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HomeMeerschaum Pipes

(Note to reader: This piece originally appeared in the New York Times, July 27, 1874. The original style remains unchanged. Be forewarned, the first paragraph is never-ending and profuse are the commas. Beyond that this piece is a jewel for the pipeman from a period when the pipe, not the cigar, was sovereign. Thanks go to honorary club member, Ben Rapaport for its archival discovery. This article is in the public domain.) 






  A meerschaum pipe is one of the very best things a man can have, and gives him more pleasure for the amount of money expended than anything he can buy. From the moment he makes up his mind that he must have one, the pleasure begins. He looks in the shop windows, and critically inspects the different styles and sizes of the pipes he sees there, and wonders whether his means will allow him to buy one of the more elaborate specimens. At last he selects a shop and goes in, and asks the prices of the pipes he likes, and after many assurances from the dealer that the one he has chosen is real carved meerschaum, and that it will color beautifully, he pays the bill and goes off with his pipe snugly reposing in its morocco case in his pocket. Then he buys a package of tobacco from his regular dealer, and in the pride of his heart produces his pipe-case, and tenderly takes out his pipe and shows it to him. The dealer takes it up very gingerly, examines it carefully, and says it is a pretty piece of meerschaum, and inquires how much it cost, and where it was bought. The price being told him, he says it is cheap, and advances the opinion that it will color prettily. The owner sagely wags his head and concurs. He then starts for home and on his way stops to get his usual glass of ale, and shows his new acquisition to his friend the bar-keeper, who admires it and calls up whoever else may be in the room to come and do likewise. The owner of the pipe then treats the crowd, and goes on his way home in the possession of an excellent pipe, a fine piece of real first quality cut meerschaum, with an amber mouthpiece, and which will certainly color beautifully. When he gets home he shows it to his wife, and calls on her to admire it and rejoice with him. Some women have no soul for pipes, meerschaum or otherwise, but in this instance she is a woman of the right sort, and joins heartily in his admiration, and suggests that it is a much prettier pipe than the one he lost at the picnic, and hints that it is far superior in every way to Mr. Smith’s new pipe that he was boasting of the other evening. She tells him that he can now throw away that horrid wooden thing he had, which, although she never said anything about it, she always did think was anything but nice. She winds up by telling him he must be very careful to color it nicely, and not to spoil it in the smoking, for the right sort of a woman understands something about pipes, as well as everything else that her husband likes. The important question of coloring comes up next. He must select one of two ways in which to do it, and before he begins, before even one pipeful of tobacco can be smoked, he must make up his mind as to which he will take. The first is by the use of what is called the “button,” and the second by the “plug.” A wide difference of opinion exists among amateurs and experts in the art as to which is the best. By the first method a meerschaum button, made to fit the lower part of the cavity of the pipe, with four or five small holes bored perpendicularly through it, is placed in the bottom, and upon it the tobacco. The smoke, passing through the button, soon saturates it with the essential oil, or nicotine, and thence it is absorbed into the body or the pipe, which soon acquires that dark cherry-brown color so much admired by connoisseurs. The “plug” method is very much on the same principle. A wad of moist tobacco is placed in the bottom of the pipe, and the tobacco to be smoked is put in loosely on the top. The “plug” must not be taken out until the pipe is fairly colored.  It acts as the button does in absorbing the nicotine and transmitting it to the pipe.  He decides that he will try the “plug” process, and with great care, moistens a sufficient quantity of tobacco, and after fixing it in its place proceeds to fill up his pipe very carefully. He then gets a match, and taking great pains not to allow the flame to touch the white edges of the virgin meerschaum, begins to smoke. He knows what he is about, evidently, for he smokes his pipe tenderly and considerately. He takes care not to heat it, for he knows that if he does it will never color properly. When the tobacco has burned down to the plug be gently scrapes out the ashes, and, giving it a parting glance of affection, puts it back in its case in order to let it cool off. Half an hour later he smokes it again, and when bedtime comes he takes it up stairs with him and puts it on his dressing table  with his watch, so that he can save it in case of fire. And so he continues smoking it a little while each evening, and at last is rewarded by seeing a delicate straw color make its appearance on the bowl on a line with the plug. Then he feels happy. Re polishes his pipe with his handkerchief and shows it to his wife and she expresses a due amount of admiration. And so he goes on until it is of a beautiful cherry-brown from the top of the stem to the middle of the bowl, and he has something to be proud of, and which does him credit as a smoker and the man he bought it of as a manufacturer. But there are few, alas, who know how to color a meerschaum. The average citizen takes his pipe home, fills it with tobacco, and smokes like a house afire all the evening; overheats it, or burns it, as it is technically called, and it never colors properly. He then objurgates the manufacturer for selling him an imitation meerschaum, or wonders why it is that his pipe will not color, for he knows that it is genuine and cost him $20, and was made to order. Of a good meerschaum, it may be truly said, that it is a joy forever, for it will last a man a lifetime, and changes from color to color like a chameleon. When it grows old in the service, a man feels an affection for his pipe. He has a new mouth-piece fitted to it, and a silver rim put around the top of the bowl. He likes to talk about it, and expatiate on its merits. He shows where is got bruised the time he let it fall from the second-story window, when the only wonder was how in the world it was not broken into a thousand pieces. He tells about when and where he bought it, and is as much pleased with admiration and praise as if it were one of his children that was being talked about. Some people are, to coin a word, pipomaniacs. They abound in France and Germany, and in many other parts of Europe, and some are to be found in the United States. One gentleman—a Capt. Bragg, who formerly resided in New-York, and who now lives in Birmingham, England—had when here a collection of some 400 meerschaums, all beautifully colored. This is rather an expensive taste, however, for besides the first cost of the pipes, Capt Bragg has to keep two men continually employed, whose sole duty is to smoke and keep the 400 pipes in order. Mr. Northrop, of this City, also has a taste in that direction; he has a collection of some forty pipes. Mr. McDonald, of Brooklyn, has about thirty meerschaums, three of which are very large, being at least three inches in diameter. These are worth $100 apiece. Chief Engineer W. W. Wood, of the United States Navy is also a great connoisseur, and owns about twenty-five, of all shapes and sizes. Other gentlemen of this city have collections also, but it is thought that those mentioned have the largest.

   After having said so much about meerschaum pipes it may not be out of place to say something about where the material comes from, and how it is manufactured.  Meerschaum is a kind of clay, composed of hydrate of magnesia and silex, or, more properly, hydrous silicate of magnesia.  It is found in beds in various parts of Europe, but particularly in Anatolia, in Asia Minor. When first taken from the earth it is soft, but hardens upon exposure to the air.  It is imported into this country in lumps of various sizes. The best is called spiegel, or mirror meerschaum, which is of a bluish tinge and its surface is covered with star-shaped flecks.  There are sixteen different qualities of meerschaum the first six of which, only, are imported into this country. The first, second, and third qualities are used by the manufacturers in making pipes, and the fourth, fifth, and sixth in repairs or additions to imported pipes of the corresponding class. The process of manufacture is very simple. The block of meerschaum in first soaked in water until it arrives at a proper degree of softness; it is then taken by the workman, who shapes it with a knife, and the bowl, if intended to be round, is bored and turned on a lathe. The hole in the stem then made, and the pipe is turned over to a girl, who smoothes it, first with sand-paper and afterward with a kind of grass brought from Massachusetts, which is called “shave grass,” possibly on account of its cutting properties. The pipe is then boiled in a preparation of wax, and polished with a soft cloth. Carved pipes are made somewhat differently. The carving is first done roughly, only shaped, as it were, and the meerschaum is boiled, and the carving is afterward completed. It is then boiled again, or left white, at the option of the maker. The parings of the meerschaum, called “chips,” are not used in this country at all, but are shipped back to Germany, where they are made into imitation-meerschaum. They are also used to remove grease spots from silks, being ground into powder, which, mixed with water to the consistency of cream, is used for the purpose in the same manner as fuller’s-earth.

   The meerschaum trade in New-York is a flourishing institution, and all the manufacturers do a good business. One of them sent specimens of his workmanship to Paris to the Exhibition of 1867, and received a bronze medal and a diploma. It may be proper to say that a bronze medal is the highest prize awarded to this class of goods, gold medals being given only for inventors and devices of benefit to humanity, and not for articles of ornament or luxury. This gentleman, before he was given the prize he had earned, was obliged to furnish affidavits from responsible gentlemen in this City, to prove that the work had been done here. He exhibited some thirty pieces in all, one of which, a superb pipe with a group representing Macbeth’s encounter with the witches on the heath composed of five figures two of which, Macbeth and Banquo, are mounted, excited universal admiration. It also has a figure of Shakespeare seated in an arm-chair on the lid or cover. Ten thousand francs were offered for this pipe, in Paris, but were refused by the exhibitor, as he wanted to exhibit it in this country on his return, having had no opportunity to do so previously, as it had been completed only a few days before the sailing of the United States steamer which carried the goods of the American exhibitors.

   One of the greatest pipe-fanciers in the world—Maj. Gen, Raffalovich, of the Russian Army, is now in this country. He has a collection of more than 600 pipes. Since he has been in this country he has purchased a number of meerschaums, and there is now in the hands of one of the most prominent manufacturers in this City—the same who took the bronze medal at Paris—a magnificent meerschaum pipe made to his order.  The bowl forms the bust of a very beautiful woman, and is a correct likeness of the General’s wife, taken from life. The stem and mouth-piece are of amber, fifteen inches long. The whole cost $150. This pipe will be taken to Europe as a curiosity, for it seems that Gen. Raffalovich had an idea that such things could not be made in this country.  He is now traveling in the West, and will doubtless enrich his collection by adding to it some of the celebrated calumets, made of the famous red pipe-stone by the Indians.

   The manufacture of the amber mouth-pieces and stems forms an important part of the business, and many beautiful and graceful designs are produced. None but the best amber can be employed for this purpose, and much skill is needed on the part of the workman, owing to its extreme brittleness.

   The prices of pipes range from $1.50 to $500, and even more.  A good, plain, serviceable pipe may be bought at from $10 to $15. Carved pipes are higher, and bring more in proportion, but a great deal depends on the style of the carving. Some carved pipes are really works of art, and, of course, are paid for as such. The modelers are constantly on the lookout for new designs, and bountiful studies are continually being produced. There is hardly anything in nature that cannot be copied in meerschaum, and in New-York a man may have his own head reproduced in the shape of a pipe-bowl if he should fancy it.  The cigar-holders are also very pretty, and bring high prices—sometimes as much as $75—but, as with the pipes, the price depends altogether upon the style of carving.

   When a pipe is injured in the smoking, or burned, as it technically called, it can be much improved by being reboiled, which restores to the meerschaum its power of absorption.  The word “improved’’ is use advisedly, for nothing will ever make a burned meerschaum as good as new. This need never happen, however, if proper care is taken not to heat the pipe when first smoked.

   It is very possible that the ladies of New-York will soon come to regard meerschaum as indispensable to their comfort, not in the shape of pipes and cigar-holders, but as a beautifier of their complexion, for it is proposed to grind the chips into an impalpable powder to be used as a cosmetic.