Fischer who’s who : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Fischer who’s who

Masters of Meerschaum … Distinctly Different Dynasties

By Ben Rapaport

 Lately, conversation among some American antique meerschaum pipe collectors and a few meerschaum pipe smokers has become Fischer-centric. Why has this name become so center-stage? I don’t have a clue, but I, too, have an interest in the Fischers. A few were pipe carvers, household names to those who collect antique meerschaums. This narrative fills some gaps in a few Fischer pedigrees, facts both important and trivial.

Samuel and Georg Fischer were late 18th century pipe carvers in Ruhla, Germany. Joseph Fischer of Vienna medaled in London for “artistic curves in meerschaum and amber applied to pipes” (International Exhibition, 1862. Medals and Honourable Mentions Awarded by International Juries, second edition, 1862, 121). In a complementary report, he was listed as a producer of “… all kinds of pipes of real meerschaum for exports to England and France” (The International Exhibition of 1862. The Illustrated Catalogue of the Industrial Department, Vol. IV, 110). He also exhibited at the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia. I know nothing about these three Fischers, or about the contemporary briar pipemaker, Peter Fischer of Switzerland, who is unrelated to any Fischer detailed in this essay.

The six Fischers about whom I know something are August, his two sons, Gustave A. and Otto; grandson, Arthur C. (Orchard Park, N.Y.); Paul Fischer; and Gustav Sr. and Gustav Jr. (Boston). Both Fischer families worked contemporaneously with larger-scale companies, such as Demuth (WDC), Hamburger, Kaldenberg, Kutschera and Stehr. Both Fischer families were entrepreneurial, but neither was staffed or equipped for mass production. The Orchard Park Fischers ran a family-owned and -operated establishment (manufacture, wholesale and retail). The Boston Fischers had their own retail shops for a number of years, but Gustav Sr. attained his fame employed in another tobacco shop. As best can be determined, the Orchard Park Fischers never met the Boston Fischers and perhaps may not have been aware of each others’ existence.

There are many information needles in the Internet haystack about the meerschaum-carving Fischers. It’s pregnant with Fischer information, but much is conjecture, much more is confusion. A few blogs have elevated their stature to mythic proportions, and for some unexplained reason they have also become urban legends. A handful of Internet posts and freelance Web articles are, in my view, a bit misguided, but the Internet allows anyone—including ersatz experts—to sound off, and the citations I include in this article are proof of this. As Scott Cleland, Search & Destroy. You Can’t Trust Google Inc. (2011), charges: “The Web would give everyone yearning for freedom a platform from which to speak.” Supporting Cleland is Christopher Rollason in his essay, “Borges’ ‘Library of Babel’ and the Internet” (Indian Journal of World Literature and Culture, Vol. 1.1, January–June, 2004):

There is … the excess of information, which confronts all Internet users with their own ignorance as they try to find their way through an ocean of information which tends to be difficult to organise or verify …. Anyone with an Internet account can start up their own website, or post a message in a newsgroup, without having to pass through a prior filtering, sifting or, indeed, censoring mechanism.

Without access, what folks hear and publicly disseminate is accidental (well-meaning, but often recycled and cobbled together) social commentary. Most who publicly proclaim the name are not quite sure which Fischer practiced where and when, which was a pipe carver, which was a pipemaker; they’re not synonymous. The reader should further note that, often, Gustave and Gustav are used interchangeably for the same person; both spellings are correct, but they are two different Fischers!

WHAT OTHERS CLAIM
First, my ripostes to a select cluster of Web entries. Some may view the responses as harsh critique, pedantic, pompous, but my wish is that the authors of these entries react at least neutrally, as I take liberty with a memorable quotation from Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson, “A Few Good Men”): I hope you (can) handle (my version of) the truth! I have no interest in winning the “hearts and minds” of this handful of Internet posters. If I err, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission. It’s also the opportunity to amend a few statements I made about these Fischers in A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes and in Collecting Antique Meerschaums. A picture is worth 10,000 words, and if I include illustrations of Fischer masterpieces, they would be worth millions of words. For an accurate picture of both families, however, illustrations are not needed; words are needed … thousands of words. If I succeed, the Fischer legacy can be put to rest.

What follows is in no particular chronological order or by degree of accuracy. First, an excerpt of a lengthy Internet post about Arthur and Paul, “Award Winning Rare Paul Fischer 8.5” Canadian-Pristine,” Nov. 18, 2010:

If Arthur C. Fischer was correct about being the “sixth generation to follow this trade,” then Paul Fischer would be the seventh generation! According to Arthur, ‘Pipe manufacturing and repairing has been our family trade for over 200 years.’…. But how did Paul Fischer become one of America’s Master Pipemakers? Why, Kaywoodie, of course! In the 1930s when most companies were importing Meerschaum pipes from Austria, Turkey and France, Kaywoodie opted for importing the manufacturer instead!!! They brought Gustave A. Fischer to the United States and put him to work making Meerschaum pipes for Kaywoodie in New York … For reasons that are not entirely clear, Gustave A. Fischer eventually left Kaywoodie and moved north to Boston where he continued his trade making pipes in the window of one of the famous Boston pipe shops. His son, Arthur C. Fischer took over “the pipemaker’s lathe” (as he explained it) and moved to Buffalo, New York where the “House of Fischer” was established. Paul Fischer continued the family business into the 1970s when the “House of Fischer” was closed for good. [http://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/award-winning-paul-fischer-5-canadian-130636606]

Nothing is on record about the Orchard Park Fischers and Kaywoodie; “they” did not bring Gustave A. to the United States and he did not go to Boston; “New York” Paul did not manage the Orchard Park shop, but he was a Kaywoodie employee for a time; Paul is related to Arthur, but the relationship has never been clearly stated anywhere; and Arthur confidently declared that he was the last (sixth) generation of those Fischers, so Paul was not the seventh-generation carver.

This was posted on forum.pipes.org by Crackerbilly: “You may have heard that Paul Fischer had worked for Kaywoodie and he was in charge of the Meerschaum pipe department from mid 1930s until 1960 when he left to start his own company.” I can’t attest to the inclusive dates, but it’s about right. Fred Bass is spot on: “Little information survives about this [Paul] Artisan Meerschaum Pipe maker” (“The Thrill of the Hunt [A Guide to Estate Meerschaums]’) at pipesmagazine.com. Had I been collaborating on that article, I would have asserted: “Little accurate information survives about this artisan meerschaum pipe maker … and about all the other Fischers.” And Gary Schrier? “… meerschaum carver Paul Fischer, who for years carved all of the fancy meerschaum pipes for Kaywoodie before going out on his own” (“Coloring Your Meerschaum Pipe, Part II,” on the Seattle Pipe Club’s website).

In The Book of Pipes and Tobacco, Carl Ehwa Jr. expressed his gratitude to “Mr. Paul Fischer, master pipemaker,” included photos of him in his workshop and stated that he was Austrian (96–101). Saxony was the birthplace of the earliest generations of the Orchard Park Fischers. Austria was the birthplace of Gustav Fischer Sr. of Boston. It’s been reported that Paul was related to the Orchard Park Fischers, so his heritage should have been Saxony. Ehwa and others believe otherwise.

Pipedia reports: “The House of Fischer was located in Ordhard [sic] Park, NY, near Buffalo. The Fischer family apparently made pipes for four generations, starting in Germany and continuing in the United States until the 1970s … They also made meerschaums, but some confusion is caused by the fact that was a Gustave Fischer who made meerschaum pipes in Boston during roughly the same period” (http://pipedia.org/index.php?title=Fischer). Not quite the whole story—it was six generations—but fairly close to the truth, and there is certainly some confusion.

Then this: “Speaking about meerschaum and America, we shouldn’t forget Vienna craftsman Gustav Fisher who migrated to America by 1881. The Fisher family made meerschaum managing in a direct line as six generations from 1742 to 1975, which is exactly 233 years. Born at 1887, Jr. Fisher was already a 74-year-old pipe carver, who started this job at 14, when he died” (http://www.meerschaumpipesale.com/the-history-of-meerschaum-pipe, and http://www.savunmeerschaum.com/meerschaum.htm). I can live with “Fisher,” but this writer has both facts and families fuddled.

And this from another Fischer fan: “Fourth generation German family artisan pipe maker Paul Fischer founded his pipe company in Orchard Park near Buffulo New York in the 1970s and handmade premium briars and meerschaum pipes” (http://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/showcase-fischer-canadian-supreme-134590542). Nowhere near accurate!

Last, posted on www.forum.pipes.org on Oct. 29, 2005: “Gustave Fischer was the principal pipe maker for them [Peterson’s]; and there’s a good bit of info on them in Carl Ehwa’s excellent book Pipes and Tobacco.” Based on all the evidence, Gustave was not “the principal pipe maker” for Peterson’s.

Is it any wonder, reader, why those interested in the Fischers and who rely on Internet information are misinformed? Accurate details about them are not Donald Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns.”

HOW I GOT HOOKED
My first encounter with the name Fischer was in the magazine Antiques; I was looking for any information on pipes, more narrowly, antique meerschaum pipes. In the January 1968 issue, I found something: Wendell D. Garrett, “Paraphernalia of smokers and snuffers.” In 1968, the David P. Ehrlich Company of Boston was celebrating its centennial. In the article was an illustration of three meerschaum pipes with the caption “Meerschaum pipes from a collection of over 300 in the Ehrlich Boston shop; carved by Gustave Fischer, an Ehrlich craftsman, around 1900.” So began my quest for more information about him; eventually, the quest became a wider search for information about any other Fischer.

Who was who, and how do I know? My access was a lengthy correspondence with Arthur C.; I was acquainted with Thelma, a daughter of Gustav Jr., then living in Massachusetts; I own a copy of an oral history of Anna Fischer, Gustav Jr.’s wife, as she remembered her husband and father-in-law; and I’ve mined several secondary sources. So here’s my rendition on the Fischers in a byte of pipe history.

THE FISCHERS OF ORCHARD PARK
The Fischers of Orchard Park owned “House of Fischer” for more than 40 years, according to Arthur C., who passed away at his Florida home in November 1997, just shy of his 93rd birthday. Arthur’s great-great-great-grandfather was called the John Hancock of European pipes, having been appointed in 1742 as the official royal pipemaker to the Prince of Saxony. This tradition was carried on by the next two Fischer generations in Europe. August G., of the fourth generation, and his two sons, Gustave A. and Otto, came to the United States in 1867. Ruhla’s Fischers, mentioned earlier, may have been relatives.

According to Truman C. White (ed.), Our County and Its People. A Descriptive Work on Erie County, New York, Volume II, 1898, 139):

Fischer, Gustav A., Buffalo, was born at Ruhla, Saxony, Germany, August 30, 1865, a son of August and Lisetta (Deusing) Fischer, and emigrated to America with his parents when quite young, settling in Brooklyn, N.Y. His first business experience was in the manufacture of meerschaum and briar pipes. They conducted a large business in various cities until June 1892, when they removed to Buffalo, where he is now engaged in business for himself.

Living in Brooklyn, August G. worked for WDC, while Gustave A. apprenticed in meerschaum. (It’s possible that August G. produced many of the WDC-carved meerschaums in circulation today.) The family relocated to Rochester for a few years and, in 1892, resettled in Buffalo. Their first pipe shop was at 351 Main St., Ellicott Square, and at a time at 61 Broadway; the firm’s letterhead April 25, 1913, reads: “Gustave A. Fischer, Manufacturer of Meerschaum, Amber and Briar Goods, 13 East Genesee Street, Buffalo, Established 1892.” By 1934, the shop at 15 West Eagle St. was the only one between New York and Cleveland still working with meerschaum and amber. It later relocated to various addresses in Orchard Park, the last at 6226 Boston Ridge Road (The Hamburg Sun, July 12, 1956, 1).

August G.’s “… work has become a part of the history of Western New York” …. He “was one of the most famous meerschaum carvers in the United States …. In 1896, to mark the birthday of Major Wm. McKinley, soon to be elected President, August Fischer carved a pipe of meerschaum. The bowl of the pipe was a replica of the head of Major McKinley. The pipe was designed entirely from photographs” (“The House of Fischer—Pipe Makers to Kings,” Photo News, Vol. 47, No. 31, March 19, 1969, 2). Gustave A. “… gave up his training in the art of carving ornate meerschaum pipes, when he saw that many of the carvers who were coming into this country at that time did not have enough work (“The House of Fischer …,” 2). He continued carving plain meerschaum pipes, amber and fine briars. Arthur followed the family tradition from 1956 forward, producing plain meerschaums and briars. He sold the shop in 1979, ending a 235-year tradition, and sold the family jewels—the meerschaums made by his father and grandfather—from his Florida home. In 1983, the renamed Fischer Pipe Shop Ltd., then operated by the Tronolone brothers, was located at 4075 North Buffalo St.

Nothing concrete is in print on Otto Fischer, and Arthur opted not to discuss him with me. August G. produced a large quantity of pipes and cheroot holders in assorted motifs, but the firm is best remembered for a few special-purpose meerschaums—frontier wilderness compositions—made for the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, Buffalo. One pipe depicted three Indians on horseback pursuing three buffalo, now in a private collection (Collecting Antique Meerschaums, 44); another exposition pipe is illustrated on page 43. The most memorable meerschaum he created for this celebration was “a human skull held in the hand of a woman. The skull, which forms the bowl, and the hand are of meerschaum. The stem is carved of amber. The pipe is thirty-one inches in length. Doctors and dentists who have examined the skull find it to be flawless” and, I must add, exacting in its detail (“The House of Fischer …,” 2, and A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes, 64). They also established a reputation as colorers, using a special process developed by Arthur’s great-grandmother to change white meerschaum to a rich mahogany or cherry hue, but this service ceased when one of the trade-secret ingredients was no longer available.

There’s a Paul Fischer in Western Pennsylvania who also made pipes … organ pipes! But this Paul generates the most Internet traffic; he was, as Fred Bass reported, considered to be “… the premier artisan of the new age of Meerschaum.” Paul was identified in a local newspaper article: “A relative, Paul Fischer of New York, makes the meerschaum pipes for the House of Fischer” (“The House of Fischer …,” 2). If Paul worked in Orchard Park, it was not for very long. He set up shop in New York City, executing both meerschaum and briar pipes. Collector-friend Charlie Strom volunteers: “I visited Paul’s workshop, which was located in a six- or eight-story building on the east side of Union Square. I watched him at work and noted that he made only smooth, undecorated pipes with cases which were not fitted to the shape of the pipes.”

Read the rest of the story in P&T magazine or the online digital edition.

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Category: Fall 2012, Feature Article, Uncategorized

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