“. . . 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.
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.”
- 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