There are many thousands of smoking pipes available today, from the plain wooden variety to beautifully carved meerschaum pipes. Meerschaum is actually a German word meaning sea foam and is a very light, clay like a mineral mined mostly in Turkey, near the village of Eskisehir. Meerschaum is also found in many locations in the United States including South Carolina and Pennsylvania, but its quality is not suitable for pipe making. The scientific composition of Meerschaum is hydrous magnesium silicate, not fossilised sea creatures as many people believe.

Many legends surround the origins of the Meerschaum pipe. One story has it that around 1725 a Hungarian cobbler named Kovacs had the good fortune to carve a pipe out of a lightweight whitish stone. The cobbler, having cut the stone into two sections, proceeded to carve the pieces. Once he completed his work, he noticed one pipe had a waxy finish. Another version of the story has it that he accidently stained the pipe with shoemakers wax, while yet another version says he may have inadvertently dripped candle wax onto one of the pipes. In any event, the pipe afforded him the finest smoking moment of his life.

Germany, Austria, and Hungary were home to the first carving centres for Meerschaum. By 1800 the city of Ruhla, for example, had 27 factories and 150 carvers working Meerschaum. Soon Vienna in Austria became the Meerschaum carving capital of the world. In the second half of the 19th century, Meerschaum Centres could also be found in Paris, Leipzig, London, Prague and New York City.

Artisans working individually or in groups develop skills and knowledge that were considered proprietary. Shops developed formulas for pre-coloring Meerschaum bowls to reduce the break-in time. The wax finishing process was another well guarded secret that would go to the grave with many of its creators. Not even family members were privy to some of the concoctions tradesmen developed to finish their pipes. As a result, today’s Meerschaum carvers and restorers are often unable to replicate past work. In contrast, designs, themes, patterns and samples for Meerschaum pipes were often available to carvers from pattern books.

Meerschaum pipes went through several transformations from the early 1700s to the early 1900s. Their first face consisted of large U or L shaped pipes. Popular until about 1815, these pipes were usually finished in one of three ways: smooth; baroque-ornate carvings including scrolls, festoons and leaves; and bas-relief carvings of people, battles and buildings.

The second phase was influenced greatly by the clay pipes produced in France. Beginning in the mid 19th century and continuing until the early 20th century meerschaums became smaller and the bowl increasingly took the form of a bust of a person or animal. The stems became more lateral as well, and were usually made of amber.

The third phase was greatly influenced by the popularity of the cigar and the cigarette. Known as cheroot holders, these smaller representations, often resembling a tube pipe or an early clay pipe, were topped with three dimensional carvings of deer, horses or dogs.

The final phase of Meerschaum pipes came about as a means to compete with the growing popularity of the briar pipe. Meerschaum pipes, like briar, became devoid of decoration and ornate carving. The Meerschaum pipe had lost its grandeur and was reduced to a smoking tool once again.