A few weeks ago, there was an interesting interview on Radio New Zealand with historian Jock Phillips, on the history of tobacco use in New Zealand. In the interview, Jock talked about the ways in which people consumed tobacco in the past, the types of people smoking tobacco at different points in New Zealand’s history and the rituals that surrounded the habit. One of the things he touched on was the use of the clay tobacco pipe as the method of choice for most smokers during the 19th century, whether in social situations or in the privacy of the home.
Clay smoking pipes are relatively common finds on 19th century archaeological sites here in Christchurch, although, given the prevalence of smoking in 19th century society and the ease with which the pipes were discarded after use, it’s surprising that we don’t find more of them. Clay pipes were, on the whole, cheap and easily obtained, although some of the more elaborately decorated pipes would have been more expensive and, consequently, less disposable. Many of the cheaper, plainer pipes may have been used only once before being discarded, particularly in certain contexts: hotels and taverns, for example, used to provide disposable clay pipes for their customers to use and throw away while on the premises (Phillips 2014).
Clay pipes are one of my favourite kinds of artefacts and a big part of that, I think, is due to the elaborate styles of decoration we sometimes find. They’re just so cool. Most of the pipes we find are plain, made from white clay, with no decoration on the bowl, but others are moulded and sculpted in fantastic ways. We’ve found fish head pipes; bowls as eggs cradled in the talons of an eagle; effigy pipes sculpted to look like skulls and caricatures; basket pipes; pipes with steam-ships and trains on them; military pipes; naval pipes and, notably, a pipe with the figure of a woman riding side-saddle along the stem.
Like most decorated objects, there’s information in the decorative styles of these pipes – fashions that can be dated to period of popularity, references to events or figures or organisations that can tell us something about Victorian society and the culture of pipe smoking. Many of the pipes are also marked with the initials or names of their manufacturers, identifying pipe makers in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London, Manchester or Sydney (among other places), who shipped their goods to New Zealand.
Scotland and England had particularly strong export markets, supplying clay smoking pipes to the colonies in Australia and New Zealand during the Victorian era (Gojak and Stuart 1999, Sudbury 2006). Certain manufacturers – Thomas White, Charles Crop and Duncan McDougall, for example – are frequently represented amongst pipe fragments found here and in Australia. Other pipes may have been made on the continent, particularly in France, where there was also a strong clay pipe manufacturing industry, but, as yet, we’ve not found any recognisably French pipes in Christchurch (Ayto 2002).
We’ve also found pipes with local connections, marked with the names of Christchurch retailers and merchants. Pipes with the names of Cathedral Square retailers Twentyman & Cousin and coffee, flax and chicory merchants the Trent Brothers were both found on central city sites earlier in the year. It seems likely that these companies ordered pipes from overseas, branded with their own names, to be sold in their stores or as part of their merchandise. Similarly, in Australia, we know of at least one Sydney tobacconist – Hugh Dixon – who also sold clay pipes bearing his name.
These pipes are found in a range of contexts, some of which can add to or confirm our knowledge about the rituals of pipe smoking in 19th century Christchurch, as well as the methods by which they were imported and sold in the city. We find pipes in domestic assemblages, pipes that would have been smoked by the residents of those households (probably the men – as far as we know, pipe smoking was an almost exclusively male thing amongst European settlers). Smoking was a common habit in Victorian society, particularly in the home. There are numerous articles and advertisements surrounding both the rituals or practice of smoking and the pipes used in the process (Daily Southern Cross 23/04/1852: 1, Evening Post 6/08/1872: 2 Star 10/03/1892:10, Taranaki Herald 2/10/1909: 6, Thames Star 5/02/1892:1).
One thing I found interesting, actually, while researching this, was the number of articles discussing tobacco smoking that referred to the health issues associated with it – good and bad. The most astonishing, I think, was an article from 1867 which decried tobacco as a poison that “benumbs the brain, extinguishes the memory, brings on giddiness, and finally engenders those horrible diseases, cancer in the mouth, and softening of the spinal marrow” (New Zealand Herald 17/12/1867: 5). We tend to think of health concerns with tobacco as a modern phenomenon: clearly, they were not.
“Tobacco, says Michelet, has killed kissing; it has done more, it has closed the drawing room…The increasing consumption of tobacco is frightful, children ten years of age already smoke. It is time to think of a remedy, tobacco is a poison – a slow one if you will – but certainly a poison, for it benumbs the brain, extinguishes the memory, brings on giddiness, and finally engenders those horrible diseases, cancer in the mouth and softening of the spinal marrow. In concert with its comrade alcohol, it ravages the organisation and dwarfs the species. Tobacco injures the human race, not only physically but morally. It strikes thought with atrophy, and paralyses action; with every whiff of tobacco a man exhales a virtue, or an energy. Germany smokes and dreams; Spain smokes and sleeps; Turkey, who has been smoking these last three hundred years, has no longer strength to stand on her legs.” – New Zealand Herald 17/12/1867: 5
The ritual of smoking in the home has some interesting accompaniments: for example, Victorian literature often speaks of the ‘smoking room’, as a room in a house (presumably a middle – upper class house), specifically set aside for the males of the household to use for smoking (Phillips 2014). We’ve only identified one house with a smoking room in Canterbury (near Ashburton) and then, only because we had the plans for the house that labelled the room accordingly. Without those plans, it’s difficult to know which room in a house may have been used as a smoking room, if one existed at all.
We also find pipes on hotel sites, as I mentioned above, where they may be evidence for the social side of pipe smoking (much like ‘social’ smokers today, perhaps, who smoke only when they drink), or simply an indication of the provision of ‘home comforts’ to hotel guests. Interestingly, one of the pipes found on the site of the Zetland Arms hotel here in Christchurch was not a cheap, disposable example, but one of the most elaborately decorated clay pipes we’ve come across. It was unused, so perhaps it was ornamental, displayed above the bar or used as a display to advertise other pipes or tobacco sold on the premises. It seems a waste, if this was the case: one would look completely awesome (or possibly a little pretentious?) smoking that pipe.
On one notable site, we even found a large collection of broken and unused clay pipes, all decorated with either a steam ship or a traction engine design. It turned out that the site had originally been occupied by a grocer, and the pipes were probably damaged or unwanted stock that had been disposed of on-site (Watson et al. 2012). As we can see from these pipes, and the Twentyman and Cousin and Trent Brothers examples, smoking paraphernalia was sold by a range of different merchants and retailers, not just tobacconists (although tobacconist’s shops did exist in Christchurch: Lyttelton Times 18/04/1867: 1).
It’s interesting, I think, that such a small artefact can provide evidence for or be a part of so many different aspects of society and life in the 19th century. Clay pipes can represent everything from international connections between New Zealand and the rest of the world to local businesses and business owners. They can shed light on contemporary styles and symbolism, on social rituals, on gendered activities, on class, on the beginnings of disposable consumerism. They were intrinsically linked with individual health, good and bad, even a hundred and fifty years ago. In America, pipes even played a part in the workings of the justice system, and, in one of my absolute favourite articles on the subject, pipe smoking is condemned as the murderer of romance, the cause of moral injury and the instigator of national apathy.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: sometimes it’s the smallest things that tell us the tallest tales.
Auckland Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Ayto, E. G., 2002. Clay Tobacco Pipes. Shire Publications, Buckinghamshire.
Daily Southern Cross. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Gojak, D. and Stuart, I., 1999. The Potential for the Study of Clay Tobacco Pipes from Australian Sites. Australasian Historical Archaeology, Vol. 17: 38-49.
New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Phillips, J., 2014. Pundit: Life and Times of the Long White Cloud. Radio New Zealand, aired 15/09/2014. [online] Available at www.radionz.co.nz
Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Sudbury, J., 2006. Historic Clay Tobacco Pipe Studies, Volume 1. Phytolith Press, Oklahoma.
Taranaki Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Thames Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Watson, K., Carter, M., and Hennessey, M., 2012. 134 Hereford Street, Christchurch: report on archaeological monitoring. Unpublished report for CERA.