June 24, 2012

Put That in Your Pipe and Smoke It

As both of my loyal readers know, I love finding stuff in our yard.  Old pieces of stoneware, redware, china and glass all get squirrelled away in our basement in containers of "treasures," as my kids like to call them.  For the most part, these items went into the ground in the 18th and 19th centuries as trash, and they emerged in the 21st century as trash in most people's eyes.  To me, however, they are little glimpses of our home's past, so I can't bear to throw them in the garbage.

Since most of what I find would barely qualify as a shard, I am always particularly interested in finding items that I can actually identify.  High on my treasure list are parts of clay pipes.  Anyone who was ever visited Colonial Williamsburg has probably seen these accessories casually placed atop a priceless Chippendale desk in the Governor's Palace, clenched in the teeth of a hard-core reenactor, or on sale for a very reasonable $9.99 in the gift shops.  The pipes are usually made of smooth white clay, with long (7" to 16") stems.  Apocryphally, the pipes would be passed around in a tavern, and each person would break off the end of the pipe stem to give themselves a clean piece to hold in their mouths.  Given how generally unsanitary life in the 18th century was, I'm a little skeptical of that history.  In a world where baths were an annual event and sewage flowed freely in the streets even in the nice parts of town, I'm guessing that a little spit swapping was low on the list of concerns for most people (n.b. - a quick look on the interwebs busts the myth of the hygienic pipe stem break - tobacco pipes in public establishments were cleaned and dried in iron pipe kilns.  I see these kilns at auction from time to time, and they always sell at a level that is way too rich for my blood).  Anyway, here's what I'm talking about.

Reproduction Clay Tobacco Pipes

Period Pipebox
Ever since reading James Deetz's In Small Things Forgotten, I've been fascinated with the fact that experts can approximate the age of artifacts based upon the diameter ("bore") of the stems of clay tobacco pipes that they excavate.  How cool is that?  Even better, this form of identification is called the Harrington Method.  No relation, but I still have to love it.  Here's a link to a National Park Service page on clay pipe dating in case you want to go full-bore nerd on the topic.

Anyway, about five years ago I turned up the first piece of clay pipe stem in our garden, which I thought was very exciting.  I now find little segments of stem a couple of times a year.  Even better, when I was excavating underneath our Greek Revival-era entry hall a few years ago, I dug up two pipe bowls and a fairly long segment of stem, which are pretty damn cool, at least to the extent that something inherently uncool can be cool

Pipe Fragments from our Property

Our most recent pipe find was a few months ago, when we were replacing the front of our house.  Tucked onto a beam between the first and second floors of the house was a nice long segment of pipe stem.  With no obvious way for the stem to have fallen onto the beam (not even a proximate rodent hole through which  Amos the Mouse might have dragged it), I wonder if it might have been tucked in during construction of the house, probably by someone annoyed to have had his pipe break while he was hard at work.

Amos the Mouse

Here's an interesting tidbit - these pipes are still considered to be viable smoking paraphernalia, so if you want to buy one from The Period House (who are selling them along with the aid of the germophobic stem-breaking story), you need to confirm that you are over 18 years of age.  Who knew?

So, kids, before you sneak out to buy that 16" reproduction clay  tobacco pipe, give some thought to this verse from a 1719 anti-tobacco poem attributed to Thomas D'Urfey, "The Indian Weed":

The pipe that is so lilly white,
Wherein so many take delight.
It's broken with a touch,
Man's life is such;
Think of this when you take tobacco!

Maybe not as catchy as "Just Say No!", but definitely ahead of its time in message.

A Hand of Connecticut Tobacco on our Fireplace


  1. Adelaide in IllinoisJune 24, 2012 at 10:11 PM

    Fascinating story.

    One of my old house "trash finds" was a small white and blue doll's teapot found between the first and second floors of the house during renovation. It was in almost perfect condition.

    Now that I have kids and see how they can quarrel, I imagine that some little girl lost her doll's teapot, went sobbing to her parents, and blamed her brother, who usually torments her for fun. The brother, of course, denied the accusation. But little sister was convinced he did it.

    It took decades for someone to pull the floors up and potentially prove him innocent.

    Hope you find pipes and other treasures for decades to come.

  2. We've found a couple things over the past several months, the prior owners kept their findings in a cardboard box that was left in the house. The box has shards of pottery, some china and glass. Our neighbor found a barrel of a musket!

    On an episode of This Old House: Bedford, MA, the owners invited/hired someone with a metal detector to scour the yard before thier circa 1730 home was renovated. They found musket balls and a couple of coins among other things. Imagine finding a dated coin!

  3. Wow, a musket barrel would be cool. We had someone go through our yard with a metal detector a few years ago, but didn't find much. I was hoping for a musket ball, but none have turned up yet. I want to have someone sweep the yard again, and spend some time in and around our barn, too. I did find a worn coin with an illegible date a few months ago, which a local coin shop identified as a liberty head copper penny, from the 1830s-40s. Not too bad. I suspect the best stuff is still buried in the old outhouse pits, which I want to find and excavate.

    1. That is completely disgusting.... I love it! I would do the same thing.

    2. Old privies aren't disgusting at all. Everything is well-composted, and they are just filled with rich soil. I have dug in more than a few - my family used to dig for bottles in old ghost towns throughout the West when I was growing up.


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