"What are you going to do, then?" I asked.
"To smoke," he answered. "It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won't speak to me for fifty minutes."
(Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes in "The Red-Headed League" by Arthur Conan Doyle.)
Various kinds of pipes have been used for religious and medicinal purposes around the globe since ancient times, but it was not until the Old World discovered the New in 1492 that what we consider the traditional "tobacco pipe" began its evolution.
It was early in the exploration and colonization of the Western Hemisphere that Native Americans were observed inhaling the smoke of the "herb called tobacco."* The practice was quickly adopted by colonists and introduced to Europe. The synthesis of New World tobacco pipes with Old World designs and the constant refinements to the results led to an explosion in the different kinds and styles of pipes.
Though tobacco pipes have been made of everything from gold and silver to gourds (the calabash) and corn cobs, most pipes up to the late 19th century were fashioned of clay. Clay had the advantage of being inexpensive and easily formed, but it also easily fractured. And, in fact, pieces of clay pipe stems and bowls litter old gardens and archaeological sites throughout America and Europe.
By the late 19th century, clay began to give way to two other materials, meerschaum and briar, which remain the most popular among smokers to this day and which are highly prized by collectors.
Meerschaum is a soft white stone from Turkey that resembles ivory when polished, but changes color over time from handling and use. It is easily carved, with the artistry and quality of workmanship determining value.
Briar, the more popular of the two among smokers, is an extremely slow-growing Mediterranean White Heath tree root burl. The quality of a briar pipe is determined by several factors including craftsmanship and the color, grain, and age of the wood. (It is said that the best quality pipes require burls that are at least 50 years old!)
But it is not necessary to be a pipe smoker to appreciate the collectibility of pipes. You may find several pipes at a yard or estate sale, and upon first glance believe them to be almost identical, but closer examination could reveal that they are as individual as works of art with potential values to match. Are the stems straight or bent? Are the bowls rough or smooth? Is the metal ring gold or silver? Is the stem amber? Is the pipe marked and/or numbered? What could look like an ordinary piece could, for example, be a 1964 Dunhill DRB1 worth several hundred dollars if in good condition.
Charatan, Dunhill, Peterson, and Savinelli are just a few of the makers with reputations for quality that can almost guarantee a profit for your estate "find." And don't forget pipe-related items like ads, cases, stands, and tobacco tins. Recently, a Dunnsboro tobacco tin fetched $791.00 at an online auction.
Of course, the more you know about pipes, the more likely it is that you won't pass up a treasure to sell or to add to your collection. The following resources will help expand your knowledge of this valuable collectible:
"Collectible Pipes," by Jean Rebeyrolles
"A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes," by Ben Rapaport
"Rare Smoke: The Ultimate Guide to Pipe Collecting," by Richard Carleton Hacker
This site is "devoted to the study and dissemination of information about clay tobacco pipes. News; links.
*Colonial Williamsburg Journal: "Hunting for a Little Ladle"
Fascinating article on tobacco pipes by Ivor Noël Hume.
Connecting the Dots: A Concise History of the Sasieni Pipe by Stephen P. Smith
All about the highly collectible Sasieni brand pipe: history, identifying, dating.
The Great Northern Pipe Club
Just For Him Tobacconists
Well-designed site offers history, glossary of common terms, shapes, and makers, more.
The North American Society of Pipe Collectors
"140 Different Varieties," by John Hall
Delightful monograph on tobacciana in the Sherlock Holmes canon.
Yahoo group offers chat and limited edition pipes to members.
RD Field, LLC
A short guide to dating Dunhill pipes.
PipeSmoke ring. 255 links!
Texas A&M Anthropology 313 - Clay Tobacco Pipes
Pictorial chart on the "EVOLUTION OF ENGLISH CLAY TOBACCO PIPES, 1580-1860"