An Amazing Story : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

An Amazing Story

by Ben Rapaport

I am pleased to join William Serad and Greg Pease with my own column. My first contribution is an abbreviated adaptation of Dr. Sarunas Peckus’ “The Circus Cheroot Holder: Mystery Solved!” (Journal of the Academie Internationale de la Pipe, Volume 4, 2011).

The use of meerschaum as a pipe medium began in the mid-1700s in what was then Pest, Hungary, and as its popularity spread west and south across Europe, the preponderance of talented carvers were eventually located in most of the Continent’s more modern cities. The best European meerschaum carving, in my opinion, lasted some 75 years, from about 1850 to about 1925, and a serious investigation would reveal that the subject matter carved into and onto pipes and cigar and cigarette holders was predominantly and thematically European in character.

In time, the United States had its fair share of excellent meerschaum carvers, and although most of their collective output was commonplace motifs, a few chose to celebrate distinctively American events or personages in their carving. Several such pipes come to mind that may not be familiar to the reader: Boston’s Gustav Fischer Sr.’s “The Battle of Bunker Hill,” a 2-pound, 34-inch meerschaum work of art with 31 high-relief carved figures, and the figural bust of “Directum,” 1918 trotter of the year; Carl Kutschera’s “Custer’s Last Stand”; Kaldenberg’s presentation pipe for the International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia (its dimensions are 19.5 inches by 14.75 inches); Demuth’s “Columbus Landing in America,” a 32-inch masterpiece exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and the President series, 29 precision-carved likenesses of John Adams to Herbert Hoover; and from Orchard Park, New York’s Gustave Fischer (no relation to the Boston Fischers), a buffalo hunt to commemorate the Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo, New York, in 1901.These are but a few of the remarkable pipes and holders that exhibit American craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, what is impossible to know now is the inspiration, impulse or motivation behind such extraordinary, symbolic pipes. Why did the carver invest time and material to craft a particular motif? Was it a commission? Custom order? Whimsy? To make my point, Fischer Sr.’s “Battle of Bunker Hill”—after John Trumbull’s oil on canvas, “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775” (1786)—was carved over the course of four years and finished sometime in 1905. Why this painting as a model for a pipe, and what was the motivation to carve it a quarter-century after the centennial celebration of American independence? My best guess is that he lived and carved in Boston, and Bunker Hill is just a few miles from the heart of the city … but it is just my guess. And why a bust of a black stallion carved in 1918, but no pipe or holder to memorialize the end of the Great War in that year? Or Gustave Fischer’s buffalo hunt? The exposition’s theme was the commercial understanding among the “American Republics,” not the
American Wild West.

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Category: An Amazing Story, Summer 2016

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