An Amazing Story : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

An Amazing Story

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A most unusual table pipe

The elephant in the room … figuratively speaking

by Ben Rapaport

My passion is to preserve pipe history as revealed in the art of the pipe and, whenever possible, to document the connective tissue between the pipes of yesterday and today. When I pull at a thread pertaining to today’s pipe scene, it draws me further into the past. This story could be a metaphor for the book title of art historian Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things (2016). The known thing is the tobacco pipe, and the strange thing is the elephant, an iconographic pipe motif. Let me explain: The elephant has been molded, carved and incised on pipes—all kinds of pipes—more than any other configuration; it’s been a very lengthy relationship, and an overlooked bit of pipe lore, however absurd this premise seems. To substantiate this, follow me in a circuitous narrative through time as I cite numerous examples of pachyderm-ish pipes in various formats and mediums.

I’ll bypass the stylized elephant imagery on African wood, clay and cast-metal pipes—the elephant head motif was allowed only on pipes used by rulers, chiefs and their families— and the three-headed elephant symbolism (the Hindu god Erawan) on Laotian pipes. In the Western world, elephants appeared as images on cigar box and chewing tobacco labels; on cigarette cards; as figural tobacco jars, cigar cutters,
novelty cigarette holders, pipe tampers and pipes. Frederick Fairholt mentions clay pipes shaped like an elephant’s head (Tobacco: Its History and Associations, 1859).

Photo by Darius Peckus

Photo by Darius Peckus

“The themes for these [clay] pipes are highly imaginative, strikingly colorful and beautifully executed. Many of them have an animal theme such as an elephant with a long extended trunk …” (Richard Cumpston Jones, Saint-Omer and the British Connection, 2012). Prehistoric stone pipes of an elephant or mastodon—the Davenport elephant pipes—carved by the mound builders of Iowa, discovered in the late 1870s, are in the Putnam Museum and Science Center in Davenport, Iowa.

Nineteenth-century European porcelain pipe bowls displayed images of the elephant; wood pipes, meerschaum pipes and cheroot holders bore the elegant head or full body of the elephant. Haida argillite pipes have depicted the elephant, and there’s the occasional Chinese expression in ivory. Briars exhibiting the elephant head were mass-produced for the American smoking public in the mid-to-late 20th century.

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Category: An Amazing Story, Other Stories, Pipe Articles, Spring 2017

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