A Little Bit About Meerschaum…

As many of our regular customers will know we have recently been focused on bringing some rare Somali Meerschaum pipes to the market. These were carved from Somali blocks mined specifically for us many years ago, which were then exported out of the country in an adventure deserving of its own Spielberg film!

With the original batch of finished pipes snapped up within days of our Xmas 2012 Catalogue being released the next batch are due for completion any day. And this started me thinking about what we really know of meerschaum, or more specifically about the origins and history of the industry rather than just the mineral itself. So, with the help of the AIP Meerschaum Working Group, I’ve put together some snippets charting a little of the history and economics of this peculiar mineral that I hope will interest and maybe even amaze…

It appears that meerschaum was first introduced by Turkish merchants to artisans in Budapest and Vienna, but the generally accepted view is that the first actual ‘factories’ were founded in Ruhla, Germany, in 1767. In these early years meerschaum pipe manufacture was a very low key affair – it was not until 1830 or thereabouts that the material became more widely used. In fact it has been estimated that in the very early 1800s no more than 20 or 25 persons were engaged in the making of meerschaum pipes, and it is only since the London Exhibition of 1851 that central Europe became the largest manufacturer of meerschaum pipes in the world.

Meerschaum itself was traded in standardised ‘chests’, measuring 7” x 30” x 14”, and records have been unearthed showing that the rise in popularity was meteoric – in 1850 annual sales of meerschaum were reported to comprise some 800 chests whilst only twenty years later sales exceeded 10,000 chests. This increase is even more impressive when one considers that the average market value of the mineral had not decreased during this time despite its prevalence!

In a report on the Paris Exhibition of 1867, it had been noted: “The display of meerschaums and amber pipes and mouthpieces is finer in the Austrian Court than in any other part of the Exhibition… There are seventy-nine exhibitors in class 26 [meerschaum and amber goods] in the Austrian Court, representing a very large amount of capital and industry, and what is worthy of remark, almost all the exhibitors are Viennese, though of course their ramifications extend to almost every part of the Austrian empire.”

By 1876, London alone boasted 30 meerschaum pipe makers and importers, and this figure continued to rise towards the end of the century, with the majority being Jewish in origin. Around that same time a US Senate report noted that “France employs over 50,000 people making pipes and smokers’ articles, and some towns are entirely devoted to that branch, and our largest competitors Germany employs fully 100,000 people in pipe making, and Austria at least 150,000.”

As noted, Vienna in particular was emerging as the epicenter for block and pressed meerschaum pipe and cheroot holder production and on average carvers were working 10 hours/day in order to keep up with demand. Statistics gathered for the year 1873 revealed that in Vienna the combined average annual output was about 1,200,000 meerschaum pipes and 6,000,000 meerschaum cheroot holders, the majority of which were exported to America. The fashion and indeed requirement in those days was for a quality meerschaum pipe to display an accompanying amber mouthpiece, a material that was valued for its colour, quality and tactility. This created its own ancillary industry with an estimated 50,000 lbs of the raw material brought to Vienna annually.

By 1907 however, the tide was turning and it was noted that the industry was now facing “a situation for which there seems to be no remedy and the manufacturers of meerschaum pipes, cigar holders, etc will have to go out of business or into some other line”. This stark warning came as a result of a severe reduction in the availability of the raw material, and as a result that which was available underwent a dramatic increase in value. Prices of raw meerschaum approximately doubled in the space of the three years leading up to 1907 and, at the same time, America and England secured control of practically all the meerschaum still to be had. At about the same time the production of amber is said to have been considerably decreased and as demand was significantly greater than the supply, prices of this commodity were also steadily rising. By 1911 the situation was of such concern that the American Consul in Prague stated ‘the valuable material from which meerschaum pipes are made is continually getting scarcer, and the large industry which has flourished in Vienna, Budapest, Nuremberg, Paris, and in the Thuringian town of Ruhla seems endangered’. A few years later politics had also created pressures for the meerschaum industry, with the Great War of 1914-1918 forcing numerous factories to close, whilst a general belief that the Turkish authorities lacked the enterprise or organization to ensure a constant supply of keenly priced mineral continued to erode confidence. This scarcity was perhaps most keenly felt in the American mid-west which had its own meerschaum pipe-making industry. When supplies from Turkey ceased altogether, ‘the pipe makers of Cincinnati get it from others at home – wherever it may be bought’. This is thought to have been centred around Grant County, New Mexico, where thousands of tonnes of the admittedly inferior grade mineral were extracted and an import business centred around high quality, luxury products turned into a low quality, export business almost overnight. Whether or not as a result of this poor management of supply and the general decline in the availability of meerschaum, briar and other materials had started to gain popularity as a genuine alternative for pipe makers.

But there was another spectre on the horizon – the new fashion in places such as Germany and the United States for the consumption of tobacco through cigars and cigarettes effectively relegated the meerschaum pipe in a very short space of time. Increasing prices, rarity of the raw material, viable alternatives, political interference and a changing of fashions were between them seeing the demise of the industry almost as rapidly as its meteoric rise some 50 years previously.

By some time around 1930 meerschaum and amber pipes had lost almost their entire market share to briar pipes, cigars and cigarettes. Although amber cutters and shapers were able to turn their attentions to the increasing demand for amber jewelry, those involved purely in the meerschaum industry were left with nowhere to turn.

Little did they know however that the demise of the meerschaum pipe was simply a precursor to the general demise of pipe smoking, hastened by the increased popularity of the more convenient forms of tobacco enjoyment such as cigars and cigarettes. This in turn was hastened by the rise of American culture during and after World War II and a setting of fashions that are only now beginning to fall away, thanks mainly to the anti tobacco lobby. Quality meerschaum does still exist but with other, more economically viable materials available will we ever see meerschaum pipes once again produced in large quantities? Or will it now be retained only for the most luxurious of smokers requisities? Only time will tell…

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6 Responses to A Little Bit About Meerschaum…

  1. avatar Reverend says:

    It smokes better than Tanganikas, similar to turkish but with beauty and roughness of africans, IMHO. Certainly there is sepiolite in many places, here in Madrid, Spain, you can find the stone but is unsmokeable. I know by personal experience. Smokeable meerschaum is a rarity. Let´s hope that the somali stuff will last for a good time.

  2. avatar Brian Hutchinson says:

    Read your website. Very interesting to me as a lax pipe smoker. Thanks

  3. avatar Gerald Frisby says:

    Traditionally African meers were dipped in hot oil and may have been annealed or partially annealed during manufacture. As well as being made in Tanzania formerly Tanganyka formerly German East Africa ( at the time when meer manufacture started there ) Laxey’s in the Isle of Man crafted meers from African Meer for most of the famous pipe makers such as Petersons, Comoys etc until the supplies of Tanzanian meer ran out around the start of this century. It was always known that there were deposits of similar meer in Somalia but the political situation ther made it unlikely that it would ever be exported. I have been in touch with the Curator of the Isle of Man museum who holds all of Laxey’s records to find out more – but a personal visit is needed as they are not on computer. Personally I prefer African meer pipes to Turkish….

  4. avatar john hill says:

    MY MEERSHAUM PIPE ORIGINATED IN TANZANIA, AND WHEN I BOUGHT THIS SOME 40 YEARS AGO (ROUGHLY), MEERSHAUM WAS ONLY A MEERSCHAUM IF IT CAME FROM TANZANIA —– AT THAT TIME I GATHERED SUPPLIES WERE DECREASING —- IS YOUR SOMALI PRODUCT SOMETHING QUITE DIFFERENT? OR WHAT? JOHN

    • avatar Marcus says:

      Hi John. Thanks for your comments. Meerschaum is meerschaum regardless of where it comes from and arguably the fact it was originally sourced from Turkey in the late 1700 probably gives the Turks greater claims over it than the Tanzanians! I have never heard of Tanzanian meer but the simple fact is that it exists naturally around the world. So in answer to your question, our Somali Block is genuine meerschaum, and often regarded as some of the highest quality meerschaum available anywhere. It would be interesting to know if it smokes any different from your Tanzanian version…

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