Civil War Tobacco Pipes
A Soldier Craft of Conflict*
By Ben Rapaport
Exclusive to South Florida Opulence Magazine
We’re nearing the end of the American Civil War sesquicentennial (2011-2015), a gala four-year period of celebrations, studies, exhibitions, and special events to remember a tragedy that nearly tore this country asunder. No doubt, the estimated 250,000 Civil War buffs who collect everything from weapons to uniforms, from belt buckles to buttons, and from diaries to daguerreotypes, and everything else attributed to this war, have been thrilled with all the memorialization and remembrance events that have occurred since 2011 across the country.
One of the hundred or so collectible items from this war is the soldier’s tobacco pipe. There is an interesting confluence between men in uniform and tobacco, war and pipes. A soldier’s demand for tobacco is a notable fact of military life in every war. To him, tobacco represents comfort, convenience and consolation: The cigarette is an icon of glamour, the cigar represents victory, and the pipe signifies comfort and solace. As to war and pipes, the proof is three distinctively different pipes associated with three 19th-century wars. There was the very popular German porcelain pipe, mass-produced during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the Reservistenpfeife (regimental pipe) a kitschy, complicated affair that exhibited all sorts of martial symbolism. The Oom-Paul, a deep-bent briar pipe popular during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), named after Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger (Oom Paul is Afrikaans for “Uncle Paul”), the State President of the South African Republic (Transvaal), who smoked this particular pipe shape. English pipe factories sent Oom Pauls to British soldiers and Colonial troops in South Africa who then carved their personal messages—unit designations, battle dates, and other symbols — in English or Afrikaans into the bowls. The pipe defies easy classification: Soldiers on both sides in camps and in prisons crafted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of personalized pipes between 1861 and 1865. The Regimental and the Oom Paul have their own dedicated following, while our own soldier-carved pipes have been an underappreciated and overlooked, relic from this war. More often, what have survived are the pipe bowls, absent their stems and mouthpieces.
Carving Pipes in the Trenches
Clay tobacco pipes were abundantly available during the war, but most soldiers preferred to smoke a more durable, less fragile pipe. They scavenged for whatever hard woods were locally accessible and easy to carve: laurel, greenbriar root, hickory, holly, sweet brier root, rhododendron, walnut and burl, among others and, without trade experience or apprenticeship, using pocket penknives or hand tools forged from iron hoops, they carved, sculpted, whittled, etched, engraved and used . . . an unpretentious, utilitarian utensil that, like most all Civil War artifacts, symbolizes a tragic period in American history. As Vishvajit Pandya (In the Forest) so aptly states: “Collecting tobacco pipes is a part of contact history and culture.” Every old object has — more precisely, tells — a story, and every decorated Civil War pipe that has survived tells a remarkable story, mementos recording the soldier’s patriotism, military experiences, and travels. They embellished their pipes with various emblems — battle flags, cannon, swords, eagles, the names and dates of battles and their leaders — often adding self-portraits, scrolls, floral designs, pledges, and special inscriptions.
Whether considered trench art, folk art, the arts of survival, mementos, memorabilia, or combat clutter, what these soldiers accomplished — American ingenuity under duress — is an amazing feat of craftsmanship applied to a small chunk of wood that evolved into a tobacco pipe that offered utility, pleasure, comfort and decoration. As Marian Klamkin (Wood Carvings. North American Folk Art Sculpture) asserted: “Southern prisoners carved their patriotic and political sentiments in elaborate and intricate patterns on pipe bowls. . . . Many of the Civil War pipes are tours de force that only someone faced with endless hours of idleness would attempt. The end product was certainly of less importance to them than the process. Carving and whittling was, for so many, occupational therapy.”
And from my research, only two American collectors, both recently deceased, recognized the intrinsic beauty and the historical significance of these utensils of smoke: Jan Walter Sorgenfrei of Findlay, Ohio, whose small collection was auctioned in the summer of 2013 in Cincinnati, and E. Norman Flayderman, N. Flayderman & Co., Inc, Historic Arms & Militaria, Fort Lauderdale, one of the premier companies in the antique firearms and militaria business. Norm’s collection of about 150 different pipes remains with the family. The few illustrations included in this brief article visually demonstrate a striking fidelity and a balance in carving, a credit to the soldier’s hand-and-eye coordination under wartime conditions.
*The only book on the history of these pipes has just been published: Tobacco and Smoking Among The Blue and Gray. The Illustrated History of An American Folk-Art Curiosity; The Civil War Soldier’s Tobacco Pipe, available from Briar Books Press (www.briarbooks.com).