Meerschaum pipes represent beautiful hand-carved art

Collecting antique meerschaum pipes offers both artistry and beauty, and a sensual window into a bygone age, because tobacco residue lasts just about forever.

Because I possess a beautiful, hand-carved meerschaum pipe, I have a unique art form shaped out of Turkish clay. I also have a physical connection to an ancestor who died decades before I was born, and who also happens to be my namesake. I know it sounds a little bizarre, but I can literally smell the past. I can still smell the old leftover tobacco John William Sammon used to smoke from the bowl of his pipe a hundred years ago.

I’m the third John William Sammon.

I’m not a smoker mind you, and never have been. But taking an occasional sniff of his pipe gives me a way to somehow connect with him for a moment, a physical pleasure that no other antique offers, with the possible exception of sipping aged wine.

I don’t know much about the first John William Sammon. His son, an old man who was dying and knew it, wanted me to have the pipe because I had his father’s name. I was thrilled. With a figurine of a busty woman like the kind you would see on the prow of an old sailing ship, the pipe has got to be the only one of its kind in the world.

Grateful members of the Wyoming State Legislature presented it to my great-grandfather in 1905 in recognition of his services as a state legislator (Wyoming had only become a state in 1890). In 1905, his colleagues in the Legislature made him House Speaker. They must have thought highly of him.

He’d been an early-day frontier attorney and judge, riding horseback across a rough-and-tumble district with law books in his saddlebags. Searching the Internet, I found a deposition describing how he once defended a sheep man whose animals had strayed across a complainant’s property.

I remember as a boy seeing an old tintype photo of him on his horse, and a studio portrait of a distinguished looking man with a classic Roman nose and a handlebar mustache of the kind popular during the Victorian Age. These were lost in a move.

But I have his pipe.

Meerschaum is a soft clay-like mineral from fossilized animals that looks like ivory and comes in high quality from only one place, Central Turkey. It can be carved into elegant and beautiful shapes, and has long been favored by pipe makers. It turns color with use over time, from white, to a deep, rich golden hue.

Today, meerschaums are collected for the carver’s art.

Joel Chapman of Diamond Springs, Calif., is known as the “Pipe Man” because he turned part of his antique store, Antiques, Thrift and More, into a non-profit pipe museum called Puff N Stuff, with more than a thousand pipes on display. He agreed that part of the allure of collecting an old pipe is the antique aroma.

“It evokes memories of a pipe-smoking father or grandfather,” he said. “It gives people a warm feeling, a sense of security reminiscent of the good old days back when Dad was head of the household, and smoking a pipe like Ward Cleaver (from the 1950s Leave it to Beaver TV show).”

In addition to meerschaums, Chapman’s collection includes rare Oriental pipes, tavern pipes, a Chinese lizard skin pipe, and even one in Bakelite, a type of early-day plastic invented in 1907.

Up until the 1700s, Vienna, Austria, was a major source of meerschaum. The focus shifted to Turkey in 1800 when a huge vein of the mineral was discovered there.

“The pipes can be elaborately carved, or a simple U or L shape with no carving,” Chapman explained. “From 1850 to 1870, the pipes got really elaborate, with carving on the bowl and the stem. After 1870, most of them had carving around just the bowl.”

A collector can find a simple uncarved pipe dating from 1900 to 1930 priced from about $50 to $75. The more involved the carving, and the older the pipe, the higher the price.

“You’ll see an eagle claw with an egg in it, or an ornately carved face, or a hunting scene, or a figure of an old sailor,” Chapman said. “Depending on its rarity, these can cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000.”

Chapman said places to purchase old pipes include the Internet, eBay, antique stores and estate sales.

“You can sometimes find them at a yard sale where they come out of a shoebox and the seller doesn’t know what they’re worth,” he added.
Ornate antique meerschaums often find their way into museums in the United States, so the pipes can be hard to find on the open market. They are more plentiful in Europe.

Chapman said the pipes turn golden color over time from absorbing oils from the tobacco, and also from the hands of the user smoking the pipe.

“The artistry is what I like about these pipes,” he said. “But they tell a story too. You can see from the oils turning them gold how the original smoker held the pipe in his hand. For this reason, you don’t want to clean the body of an old pipe.

Chapman added, “The big ornate ones were awkward and heavy to hold in your hand or have in your mouth.” “There’s one pipe that depicts the entire Battle of Gettysburg, and it’s a foot long.”

It’s clear from looking at Great-Granddad’s pipe that he was no habitual pipe smoker. He smoked cigars. He evidently took a cigar, jammed it in the top of the pipe bowl and smoked it that way. The cigar burned a little too hot, and as a result, the top of the pipe bowl was singed black. He also didn’t smoke the pipe for very long, because it still exhibits its original white color.

Carved meerschaum pipes often symbolize what was important to men, the majority of pipe smokers, during the time period in which they were made. For example, the buxom maiden portrayed on my ancestor’s pipe is fully in keeping with the Victorian Era (male) notion that full-figured, slightly overweight women were in vogue. To be skinny back then stigmatized you as poor, disadvantaged, unable to afford food.

Collecting old pipes is an offbeat way to enjoy the beauty and imagination of highly stylized sculptural-type carving in a unique medium – meerschaum. For me, it’s also a way to maintain a kind of sensory contact with a long distant relative whom I never knew.

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