All About Pipes

Among the many accessions made possible through the generosity of the Gay family is a collection of clay pipes and fragments, carefully sorted and well documented by Ebenezer Gay. Many were dug up during gardening or, in one case, when some foundation work was done on their former home on North Street.

While it’s a humble-looking collection at first glance, particularly since most of the pieces in it are just that—pieces—pipe collections like this can serve as a window into a fascinating corner of both archaeology and social history.

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Pipes and stems found at the Gay House on North Street in Hingham

Clay pipes are a frequent archaeological find. They were batch-manufactured by craftsmen with simple tools, used all over the colonies and later the country, easily broken and then, usually, cast aside. The fragments left behind, and the much rarer pipes found intact, can give us clues about the world they came from. The length or thickness of a pipe’s stem, or the size of its bowl, can be used to determine its age, and a knowledgeable observer might use that information to help roughly date objects found with the pipe  A pipe might give more specific information than that, as well:  several of the ones in the North Street collection feature maker’s marks. The names “Murray” and “McDougall” each pop up more than once.

pipe article copy (2)

A detail from Eben Gay’s notes on his pipe collection.  Gay was the curator of scientific instruments at Harvard; thus his wonderfully detailed notes. 

While tobacco is, of course, a New World plant and tobacco smoking something Europeans learned on this side of the ocean, the tradition of clay pipe making and smoking reached New England from Old England, where clay pipe makers’ guilds formed in the 17th century. Pipes much like the ones found all over the original colonies are also found at the sites of battles that took place during the English Civil War in the 1640s. The pipes the Gays found at North Street are certainly newer than this, and indeed clay pipes continued to be used through the 19th century. However, they newer ones, too, attest to the clay pipe industry’s British heritage. Several of the stems in the collection, along with or instead of maker’s marks, are stamped with their place of origin: Glasgow, Scotland.

While our collection of pipes is resolutely plain, extending in a few cases to some raised decoration on the pipe bowls, decorative pipes became quite an industry in the 19th century. Pipes were made with bowls shaped like animals, ships, people, or anything under the sun. Decorated pipes were used for advertisement, political commentary and commemoration of events. This connection to the events of the day is not unexpected. While smoked primarily (though not exclusively!) by men, pipes were smoked by those of essentially all social positions and in all sorts of environments: in taverns, on the job, or quietly at home. All things considered, it’s unsurprising that such a ubiquitous type of object should have left so many – and to the history enthusiast, such welcome— examples of itself behind.

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3 thoughts on “All About Pipes

  1. joan says:

    The box of pipes image is wonderful–reminds me of artist Joseph Cornell’s boxes.

    • pbagger says:

      Well, that’s a happier image than I had–it thought of the Catacombs. But either way, that is what the collection looked like when we got it–we are reboxing the pipes.

  2. Suzanne Buchanan says:

    So interesting. I understand that taverns sold pipes to their customers. Weren’t these pipes found behind old Nye Tavern?

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