The death of the White Goddess

Or: The Meerschaum Pipe.

Admittedly pipe smoking has long since passed its peak of popularity. The days of gentlemen sitting in their book-lined studies puffing at a fine pipe whilst sipping at a tumbler of brandy are long gone, thrown out with the servants, the wife-ruling, the mistresses, and the dishwater. With them so too has passed the glory days of the pipe carver. Sure there are stragglers, both smokers and carvers, but I’d wager that today most pipe smoking is done sans tobacco and I think anyone who has ducked into a head shop, out of need or curiosity, can attest to the fact that pipe craft now strives to fulfill a different set of demands, and adheres to a very different “aesthetic.” So, digging now into the “dying arts” file, I bring you some images and some history of the once great meerschaum pipe.

Meerschaum has been called Venus of the Sea, White Goddess, sepiolite, sea-foam or froth, the Aristocrat of smoking substances! It has been identified as hydrous magnesium silicate, an opaque white-gray or cream colored mineral of the soapstone family. It has been written as H4Mg;Si30 ,o, 3S .O^MgO^H^O, 2MgO, S,0;-14H20 and even Mg4(H;0)3(OH),SitO,5-3H;0! Whatever its composition, meerschaum is not the bone of the sepia or cuttle fish, the residue or fusion of decomposed sea shells, petrified sea foam or a clay composition. It is a mineral! Mined 30 to 450 feet below the surface of the earth, the magnesium content provides strength while the hydrogen and oxygen contribute to its porosity. It is, in the words of one, “. . . soft and light as a fleeting dream, creamy, delicate and sweet as the complexion of young maidenhood.” -Benjamin Rapaport, A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes. 1979.

Meerschaum is a German word meaning ‘sea foam’— it derived its name because it often was seen floating on the Black Sea. The German term probably has been used because German-speaking people controlled the meerschaum-pipe industry until World War II. Also, most of the craftsmen who began making meerschaum pipes in the United States came from either Germany or Austria.

Meerschaum is a very soft, porous, hydrous silicate of magnesia that is found in pockets within clay or serpentine deposits. Its origin is unknown, but it is believed to have been formed from the metamorphic shells and bones of tiny prehistoric sea creatures. Its geological name, assigned in the mid-nineteenth century by a German mineralogist, is sepiolite, from the Greek “Sepio,” or cuttlefish bone, which it resembles.” -Carl Ehwa, Jr. The Book of Pipes & Tobacco. 1974.

“The discovery and initial use of meerschaum as a substance for making pipes is shrouded in much mystery and myth. Even the origin of the word is obscure but the most generally accepted account is that a certain Hungarian nobleman, Count Andrassy, on an official mission to Turkey in 1723, received a lump of meerschaum from the Sultan. Returning to Pesth, on the east bank of the Danube, he gave it to a cobbler who, when not making or mending shoes, made wood pipes; the Count was one of his patrons. Another tale relates that when John Sobieski, King of Poland, rescued the beleaguered city of Vienna from invading Turks, he had seen many Turkish articles, including pipes; the articles were made of luletaschi, a white mineral called pipestone believed to have been meerschaum. And, there is yet a third story which meerschaum pipes were being made by a French artist, Louis Pierre Puget, student of the Italian sculptor Berini, who carved the first meerschaum in 1652.

Meerschaum could have been used even earlier than 1652 but however devious, cryptic or circuitous the route, meerschaum came from the East and was popularized in the West.” -Benjamin Rapaport, A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes. 1979.

“No matter who actually was responsible for the introduction of the meerschaum pipe, it steadily gained favor among wealthy smokers throughout Europe. After 1750 pipes of the new material were in exceptionally heavy demand. Unlike clay, however, which was available to everyone, meerschaum was restricted to the rich and titled who could afford to commission the handiwork of a carver or an ‘artist.’ The meerschaum rapidly became the pipe of the stylish smoker and the effort and money spent by these smokers to outdo their peers probably accounts for the artistic meerschaums created in those times.

In many cases, the fact that these masterpieces are pipes is almost incidental;

indeed, a great many never were smoked. Some of the very large, magnificent pieces adorned cabinets and shelves as objects of art. One wealthy Englishman had a lovely pipe made for himself even though he didn’t smoke. When the pipe-maker had finished the job, the gentleman instructed him to color the bowl before delivering it. For a period of two or three weeks, the pipe was smoked by every pipe-maker in the shop until the color became very rich and dark. The gentleman was well pleased and promptly placed his seasoned treasure on the mantle.

As artisans and wood-carvers turned to pipe-making, they soon became swamped with more orders than they could fill. By the 1850s, enterprising merchants and pipe makers set up factories that employed hundreds of carvers. Between that time and the years just before World War I, when briar began to dominate the industry, the thousands of meerschaum pipes created in factories finally found their way into the hands of middle-class smokers, who now were able to indulge in what only nobles and the rich had been able to afford in previous years.” -Carl Ehwa, Jr. The Book of Pipes & Tobacco. 1974.

“A new meerschaum pipe is generally either pure white or a very pale, creamy yellow color. As it is smoked, tars and oils seep closer to the waxed surface of the shank and then the bowl. Pinks dissolve into deepening amber reds and the golds become a richer, golden brown. The coloring ultimately approaches black-brown or a muted, dark cherry. These changes take place very gradually, the seasoning progressing so slowly that it almost goes unnoticed. It is as if one were watching a very cautious but exquisite autumn slip stealthily into its colors. In addition to its beauty, the meerschaum smokes quite dryly and, after a time, tobacco smoked in it tastes somewhat more delicate and sweeter than it does in a briar.

Today, with the exception of the fine carved heads produced by Andreas Bauer in Vienna, almost all meerschaum pipes are fashioned into shapes corresponding to those of standard briar pipes. In marked contrast, those carved by artisans years ago featured clusters of exquisite figures in relief or forming the entire body of the pipe. The bowl often was slipped in unobtrusively so as to avoid disrupting a battle scene, or dancing nymphs pouring wine for an amber-faced Bacchus.” -Carl Ehwa, Jr. The Book of Pipes & Tobacco.1974.

“It has been said that the cigarette smoking craze in the United States had a significant effect on the meerschaum industry. Further, ‘meerschaum is no longer so fashionable as it once was. Probably the numerous cheap imitations, the extreme readiness to break of the genuine article, and the fantastic designs into which it was fashioned, have led to its decadence in public estimation.’

All good things come to an end at some point in time. The delicate and slight, even the massive, the bulky meerschaums were impractical, never fashioned for a hurried Twentieth Century industrialized world of assembly lines, crowded buses and elevators and middle class income. But the magical and captivative nature of meerschaum has kept its popularity alive and the ranks are now augmented by a new breed of young, curious and enlightened collectors committed to preserve the cult of the White Goddess! -Benjamin Rapaport, A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes.” 1979.

“A perfect Meerschaum pipe is decidedly            
one of the choicest and rarest gifts of
the gods; but like all choice and rare
gifts, it is a source of considerable
anxiety to the owner. Like women, its,
‘name is frailty.’ As originally taken in
hand, and presented to the lips, nothing
can exceed the loveliness of its looks—its
delicious smoothness, its graceful
rotundity of form, and apparent innocence
from everything that can tarnish a
reputation. But, alas! you take it as
you take a wife, ‘for better and for
worse;’ and again, alas! it does not fare
better with the smoker and his Meerschaum
than with man and wife.”

-The Smoker’s Guide, Philosopher and Friend
A Veteran of Smokedom, 1876

Most of the images above are from the two books quoted, A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes and The Book of Pipes & Tobacco. A few were found online.

Hope you enjoyed.

10.01. filed under: art. !. design. history. 11