The Origin of Meerschaum
Meerschaum, also known by its technical name sepiolite, is a hydrous magnesium silicate formed from the shells and bones of prehistoric sea creatures. Meerschaum originates in Turkey, and can vary in colour from white to light grey or even yellow. It is very porous and light, ranked as a 2 in hardness on the Mohs scale. Meerschaum is mainly found in veins mined as deep as 400 feet below the surface but it can also naturally occur as lumps that look similar to sea foam floating atop the surface of the Black Sea.
Mainly used to create pipes, the first pipe recorded using meerschaum was created in 1723 by a shoemaker in Budapest. He discovered that meerschaum is highly absorbent and he repeatedly dosed it in water to make it more pliable while carving. The experiment proved successful, and the first meerschaum pipe was created. Currently, it is housed at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.
The Rise of Popularity and its Presence in America
Although meerschaum has been used since the 1700’s, its big break came around the 1840’s when upper class smokers throughout Europe began to collect the white pipes. Europeans were enamoured by the way meerschaum darkened in colour with use which created a booming industry of many European workshops working with high quality meerschaum supplied from Turkey or lesser quality meerschaum from Tanzania, Greece, Spain, and the United States.
In the United States, President James Garfield, an avid devotee of meerschaum pipes, commissioned the William Demuth Company from Manhattan to create two pipes for the 1881 inauguration, one in the likeness of the future president and one of his wife. These pipes were received with such high enthusiasm by both the president and upper class society smokers that Demuth decided to commission a series of high relief meerschaum pipes of all 29 presidents.Teddy Roosevelt was known to have over 10 variations of his image featured on meerschaum pipes.
We know that the presidential pipe in our collection is not one commissioned by the Demuth Company since it does not have the WDC mark. Other manufacturing companies in the United States found their own carvers to create Presidential pipes which produced multiple sculptural styles of each president.
MOA’s pipe is carved in high relief and was likely commissioned by an American manufacturing company at the time.
The Decline of Meerschaum
Meerschaum declined in the early 1900’s with the rise of briar pipes.
Although meerschaum didn’t fall out of use completely (it was used to line briar wood pipes), it declined in production, which lead to most European workshops closing and the quality of meerschaum reducing, with knock offs created using glue and meerschaum powder.
Fun Fact: A major plot device in the movie National Treasure was a meerschaum pipe.
Hellier, Chris “Pipe Production in Eskisehir.” The Middle East. Jan 1993:50
Mindat.Org. Sepiolite. 2015. http://www.mindat.org/min-3621.html
Pfeiffer, Michael, Richard T. Gartley and J. Byron Sudbury. President Pipes: Origin and Distribution, 2007. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290446570_President_Pipes_Origin_and_Distribution
Rapaport, Ben. Pipes of Our Presidents, Antiques and Collecting. 1994. http://tobaccopipeartistory.blogspot.ca/2012/07/pipes-of-our-presidents.html
The First Meerschaum Pipe, Michigan Farmer. Jan 8th 1884;15,2 American Periodicals pg. 6
Regarding the comment about the first meerschaum pipe and its current location, the curator of the National Museum of Hungary, Anna Ridovics, wrote about this. And here is what I had later published about her discovery:
“In the Twenty-first century, another Hungarian takes a turn at sorting through this age-old (tall) tobacco tale. Anna Ridovics, a curator at the National Hungarian Museum, Budapest, tendered her opinion in her revealing article: “True or false, in the Wake of a Legend The so called ‘Pipe of the first Meerschaum Carver’, Károly Kovács, in the Hungarian National Museum?,” published in the Journal of the Académie Internationale de la Pipe, Vol. 4 (2011). She delves into, at length, a number of alternative possibilities regarding Kovács’ role in meerschaum carving and reviews the museum’s inventory of meerschaum pipe bowls to determine if any accession on record can be attributed to either him or to the Count, and here is the most telling, the most critical excerpt of her treatise:
“However, nothing has been able to substantiate the legend. The thorough research of Edit Haider—who was the first to write the history of Hungarian pipe-carving, and who for two decades was curator of the museum’s pipe collection—yielded nothing. No data about Károly Kovács was unearthed. Neither the famous pipe nor any document, inventory entry or deed of gift could be found in the collection of the Hungarian National Museum. The person of Count Andrássy has been identified by many as Gyula Andrássy (1823-1890), who it is true was the deputy diplomat in Constantinople, but more than 100 years later. It is therefore understandable that serious writers on the theme have been exceptionally sceptical as regards the truth of the legend.”
Just thought that you’d like to know.
Have a Theodore Roosevelt cheroot smoker with amber stem circa 1905-10. Would you be interested in seeing it? It is unsmoked. It has shamrock markings on the underside. Would value your opinion.
Chad: I do not often access this website, and I just read your email today. Let’s see it and maybe I can tell you something about it that you do not already know.
My house was recently in a catastrophic fire. My father’s mere Shem pipe collection from the 1950s included a pipe that he said was 1 of 2 made by some famous pipe maker. One had gone to some noble in Italy, and the other was given to my father during World War II for saving the guy’s life. It was not ornately carved but was a massive bowl and the outside looled like just an octagon some 3″ across. It’s survived the fire, along with 2 other pipes that have curved heads. If I sent you a picture of it , could you tell me anything about them?
That sounds like a very special piece, more so for having survived the fire! Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone here who would be able to tell you anything more without a lot of research, but I wish you luck in your search!