Myth #4 Revisited: When men smoked, they often shared the same white clay pipe. For sanitary reasons, they would break off the tip before passing on the pipe.

While attending a conference for museum professionals in Annapolis, MD, recently, I learned something new about broken pipe stems that requires an addition to Myth #4. I learned from Tony Lindauer, Anne Arundel County archaeologist, that men did sometimes break off the tip of the pipe stem, although certainly not for sanitary reasons. Tony explained that as the hot, tar-filled tobacco smoke is sucked up the stem, it cools a little, and when it gets to the moist mouth, it cools significantly and solidifies. Soon a deposit of tar builds up inside the pipe stem near the mouth, blocking the bore. So a smoker might, indeed, need to break off an inch or so of the clogged tip to continue smoking. I’ve modified Myth #4 accordingly, as follows:

      “. . . and that’s why archaeologists find so many bits of broken pipe stems in so many excavations.” 

      Well, it certainly makes sense to us today, with our knowledge of germs and the spread of disease.  But early Americans didn’t know about germs, and so it would not have occurred to them that sharing the same pipe was unsanitary.  Yet this myth has survived for decades, probably since someone applied modern logic to understand why historical archaeologists were unearthing thousands of bits of broken pipe stems. 

       And the real reason? The long slender stems of white clay pipes are fragile, as anyone who has handled a reproduction carelessly can attest.  Why did they make them so long then? They needed to be long so that the heat from the burning tobacco in the bowl of the pipe would not be conducted as far as the lips. Our forefathers did share pipes–and drinking vessels for that matter–but no one broke off the end for sanitary reasons. But there was one reason that might have prompted a colonial smoker to break off a small piece of pipe stem. Maryland archaeologist Tony Lindauer explains that as the hot, tar-filled tobacco smoke is sucked up the stem, it cools a little, and when it gets to the moist mouth, it cools significantly and solidifies. Eventually a deposit of tar builds up inside the pipe stem near the mouth, blocking the bore. So a smoker might, indeed, need to break off an inch of the clogged tip to continue smoking, rather than get a new pipe.        

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8 Responses to Myth #4 Revisited: When men smoked, they often shared the same white clay pipe. For sanitary reasons, they would break off the tip before passing on the pipe.

  1. James "Jake" Pontillo says:

    I volunteer at Queens Farm ( in NYC) when we have tavern nights. We use such long pipes, but at the end of the evening they are put into a special purpose made rack and put in the fireplace where they ‘refire’ and come out brand new clean. It would take a LONG time for such a tar build up- and might only happen to someone using the pipe without knowing to put it into the fire to clean.

    • Mary Miley says:

      That is very true. A pipe-smoking archaeologist at a history conference where I was speaking told me “just put it in the fire. That’ll clean it out.”

      • James "Jake" Pontillo says:

        I am also a reenactor and when I used to smoke I put the clay pipe into the fire and presto it came out all white and new. We have tavern pipes at our Tavern nites and I explain the situation to the visitors.. Thanks for getting back to me. Love your site!

  2. Kait Elliott says:

    I know this blog entry is almost a year old, but I was informed by an older gentleman that this is the origin of “to the bitter end”. He was rarely seen without his clay pipe.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Actually, it’s more than 3 years old–this was the fourth myth I posted back in early 2010. As for the origins of that phrase, I suspect your friend is indulging in wishful thinking. Isn’t it amazing, though, how people will stretch to come up with an explanation for phrases, beliefs, and such???

    • James "Jake" Pontillo says:

      No. The ‘bitter end’ is a nautical term, for the end of a piece of line or what lands people call rope, and which might be attached to one of the bitts -a low rail on the bow of a ship.

      • Mary Miley says:

        Thanks for clarifying, Jake.

      • James "Jake" Pontillo says:

        The expression has widely diffused, but it starts as a nautical term. A Google search will bring up all kinds of bars, clubs, etc. And you will have to further clarify it as “Bitter end- rope” BTW my PhD dissertation was on “16th C. Spanish Nautical Terms in Modern Spanish, SUNY Buffalo, 1974)” So I have always had a great interest in semantic amplification. I really enjoy your site.

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