During a recent trip to London I became quite fascinated with clay pipe stem fragments.
It began while perusing the Victoria and Albert museum when I saw an interesting necklace
made with some odd looking sea tumbled pottery. I learned that it was actually made with clay tobacco pipe
stem fragments, found on the Thames River, by Bettina Dittlmann in 2005.
Later in the week, as we walked to the London Bridge, I looked down at the Thames River
and noticed that the tide was low enough to do some exploring along the the river bed… you probably know
that I’m quite a sea glass enthusiast and I have quite a difficult time resisting beach combing at low tide!
I jumped the gate (why was there a gate there, anyway?) and hopped down the steps to the mudflat
and began what is known in London as mudlarking. For centuries, folks have been known to
mudlark on the river Thames at low tide. A mudlark is someone who scavenges in river mud for items of value…
these days it’s history buffs looking for artifacts but during the 18th and 19th centuries
they were looking for items that could be resold… scraps of metal and coal
and other miscellaneous found items, to be cashed in to put food on the table.
I quickly filled my pockets with treasures… some lightly tumbled old bottle bits, bottle necks
and even two and a half beautiful glass bottle stoppers but that day,
my greatest treasure was to find a few old clay pipe fragments… some true London history!
After a little research, I learned that folks have been smoking tobacco in little clay pipes with long stems,
some called it the little ladle, since the late 16th century.
They were quite fragile and fairly disposable because once they were cracked or broken
they were rendered useless and discarded. Why were the stems so long (some measured 11″) and fragile?
An historian told me it was because the mouth of the stem was easily clogged so the user would simply snap off the clogged end and continue to smoke the pipe until it became too short to smoke.
Another explanation was that the pipe was passed mouth to mouth, in taverns, etc., and for the sake of hygiene
the mouth end could be snapped off and tossed.
There is a Clay Pipe Society that studies these artifacts and can
tell much about the well preserved pieces they find, especially the pipe bowls.
But for me, I intend to make a few pairs of earrings with my old pipe fragments so that I can wear
a little bit of history, wondering who it was that long ago smoked the pipe that ended up
discarded on the river Thames, broken and tumbled, before finding it’s way into my pockets.