Clay tobacco pipe makers' marks from London title banner
photograph of detail of pipe mark

Incuse monogram with the initials BT under a fleur-de-lys stamped on the base of the heel of a pipe dated to c 1580-1610.

Clay tobacco pipes and smoking in London

Tobacco plants from the New World were first cultivated in Europe as early as the middle of the 16th century, when they were prized for their exotic appearance and supposed medicinal properties when taken in the form of snuff. The earliest account of a pipe being used to smoke dried tobacco leaves comes from England and dates the introduction of the practice to the 1570s. English adventurers exploring the eastern seaboard of North America in the age of Elizabeth I had encountered native peoples smoking dried tobacco in pipe-like instruments made from clay. Unsurprisingly, they introduced the habit to their home country, where it quickly became both fashionable and popular. By the end of the 16th century, smoking had become widespread in England and a pipemaking industry was growing rapidly to meet the ever-increasing demand. The earliest pipes were handmade, but by the end of the 16th century, the use of moulds greatly increased productivity and efficiency of manufacture.

At first London was the focus of this new industry, although from the mid 17th century onwards more and more centres around the country began to make clay tobacco pipes, each developing their own individual variations on the basic form. In 1619 the Charter of Incorporation of the Tobacco Pipemakers of Westminster was signed by 36 individuals, representing more than half of the 62 pipemakers recorded in London at this date. Pipes made by some of these men are illustrated here. A new Charter of Incorporation was granted in 1634 and signed by 22 pipemakers at a time when the industry was beginning to expand increasingly to other regions outside the capital. In 1663 the company was reconstituted by a new charter and reorganised as a City Company without livery. These major developments in the growth of the pipemaking industry during the 17th century provide the background to a major project undertaken by MoLAS, with generous funding by the City of London Archaeological Trust (CoLAT), to create and make available to the public and researchers a database of marked clay pipes found in London excavations.

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