One of the coolest things I like to find underwater are remains of colonial clay pipes. Pieces of their stems and bowls can be found in Maine harbors and at mouths of streams and rivers. Quite ubiquitous, they are basically the cigarette butts of the colonial era.

Before meerschaum and briar pipes became popular, there was the basic clay pipe, often made of Kaolin white clay. Clay pipes did not need to be broken in and their resistance to high heat levels was well known.

Appearing shortly after the arrival of American tobacco from the colonies, some sources report that clay pipes were being produced in England as early as 1558. Others contend it was after Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1585 Virginia expedition. Regardless, the need for clay pipes exploded with the popularity of smoking.

England became a major producer, the pipe-making industry grew quickly to satisfy the growing demand. Tobacco use soared with many, including women and children. It became popular to take up the art of “tobacco drinking.”

With the death of Elizabeth I and arrival of King James I, however, attitudes toward smoking dramatically changed. The new English monarch wrote of his distaste for the practice in a 1604 critique titled “A Counterblaste to Tobacco.” The crown also instituted a 4,000% tax on the product, the first of many such sin-taxes!

Pipe makers began leaving the country for Holland, which eventually rivaled the English for control of the clay-pipe industry. Between 1680 and 1700, just about every town in England had a pipe maker. Millions were being made, many for export to the colonies.

Chart showing dates of various clay pipe bowls. Source: Collection of Charles H. Lagerbom

The length of pipe became a socieo-economic indicator, with designs ranging from shorter, cheaper ones called Nosewarmers, to longer, more expensive models known as Churchwardens. Workers tended to prefer shorter pipes, which left their hands free for labor. And in America, there were a lot of working class colonists.

The more elegant, longer varieties cost more and were more for pose and show, kind of like the buckles on one’s shoes. Simple and utilitarian said one thing about your social status; elegant and expensive indicated a person of means.

To make a clay pipe, the clay was ground in a mill then mixed with water. This produced a smooth, workable lump that was then rolled to form a shank and stem. A bigger lump was shaped on one end for the bowl.

A piercing rod, usually made of wire, was worked into the stem and shank and left there for the bore or air space. The whole piece, pretty rough at this stage, was then put into a two-piece mold. Put into a vice and tightened, the mold forced out any extra clay and a reaming tool was inserted to fully shape the bowl.

Once out of the mold, the piercing rod was removed, and some milling and other decorations, including a maker’s mark, were usually added. Then the pipe was left to dry out, which took several days. Excess clay would be scraped off at this time. Then it went into a kiln to bake.

It is said that a skilled 18th century pipe maker could produce about 3,000 pipes per week. Dutch clay pipes were usually smaller than their English rivals, and tended to be more polished, the result being almost a glossy finish.

A replica white clay pipe of the kind found on the colonial Maine frontier. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

Some pipes were decorated with advertising or to commemorate a special event, masonic arms or regimental badges. But most that made it to the Maine frontier tended to be utilitarian, unadorned, ubiquitous and inexpensive.

The reason for the pervasiveness of these plain pipes is the sheer number imported. Clay pipes arrived at the colonies in large quantities, measured by the gross and shipped in wooden casks. In one invoice, it was recorded George Washington at Mount Vernon imported 25 gross of pipes. His order of 3,600 clay pipes arrived in one large cask!

Many clay pipes had makers’ marks on them, often with a date; these became popular in 1619 after a pipe makers’ guild was formed in London. The problem for archaeologists and historians is that the date stamped on it might be when the pipe maker entered the guild, not necessarily when it was made.

More often to date a pipe, archaeologists use a typology based on the progression in bowl shapes. Early colonial pipes tended to have smaller bowls that angled downward, smaller because of the expense of tobacco. Later bowls were larger, with a horizontal line across the top and usually a spur on the bowl’s bottom.

The diameter of the stem bore or airway has also been used to date clay pipes, but it only works for those made prior to 1800. Back in the day when I was finishing my M.A. in history and archaeology at Orono, we used this dating technique known as the Binford Method, which always reminded me of something from the Tim The Tool Man Taylor’s TV show “Home Improvement.”

Pipe bowl fragment found off Owls Head. Courtesy of Micah Philbrook

In the 1950s, J.C. Harrington recognized there was a general reduction in pipe stem bore size between the years 1620 and 1800. In 1962, Lewis Binford developed a regression equation: [y = 1931.85 – 38.26x] where y is the mean date for the group and x is mean pipe-stem diameter for the sample.

Back in the lab, we made use of a wooden block with drill bits in it in line from smallest to biggest. I would sit there for hours, usually with an oldies station blaring on the radio, putting each pipe stem piece on the drill bits to find which size it was closest to and then recording it on a tally sheet.

Now remember, there tend to be thousands of pipe stem pieces on archaeological sites! So the task was wicked time-consuming and tedious, but helpful. I remember working similarly with buffalo bone pieces at the archaeology lab at Kansas State, only there we used quill pens and ink to number each piece of bone. And there were lots of buffalo bone pieces in Kansas archaeology sites!

Our tallies helped determine rough dates for stems, which would then help us date the site. The Binford Method has since come under scrutiny, and while controversy reigns over this process, the archaeology of the ’80s and ’90s made use of it on colonial sites.

Lifespans of clay pipes tended to vary, usually by how many replacement pipes were available. If they did not break, some might last for weeks, others could even last maybe a year or two until discarded. But why so many found in so many places?

One myth that tried to account for the profusion of stem fragments found in colonial sites was that taverns of the day tended to pass their clay pipes from mouth to mouth, so you would break off and throw away the previously used mouth section, thereby creating your own.

This was thought to produce the thousands of stem fragments found. But no documentary support has been discovered for this practice. It is known that used pipes were heated in bake ovens before being re-issued.

18th century colonial pipestems from Fort Pownal. Courtesy of Audrey C. Lagerbom

Whatever the reason, clay pipe stems and bowl fragments are found all over Maine and New England, including in the water. In fact, our local dive group have come across them off Rockport, Owls Head and Pemaquid.

The fragments are hardy, sturdy artifacts of history, reminders of the colonial frontier and a maritime world that made them so accessible. Pieces of clay pipes endure in the acidic soils of Maine as well as in the ocean salt waters. It is always cool to find one. Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes are indeed callin’!

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.