A clay pipe is prominent in this pre-1700 painting

The biggest myth, or fallacy, associated with tobacco pipes from the 18th century is that the stems were purposefully broken off as the pipes were smoked in a tavern so that each man had a section that hadn’t been previously in the mouth of another man.  This is simply nonsense.  Martin has doubted that legend for years, and recently found an archaeological study associated with Colonial Williamsburg in which the author stated as much, finally putting that idea to rest.  (I will add the title later)

Pipe historian, J. A. Hitchcock, explained in an excellent article that by starting out with long stems, smokers could continue to use the pipe as the fragile stem tips broke with use, but like others did not reference the legend of the stems being purposefully broken. 

London archaeologists state that the pipes were easily broken, but priced so that when broken they were replaced without a great deal of concern.  Again, their report made no reference to purposefully breaking the pipe stems.

Logic dictates that men who were willing to pass a multi-handled mug around and drink after each other wouldn’t have cared to put a pipe in their mouth because another had smoked it, and although pipes were fairly common, no one would have wasted one unnecessarily to save the inconvenience of replacing it.

The use of pipes in Europe was documented by William Harrison who wrote in 1573, “In these daies the taking-in of the smoke of the Indian herbe called Tobaco by an instrument formed like a little ladell, whereby it passeth from the mouth into the head and stomach, is gretlie taken-up and used in England”. 

When tobacco came into vogue, smoking a pipe was initially referred to as “drinking tobacco”.  [Everard, 1659] No attempt will be made to date the first Europeans who made pipes because there is no definitive proof of a particular decade or location, but suffice to say that by 1600 pipes were being made in England. 

Initially the pipes were small, with about a 4 to 6 inch stem, and small bowls.  Some were flat on the bottom so that the pipe would stand upright when placed on a flat surface.  Later the bowls became rounder underneath and the stems grew longer, up to 10 to 14 inches.  Bowls also increased in size as tobacco became more readily available and less expensive.  During the mid-18th century the stems reached maximum length at about 18 to 24 inches.  Bowls were often decorated by hand or with a stamp, and some had a maker’s mark. 

Several reputable sources indicate that reed stems date only from the middle of the 18th century on, thus the one-piece clay pipe is most accurate for living history sites through the 1750’s or 60’s.  I did document in Everard the practice of burning tobacco in a brazier or vessel of some sort and sucking the smoke into the mouth through a hollow reed.  He distinguished that practice as separate from smoking a pipe by saying the, “ordinary way to suck it from a pipe, and puff it out again, is held the best way…”.

Fragments have been discovered at hundreds of historic sites, beginning with Jamestown and numerous explorers documented the use of tobacco and smoking in the Americas.

With the advent of smoking came revenue for those associated with selling tobacco and pipes – “druggists, grocers, tobacco-shops, taverns, inns, ale-houses, victuallers, Carriers, Cutters and dryers, pipe-makers, and the like…” .  – Everard, Giles.  Panacea, or, The Universal Medicine Being a Discovery of the Wonderfull Vertues of Tobacco Taken in a Pipe, with Its Operation and Use both in Physick and Chyrurgery.   1659.  London.

Pieter Claesz still life 1627

Peter Claesz, 1627

(c) City of London Corporation; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Jan van de Velde III, 1653, note coals in the brazier


Pieter Claesz (1597-1660), shows pipes and open brass tobacco box


Note the boy on the left smoking a clay pipe, another pipe is in the foreground


Close-up of the man lighting a pipe from a brazier, ‘The Shoemaker’

Note the boy outside the window smoking a clay pipe, the woman seated at the far right also holds a pipe

Additional sources:  (Paintings predate 1700, and fall in the public domain.)

Hitchcock, J. A.  Clay Pipes – Then and Now.


Harrison, William.  Chronologies.  1573.  London.