Artifact of the Day for May 9th, 2023 — Clay smoking pipes

Clay smoking pipe fragments are a common sight on 19th century archaeological sites. They can be viewed as an essential element of study because of several characteristics. First of all, they were relatively inexpensive and suited to mass production (you may consider them ubiquitous from the 17th to the 19th centuries). Second, they were relatively brittle and short lived, lasting about a year or two until they were discarded. Third, like many artifacts, they vary over time in style and appearance (some forms can be dated to a 20 or 30 year time span) and are often marked with the maker’s stamp.

Pipe stems could be used for more than smoking. Broken pipe stems were sometimes refashioned as whistles. In Colonial Williamsburg, an 18th century walkway was discovered containing over 15,000 pipe stems used as paving material. There’s also evidence they were used as murder weapons at least twice!

Looking at the assemblage of pipes recovered from a site can add to the interpretation. At the very least, they might suggest a reasonable range of occupation for the site, or highlight areas of the site that might be from different contexts. The source of the pipes might tell us about the trade networks the occupants of the site were part of, on local to global scales. If we found more complete pipes with bowls present, that might tell us about the socioeconomic status of the smokers on the site. Pipes from very finely worked complicated moulds and which had undergone more finishing treatments before sale presumably would be more expensive than a rough, plain pipe to purchase. The designs on the bowls might also tell us about the messages the individuals wanted to convey through their smoking. These were visible artifacts used in social contexts, so pipe decoration was a way to silently make a statement about patriotism, affiliations, likes, beliefs, or political leanings.

On a sultry evening in….1864, I was seated on my veranda in Sandwich, watching the vapours from my favourite TD pipe as they gently ascended and assumed various forms…”

— William Baby, 1896

Pipe designs were often pirated by other makers, the most famous example is the “TD” pipe, where the initials TD are found on the bowl. The TD bears almost no relationship to the maker, it transcended being a maker’s mark to being its own sort of pipe, the TD pipe, which was made by many different manufacturers.

We have been finding a fair number of pipe fragments, so we decided today to make them the focus of the artifact of the day. We do have some makers marks present on the pipes we are finding, which will help us narrow down their source and manufacturing date.

Common makers that we have found so far are:

Maker NamePlaceManufacture Date Range
W&D BellQuebec1862-1881
Tho. White & Co.Edinburgh1823-1876
Fragment of “[QU]EBEC” visible on stem.
Pipe stem fragments, one has […]BUR[…] which is probably Edinburgh, and the other is “[McDOU]GALL”.

We haven’t found many bowl fragments with decoration yet, but today we did find one fragment with a vine cleverly integrated into the bowl mould seam. We also found a bowl with a fragment of an anchor design, which does not match any of the known maker anchor designs I could find. We have also found some with fine fluting and other sorts of linear designs.

Vines on bowl cleverly incorporating mould seam.
Anchor on bowl.

Most of the bowl fragments we have recovered are black on the interior, which tells us the pipes were broken after they had been used for smoking.

The remnants of the Montreal Henderson works kiln was excavated by archaeologists in 2019.

The other mode of tobacco consumption common at this time was chewing tobacco (which has a whole range of artifacts associated with that practice). By the early 20th century, the most popular means of tobacco consumption was cigarettes. After World War 1, clay pipes fall in popularity in favour of briar or meershaum pipes for those who still preferred smoking tobacco with a pipe.

We are looking forward to seeing what the pipes can tell us from the excavation. Once all the pipes are cleaned, we might be able to identify even more marks that are currently obscured by dirt. We have pipes from several of the other Nassau Mills sites we have excavated to compare assemblages and maybe discover something interesting through comparison.

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