Feat of Clay

Clay Pipe

For successful dating from buried artefacts you need an object subject to rapid stylistic changes, and which also survives well in the ground. For the post-medieval period clay pipe fragments are ideal. The bowls, if not the stems, often carry details by which the manufacturer can be identified and dated. The industry is well researched by historians and the pipe bowls are intrinsically attractive items which are popular with collectors. Left in the ground the fragments, like other fired-clay products, are stable for many centuries. Dating by maker’s mark becomes possible after the mid-seventeeth century and during this time regional styles also developed. Clay pipes in post-medieval deposits are often the most useful dating material, being more closely datable than potsherds and far more common than coins.

In Britain the pipe itself may be older than tobacco, other herbs being smokable. I understand that there are many species of the Nicotiana genus, all native to the American continent. Two species of tobacco are smoked: Nicotiana tabacum is the basis of most modern cultivated tobacco types, but N. rustica is also used though it has a much high alkaloid content. Tobacco was famously introduced to Britain in the Tudor period, though the fact that Britain was at war with Spain must have imposed some restraint on its importation. In view of my previous profession I hope I shall be forgiven if I remind readers immediately that tobacco consumption is now the world’s most common cause of preventable death from cancer. It is quite possible to love the container and loathe the contents. In any event AD 1550 is assumed to be the earliest possible date for local clay tobacco pipes

Probably AD 1575 is a more realistic date for early tobacco consumption in Britain and  by 1590-1600 smoking, or ‘drinking’, tobacco with pipes is definitely occurring. Archaeologically pipes are rare in sixteenth century contexts and would certainly represent high status items. In view of the rarity and expense of tobacco it is not surprising that pipe bowls are very small indeed at this time. In poorer contexts pipes are not likely to be first found until the period 1620-1650. Clay pipe makers are recognised from the early years of this period and most significant towns had their own tradesmen. The products of regional producers seldom extended beyond 20-30 miles.

Initially the length of pipe stems was considerable, and somewhat impractical. In the eighteenth century an eighteen inch ‘alderman’ pipe was common. By the early nineteenth century public houses gave away shorter, cheap, clay pipes to those who bought tobacco. If you passed your pipe to a neighbour you broke off a short section of stem; the plan being to give him, and I imagine it always was a ‘him’, a smoke untroubled by your accumulated gunge. Broken pieces of stem are common and in many ways are the equivalent of modern ‘fag ends’. Some pipes, known as ‘cutty’ style, were deliberately made with short stems. These could be smoked by addicts who needed both hands to be free for working. Cigarettes started to become popular towards the end of the nineteenth century. As a result the clay pipe industry was moribund by the the turn of the century although it has not yet completely died out.

The manufacture of pipes employed local white-firing clays, similar to those used for medieval white-ware pottery. Early sources include: the Isle of Wight, Purbeck, Kent and North Devon. Other fireclays are particularly associated with the coal measures. In general the favoured sources were Dorset or Devon ball-clays. Various items were used in the manufacture of pipes: moulds, stoppers for bowls and ‘shanking’ or threading wires. A roll of clay was placed in a two piece mould with a wire to form the bore already threaded most of the way through the stem. The mould was closed and a stopper forced down to form the inside of the bowl. The stopper was removed and finally the wire pushed to complete the bore. After drying a little the pipe was trimmed. When fully dry it was fired. The earliest makers’ marks were on the ‘heel’ of the pipe. Later the stems or bowls were employed for this purpose. By the nineteenth century marks had become incorporated into the pipe moulds themselves and finally were found in ‘cartouches’ on the back of the bowl. Victorian bowls can be immensely decorative incorporating horses’ heads, birds talons, or images of famous figures.

When describing a clay pipe it is helpful to provide a full size outline of the fragment and also its colour and finish (whether it is polished or not and whether mould lines have been removed). It is important to note the relationship of the bowl to horizontal and vertical axes. Experience may teach you to judge the hardness of the fired clay and the presence of inclusions. There are a few general remarks that can be made about typology. In general bowls grew in size during the seventeenth century; early bowls have a barrel shaped form and milling marks. After the seventeenth century bowls became more upright and milling disappears. As described makers marks could be stamped after trimming or there may be moulded marks. Decoration appeared on some eighteenth century pipes but was comparatively rare until after 1780. A great variety of moulded forms developed in the nineteenth century. In some regions bowl spurs were developed at an early period; in others the flat based bowl was retained.

There are three dating possibilities. Stem dating requires statistical methods but is unreliable after 1750. The use of the stem bore as a dating aid is generally discredited. Bowl dating is a proven typological method but care must be taken to consider local characteristics. If a mark can be related to a known manufacturer it will narrow the dating possibilities. Common combinations must be compared to bowl type. Some makers used many moulds and pipe-kiln excavations suggest that not all moulds were used by the pipe makers whose initials they bear. Not all pipes found in Britain were made here. Imported pipes from the Netherlands are not uncommon. Understandably their distribution is largely coastal, there is a famous collection around Plymouth. Softer clays are used and the designs are different. From the mid-nineteenth century high quality French imports are known with ornate decoration and embellished with enamels. There are few Scottish pipes before the mid-seventeenth century. They are said to be yellowish, ‘unpolished’, and to have a poor finish. They have a deep splayed foot, and a marked forward angle.

Many folk-museums will have displays of local clay pipes and pipe-making equipment. If you wish to study these items further I would suggest: Clay Pipes for the Archaeologist by A. Oswald 1975 (BAR 14). This contains a large list of makers’ names and identifying marks broken down by county. Useful information is contained in Post-medieval archaeology in Britain by David Crossley 1990 (Leicester University Press). On-line resources include: http://archive.museumoflondon.org.uk/claypipes/

Heather Coleman’s website is a little whimsical for my taste but it is hard not to warm to her experience, enthusiasm, and love of cats: http://www.dawnmist.org/gallery.htm

The Portable Antiquites Scheme may have some pipes but of course they will not register on metal detectorists equipment: http://finds.org.uk/

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