“. . . 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 weren’t always so long–length varied from 5 to 18 inches throughout the 17th through 19th centuries. Some length is needed 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. Maybe so, but Jeff, a reenact who uses the clay pipes, wrote, “I have smoked clay tavern pipes for over a decade now, I have Never had one ‘solidify’ and clog at the end of the stem. And if the stem ever does clog then just a couple minutes over a candle or flame burns it right out. BUT, what I have noticed is that after time of carrying it in my teeth I begin to carve a nice groove into the stem where it eventually Snaps right off! Also, as being a reenactor, clay pipes are hard to carry around without breaking them. Usually tucking it into my hatband or sticking it in an empty coat button hole, where it sometimes Snaps right off! But snapping one off ‘because it became clogged’?? NEVER happened. Sorry.”
More likely, though, was that the smoker would put the pipe in a pipe holder in the fireplace, and let the heat clean the pipe out and turn it all white again–and germ free, although they didn’t know that in those days. Dr. James Pontillo, a volunteer reenactor at a tavern in New York says, “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.”
I checked with my favorite archaeology expert, Ivor Noel Hume, who said that the pipes did not need to be THAT long to keep heat away from the limps. He replied, “Early 17th 17th century pipes were usually below 9 inches from mouth to heel. By the end of the century they averaged 11 1/4″ and by ca. 1730 about 12 1/2”. I have one from Chester that belongs in the “churchwarden” class (ca. 1780-1820) and measures 18″. I don’t think that overheated hands or lips had any bearing on stem length. By the mid 19th century the average clay pipe’s stem was down to about 5 inches while the tobacco capacity was as great as it had been in the previous centuries. Working me would break down the earlier stems to be smoked with one hand while working and to thread them into their hats to be carried into the fields. Practicality was ever foremost with sanitary notions far behind.”
- For a thorough discussion of colonial-era pipes, see archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume’s article at http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/winter03-04/pipes.cfm