-sham was also not a joke. I quote from “Meerschaum and Amber” (The Fanciers’ Journal and Poultry Exchange, May 29, 1876): “…but there is an artificial preparation, which is a mere-sham, indeed, and for which there is no certain test by which it may be distinguished from the genuine…” Most would agree that “mere sham” is a play on words, a sham pipe. (Mere Sham. A Comedy in One Act, was published in 1875 and, no joke: Sham & Meer is a law firm in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.)
There’s also false or spurious meerschaum, once made with meerschaum chips, mixed with clay and blended together to form a paste. Other words have been used in the past, such as “artificial meerschaum” or “imitation meerschaum.” It’s likely that false, artificial, and imitation meant the same thing. John Irving mentions “fake meerschaum pipes” in The Water-Method Man. Although he called them fake, I believe that he meant pressed, rather than block, meerschaums. I am not surprised to read a comment from someone who had visited Turkey in 1996: “Every pipe smoker leaving for Turkey surely wants to buy a meerschaum pipe, but one must be careful. The country is overflowing with second quality and fake meerschaum pipes” (“Smoking in Turkey,” alphanet.it). I can say with confidence that at least Turkish carver S. Yanik has been making rather-exacting reproductions of several antique meerschaum pipes illustrated in my book, Collecting Antique Meerschaum Pipes, but he uses real meerschaum!
Now to pivot to resin pipes. Resin is a solid or highly viscous substance of plant or synthetic origin that is typically convertible into polymers, also described more specifically as synthetic phenolic resin, such as Redmanol or redolite and Bakelite. Remember the S. M. Frank, Medico, and Yello-Bole Brylon pipes, a combination of a resin and sawdust that were introduced in the 1960s? And let me not forget the Venturi (aka The Pipe and The Smoke (see Super-Temp) pipe made of pyrolytic graphite, another experiment in alternative pipe mediums that was somewhat popular in the 1960s–1970s.
A new generation of resin pipes began to appear in the marketplace shortly after the hydrostone era. The resin pipe in this photo has been, without question, the most widely circulated and the most infamous fake … ever. My first encounter with it was when Christie’s, London, contacted me in October 1994 by letter asking about its authenticity. The letter read: “I enclose a photograph of the pipe, which is carved from amber and bears the signature Gustav Fisher Jnr on the bowl, and Gustav Fisher, Vienna, Exposition 1873 on the stem. I would very much appreciate any assistance you might give me with regard to its background, and especially any information on the maker.”
Although I had never seen this pipe prior to Christie’s letter, I knew that it was wrong on so many levels and it would be easy to disclaim this PipeImPostEr. I provided these details in my response:
- The name is Gustav Fischer, not Fisher. He emigrated from Vienna to the United States in 1882, so it is unlikely that he carved any pipe for the 1873 Vienna exhibition.
- If a German or an Austrian carved this pipe, it would bear the words “Wien Ausstellung, 1873,” not “Vienna, Exposition 1873.”
- The pipe was pre-colored in oxblood red to conceal the seams that, in turn, determined that the material was moulded resin.
- The carving was crude and lacked detail, not in the style of Gustav Fischer’s deft hand and eye.
- Gustav rarely signed his pipes, and if he did, his signature would not have included “Jnr.” Gustav Fischer Jr. was born in 1887 in Manhattan. Gustav Jnr. worked only in briar.
- The mouthpiece is plastic, not amber, amberoid, or an artificial, lab-produced substitute. Sr. only worked with amber.
- The insert is cast pot metal. Sr. never used any appliqued metal décor or findings, but if he had, having been schooled in the fine arts, the findings would have been silver or gold.
Any antique pipe collector familiar with Gustav Fischer Sr. would not be taken in by this pipe. No pipe he carved, even when he was losing his sight in the late 1930s, was ever this shoddy, and every pipe he carved left his workshop as milky white, never pre-colored. In mid-November, I received Christie’s brief reply: “Unfortunately we will not be selling the pipe.”
Searching for the source of this pipe online, I discovered that a significant quantity of this knock-off had been produced, and they have appeared with frequency in public auctions, at antique and pipe shows, at flea markets and on eBay. Depending on the venue, prices have ranged from $100 to as much as $1,000. (I know a collector who, for whatever reason, owns six of them.) One at a Morphy Auction in 2005 was described as follows: “OUTSTANDING CARVED MEERSCHAUM PIPE SIGNED GUSTAV FISCHER. The pipe bowl has dancing man and woman with another man and woman conversing. The top of the bowl is decorated with flowers. Blackish/ red patina. Marked “Gustav Fischer, Paris.” Silver leaf decorated ferrule, decorated amber type mouth piece.” Lot-art-com advertised one as “Brand: Gustav Fischer, Materials: Meerschaum, Silver Plate, Plastic, Marks: Signature, Country of Origin; Period: Late 19th/Early 20th Century, Antique, Origin: France.” This is evidence of another version with the correct spelling of Fischer, and a provenance of Paris, not Vienna. Ebth.com sold one, “Gustav Fischer Varnished Carved Meerschaum Pipe with Dancing Figures,” in December 2019 for $182. What was it really worth? Far, far less, in my opinion. The culprit who made these has never been identified.
Soon after eBay became operational in 1995, John Lee, a Brit, made his own mark on the pipe-collecting community producing moulded resin pipes—replicas of his antique meerschaums—and began selling them on eBay. At least three that I know were in circulation in the early 2000s: (1) the “Nude Victory,” a woman on the front of a tulip-shaped bowl, her arms outstretched over her head; (2) “Woman and Child”; and (3) the bust of a Norseman or Viking, whose telltale signs of new-age construction are a latticed pot-metal shank band and an orange plastic mouthpiece, exactly like the mouthpiece of the alleged Fischer pipe. When challenged by several collectors who believed that his choice of words to describe his pipes could be interpreted as “genuine” meerschaum, he and his erzsatz meerschaums dropped out of sight, but I’ll wager that, from time to time, I’ll probably see some of these on eBay.
It would be naïve to believe that what had happened in the briar pipe industry—the flood of “genuine briar fakes,” i.e., counterfeit Dunhills, Charatans, and others—in the last quarter of the 20th century would not eventually happen with antique meerschaums. (See John C. Loring, “The 1980s Fake Dunhill” [pipedia.org], and “Fakiest” [bstpipes.com].) There are even counterfeit and fake bongs and knockoff vape pens in circulation. I’m not surprised about these low-tech endeavors. After all, for quite some time, it has been the era of fake products.
While hydrostone pipes have pretty much disappeared from the smoking scene, resin pipes have not. They keep on popping up more frequently than the Punxsutawney groundhog. Amazon sells resin pipes, but they are advertised as resin pipes. And now, “durable imitation meerschaum” pipes have been introduced into the marketplace. G_d only knows what that composition is.
Here’s a suggestion. “To Tell Genuine Meerschaum.—For the purpose of distinguishing imitation meerschaum from the true article, rub with silver. If the silver leaves lead pencil-like marks on the mass, it is not genuine but artificial meerschaum. If no such lines are produced, the article is genuine” (Gardner D. Hiscox, Henley’s Twentieth Century Formulas, Recipes and Processes, 1910). And another bit of counsel: “Pipes made from this [imitation]material are not susceptible to color change, as are the genuine meerschaum pipes” (Milton H. Fies, How Can the Bureau of Mines Best Serve Mining?, U.S. Bureau of Mines, Information Circular, May, 1934). I’m not one to “Lick your finger, touch the inside of the (unsmoked) bowl. If it feels sticky, it’s block. If it doesn’t, it’s pressed,” as someone posted online.
Although this article is principally about Native-American artifacts, the author is spot on. “Pipes have been replicated, duplicated and faked since about 1850; according to 19th century writers. Reproduction pipes were easy to pass on to museums and collectors. Communication was slow and photography was in its infancy. Study comparison and scientific investigation only became prevelant [sic] in the mid 1900’s. Consequently, few experts can distinguish the difference between real and reproduction today” (“Pipe & Smoking Instrument Fakes,” forums.arrowheads.com). Buyers will have to figure out a better way to determine whether a meerschaum pipe is fake than as is recommended online: “How can you tell if a meerschaum pipe is real? The quality of meerschaum can be distinguished by testing its porosity.” That may be useful for a potential smoker, but certainly not for a collector.
Care to read more about fake, forged and phony meerschaum pipes that some have deridingly called “mere scam”? You should be able to access these two online articles, “The Age of Steal: Late 20th Century Rip-offs, Switcheroos, Knock-offs, and Assorted Other Tobaccoland Trickery” and Anita Stratos, “Meerschaum Pipes. Fooled by Fakes.” Unfortunately, Rachel Spradling, “How to Identify a Fake Meerschaum” (ourpastimes.com) doesn’t cover all the really important clues.
Personally, I don’t believe that the collecting world will ever stop seeing pipes for sale that are not what they are advertised to be. There is, for sure, a vast gulf between honest reproductions and fakes, and P. T. Barnum was right: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Con artists prey upon them. The age-old adage applies when buying any item claimed to be antique: caveat emptor! If there’s no caveat, the emptor is SOL.