Put that in Your Meerschaum…

Often in the process of writing a story, I find myself distracted (that’s an understatement), with research. In one story a character needed a pipe so I stuck a meerschaum in his hand and then I thought…what exactly is a meerschaum? Do I know? For sure?

Dove. Off. The. Deep. End.

Something I love about writing is all the learning that is produced. It’s like a byproduct of some manufacturing process, sludgy and polluting until I get it out of my system, broken down and biodegraded. That’s where you fine people come in…you’re part of the digestion.

How’s that for being indispensable?

Meerschaum pipes are gorgeous. While I enjoy the scent of pipe tobacco and find being confined in a small space with a pipe-smoking gentleman a tad overwhelming, should you find yourself in need of inspiration, seek out a tobacconist. These shops are found in most major metropolitan areas and have proven (in my opinion) to be a rich source of atmosphere and smoke.

When I was growing up, my dad had a meerschaum pipe. I don’t recall that he ever smoked it, but it looked a lot like the one in this picture and was exotic to me. In my mind, this was what a fancy ivory pipe looked like, but it turns out that meerschaum is a type of mineral. Huh. Who knew?

In the words of these experts:

Meerschaum is a very rare mineral, a kind of hard white clay. Light and porous structure of the pipe keeps the smoke cool and soft. The pipe itself is a natural filter which absorbs the nicotine. Because of this peculiarity, meerschaum pipes slowly change their colors to different tones of gold and dark brown. This adds an esthetic enjoyment to its great smoking pleasure. The longer a pipe is smoked the more valuable it becomes due to the color change. Today many old and rare meerschaums have found a permanent place in museums and private collections.

Now that’s some interesting detail to layer into a story!

These pipes have always been carved by hand and some date back over 300 years. Because of their small size and personal nature, many pipes became heirlooms, passed down through generations of owners, tucked away carefully in a drawer or displayed on a mantle. The sheer variety and numbers of antique pipes is mind-boggling.

If you visit sites like Antique Meerschaum Pipes and Collectors Weekly, you’ll get an inkling of the vast spectrum still out there. If for some reason that doesn’t impress you…check out the Antique Pipe Company – click the browse link and grab a tissue to stem the drool.

Many of the more elaborate pieces were intended to showcase, rather than to be used for daily smoking. Some were probably intentionally ostentatious to display the owner’s wealth and/or social status. Literally tens of thousands of meerschaum pipes shuffle through the antiques market on a regular basis – and more are being added to the ranks annually.

Called the Venus of the Sea, the White Goddess and White Gold, meerschaum is the aristocratic favorite of pipe smokers everywhere. There’s a lovely myth surrounding the idea that the material is hardened sea-foam, made from the whitecaps of waves, like the goddess Aphrodite.

How can you not like that?

The mineral is also called sepiolite (a.k.a. hydrous magnesium silicate), and has been found actually floating on the Black Sea. Floating! This might well have convinced me it was related to sea-foam and I’d totally have considered it a gift from the gods. Mine…my precious.

Meerschaums are available in simpler forms but I’m drawn to the complex carvings and the amazing detail. The finest mineral comes from Turkey and has long been considered the premiere material by pipe artisans everywhere.

Makers infuse each pipe with individual characteristics that convey personality and charisma. Some are worthy of display like any work of art. Here is a wonderful link showing information about the actual mining of meerschaum in Eskisehir.

If you’d like to learn more there are numerous publications on the art of pipe making. Several that I found particularly fascinating were the Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes and Collecting Antique Meerschaum Pipes, as well as the Book of Pipes and Tobacco.

An image search for meerschaum pipes on Bing produces some amazing results, many of which link to wonderful articles and smokeshops with knowledgeable sales and collecting information. In case you’re thinking about it…

A special form-fitting case is created to hold each pipe. This helps to protect the intricate carving, as well as provide a clean storage location. They can be displayed for appreciation and special stands can easily be obtained for presentation, but they are meant to be smoked.

I know smoking is unwise, unhealthy, and isn’t politically correct these days…but I still like the beauty found in meerschaum pipes. The act of putting one in a character’s hand alters the setting and the perception of the reader (I suppose this depends on their level of knowledge), and slicks another layer of depth across the page. That linkage to temporal and spatial time adds an element that I value.

We’re quick to put our literary friends in terrible situations, perhaps we could balance that with a comforting and potentially deadly love for things unhealthy? What interesting tidbits have you stumbled across in the process of research? Have you ever graced a character with an action or habit that had unexpected results?

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  1. #1 by Marcia Richards on March 1, 2012 - 6:57 am

    This is serendipity! (I rarely have an opportunity to use that word. lol) The father of my MC in my short story smokes a meerschaum and I was going to research it today. Since it’s a short story, i don’t need a ton of info, just the basics…so, thanks Leslie for posting this today! This constitutes the bulk of research I was going to need!
    Seriously, it is fascinating. I love pipe smoke, as opposed to any other smoke. I always been fascinated by the carvings of these pipes. Your pics here are gorgeous examples of the craft. Thanks so much for sharing this today!

    • #2 by Leslie on March 1, 2012 - 12:22 pm

      That’s hilarious…we’re all beginning to operate on the same wavelength! Pipesmoke is one of those triggers for me…evoking all sorts of (I’m sure) wildly inaccurate ideas about drawing rooms, velvet furniture, lace doilies, etc. Very Victorian. I found it amusing that some collectors during the heighth of pipe-smoking during the turn of the century actually wanted the pipes for display but didn’t smoke so, get this….they hired a smoker to smoke the pipe until it absorbed enough concentrated nicotine to turn the amber tone they desired. Supposedly (I couldn’t confirm this anywhere, but am so going to use it), they also mixed extra sticky potent tobacco blends that were guaranteed to darken the tone faster. Don’t you love it? Extra nicotine, please.

  2. #3 by Amy Shojai, CABC on March 1, 2012 - 7:19 am

    Gorgeous images, and my father also has a meerschaum pipe. Very romantic and love all the detailed info here.

    • #4 by Leslie on March 1, 2012 - 12:27 pm

      Isn’t that funny, how a pipe produces such different images than cigars or cigarettes or joints? I think there must be some underlying construct we’ve all bought into because there really is this sense of culturedness surrounding pipes, especially meerschaums. As art objects they’re gorgeous…I may succumb and buy one just to pet.

  3. #5 by Tameri Etherton on March 1, 2012 - 9:43 am

    I totally want a meerschaum pipe now. Not to smoke, but to admire. Like you, I enjoy the smell of pipes and could very well see myself sitting on the patio, a meerschaum in my hand, delicately tapping my cheek while I’m in deep thought over some trivial matter. OMG! Meerschaums automatically make you more intelligent!

    I kept thinking of that one movie – National Treasure – I think they had to find a meerschaum pipe to act as a key. It was gorgeous like the ones you have pictured here.

    • #6 by Leslie on March 1, 2012 - 12:29 pm

      You are so RIGHT! Meerschaums make you more everything! …more cultured, smarter, quicker on your feet, charming, charismatic…

      Why did we never see this before? So glad I could help. There’ll be a run on meerschaums soon. We should buy now before the momentum builds. The sheer volume of meerschaums is overwhelming. I knew they’d been around a long time, but egads, they might as well run in herds.

  4. #7 by Marcy Kennedy on March 1, 2012 - 9:57 am

    My uncle was a pipe smoker before his death, and when he died, I got three of his pipes. I was thrilled not only because they’re lovely enough to be displayed, but also because of how they reminded me of him. I doubt they’re meerschaum pipes (and I wouldn’t know how to tell if they were).

    This was a lovely and interesting post. And thanks for bringing back memories of my uncle for me 🙂

    • #8 by Leslie on March 1, 2012 - 12:31 pm

      Thanks Marcy!

      What a wonderful treasure from your uncle. I think pipes are so evocative, they just tantalize with associations. I’m not sure how to tell, but the white/amber tones are pretty unique. I found very simple forms and some of the exquisitely detailed ones I used in the post. It’s pretty amazing how much variety is out there. Thanks for sharing your memory with us. =)

  5. #9 by Ali Dent on March 1, 2012 - 11:15 am

    You find the neatest things, Lesann. I just read a children’s book called “Witches,” the grandmother smokes cigars. She’s warm loving and interesting. I began to daydream if I will want the mystery lady in my story to smoke a pipe. Funny that I wondered that yesterday and here you are today with the neatest research. You’re fantastic.

    • #10 by Leslie on March 1, 2012 - 12:34 pm

      Thanks Ali!

      Isn’t it funny how we link our thoughts together…the mother of two of my friends in high school, smoked a corncob pipe. It was very dainty, like her…and somehow didn’t seem out of character. She didn’t do it often because I think she felt awkward indulging in what was considered “bad” behavior in front of us, but I always liked the tickle of smoke and the visual was so interesting. The grandma in your story sounds fun. I think giving characters these interesting behaviors and habits just deepens their personality. Tobacco is also a great motivator. People will go to incredible lengths to get another smoke.

  6. #11 by Jennifer Tanner on March 1, 2012 - 8:56 pm

    My dad used to smoke a pipe. His were made of walnut. I often veer off on a tangent when I’m researching something in my ms. I spent two hours reading about why men don’t carry handkerchiefs anymore and old Greyhound routes.

    Gorgeous pics. They remind me of the ivory carvings I saw at the National Museum in Taipei.

    • #12 by Leslie on March 5, 2012 - 10:08 am

      There’s something about pipes I associate with a whole set of perceptions and ideals. Maybe that comes from watching so much BBC programming…

      I gotta know…why DON’T men carry handkerchiefs anymore? Another delicate mannerisms laid waste. I’ve only been on a greyhound once – it was enough. Now I need to add the National Museum of Taipei to me list. Somebody needs to pay me to go to museums so I can afford all the travel it requires!

  7. #13 by Jennifer Fischetto on March 2, 2012 - 12:20 pm

    How interesting. 🙂
    I’m stopping by from the campaign trail and wanted to say hi. Sorry I’m a bit late.

    • #14 by Leslie on March 5, 2012 - 10:08 am

      Welcome Jennifer!

      I’m still making the rounds too. This time through I’m really lagging…I spend so much time on each person’s blog that I keep falling behind!

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