The tobacco plant is a coarse, large-leaved perennial, usually cultivated as an annual, grown from seed in cold frames or hotbeds and then transplanted to the field. Tobacco requires a warm climate and rich, well-drained soil. The plant is susceptible to numerous bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases (e.g., the tobacco mosaic virus) and is attacked by several species of worms, beetles, and moths. The characteristics of many of the named grades depend upon the regional environmental conditions and cultivation techniques. Tobacco leaves are picked as they mature, or they are harvested together with the stalk.
Tobacco leaves are cured, fermented, and aged to develop aroma and reduce the harsh, rank odor and taste of fresh leaves. Fire-curing, dating from pre-Columbian times, is done by drying the leaves in smoke; in air-curing, the leaves are hung in well-ventilated structures; in flue-curing, used for over half the total crop, the leaves are dried by radiant heat from flues or pipes connected to a furnace. The cured tobacco is graded, bunched, and stacked in piles called bulks or in closed containers for active fermentation and aging. Most commercial tobaccos are blends of several types, and flavorings (e.g., maple and other sugars) are often added.
The United States produced nearly 1.7 billion pounds of tobacco in 1997 (about one tenth of world production), of which about 30% was exported; the United States imports some tobacco for special purposes, e.g., Asian cigarette leaf for blending, Puerto Rican tobacco for cigar filler, and cigar-wrapper leaf from Sumatra and Java. In the United States about two thirds of the crop is grown in North Carolina and Kentucky. China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Malawi, and Zimbabwe are the other chief producing countries, and Russia, Japan, and Germany are the major importers.
The use of tobacco originated among the indigenous inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere in pre-Columbian times. Tobacco was introduced into Spain and Portugal in the mid-16th cent., initially for its supposed virtues as a panacea. It spread to other European countries and then to Asia and Africa, where its use became general in the 17th cent. The first tobacco to reach England was probably a crop harvested in Virginia, where John Rolfe experimented with Spanish types of tobacco seed and introduced tobacco as a crop as early as 1612. By 1619 tobacco had become a leading export of Virginia, where it was later used as a basis of currency.
Tobacco is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Solanales, family Solanaceae.
See R. Jahn, ed., Tobacco Dictionary (1954); J. C. Robert, The Story of Tobacco in America (1967); E. R. Billings, Tobacco (1875, repr. 1973); I. Gately, Tobacco: The Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World (2002).
A pipe for tobacco smoking typically consists of a small chamber (the bowl) for the combustion of the tobacco to be smoked and a thin stem (shank) that ends in a mouthpiece (the bit). Pipes can range from the very simple machine-made briar pipe to highly-prized handmade and artful implements created by renowned pipemakers which are often very expensive collector's items.
The bowls of tobacco pipes are commonly made of briar, corncob, meerschaum, and clay. Less common are cherrywood, olivewood, maple, mesquite, and oak. Generally a dense-grained wood is ideal. Minerals such as catlinite and soapstone have also been used. Pipe bowls are frequently carved with a great deal of artistry.
Unusual, but still noteworthy pipe bowl materials include gourds, as in the famous calabash pipe, and pyrolytic graphite. Metal and glass are uncommon materials for tobacco pipes, but are common for pipes intended for other substances.
The stem needs a long channel of constant position and diameter running through it, and this is difficult to carve out of a pre-existing block. Because it is molded rather than carved, clay may make up the entire pipe or just the bowl, but most other materials have stems made separately and detachable. Stems and bits of tobacco pipes are usually made of moldable materials like vulcanite, lucite, Bakelite, and soft plastic. Less common are stems made of reeds, bamboo, or hollowed out pieces of wood. Expensive pipes once had stems made of amber, though this is rare now.
Tobaccos for smoking in pipes are often carefully treated and blended to achieve flavour nuances not available in other tobacco products. Many of these are blends using staple ingredients of variously cured Burley and Virginia tobaccos which are enhanced by spice tobaccos, among them many Oriental or Balkan varietals, Latakia (a fire-cured spice tobacco of Cypriot or Syrian origin), Perique (uniquely grown in St. James Parish, Louisiana) or blends of Virginia and Burley tobaccos of African, Indian, or South American origins. Traditionally, many U.S. blends are made of American Burley with sweeteners and flavorings added to create an "aromatic" flavor, whereas "English" blends are based on natural Virginia tobaccos enhanced with Oriental and other natural tobaccos. There is a growing tendency towards "natural" tobaccos which derive their aromas from artful blending with selected spice tobaccos only and careful, often historically-based, curing processes.
Meerschaum (hydrated magnesium silicate), a mineral found in small shallow deposits mainly around the city of Eskişehir in central Turkey, is prized for its plasticity which allows it to be carved into many decorative and figural shapes. It has been used since the 17th century and, with clay pipes, represented the most common medium for pipes before the introduction of briar as the material of choice in the 19th century. The word "meerschaum" means "sea foam" in German, alluding to its natural white color and its surprisingly low weight. Meerschaum is a very porous mineral that absorbs elements of the tobacco during the smoking process, and gradually changes color to a golden brown. Old, well-smoked meerschaum pipes are prized for their distinctive coloring. In selecting a meerschaum pipe it is advisable to take assurances that the product is indeed carved from a block of meerschaum, and is not made from meerschaum dust collected after carving and mixed with an emulsifier then pressed into a pipe shape. These products are not absorbent, do not color, and lack the smoking quality of the block carved pipe.
Calabash gourds (usually with meerschaum or porcelain bowls set inside them) have long made prized pipes, but they are labour-intensive and nowadays quite expensive. Because of this expense, pipes with bodies made of wood (usually mahogany) instead of gourd, but the same classic shape are sold as calabashes. Both wood and gourd pipes are functionally the same. They both have an air chamber beneath the bowl which serves to cool, dry, and mellow the smoke. There are also briar pipes being sold as calabashes. These typically do not have an air chamber and are named only because of their external shape.
The construction of a calabash pipe generally consists of a downward curve that ends with an upcurve where the bowl sits. This low center of gravity allows for the user to easily hold the pipe by the mouth alone, leaving his hands free. This advantage was often used by actors who wanted to depict their character smoking while permitting them to do other business simultaneously. That is why the character Sherlock Holmes, who never used this kind of pipe in the stories, is stereotypically depicted as favoring it because early dramatic productions, especially those starring William Gillette and Basil Rathbone, made this artistic decision. In fact, Holmes, who preferred very harsh tobacco, would probably have disliked the calabash because of the above-mentioned mellowing effect.
On the other end of the scale, "corncob" pipes made from maize cobs are cheap and effective, even if some regard them as inelegant. The cobs are first dried for two years. Then they are hollowed out to make a bowl shape. The bowls are dipped in a plaster-based mixture and varnished or lacquered on the outside. Shanks made from maple wood are then inserted into the bowls. The first and largest manufacturer of corncob pipes is Missouri Meerschaum, located in Washington, Missouri in the USA. Missouri Meerschaum has produced the pipes since 1869. General Douglas MacArthur and George Lincoln Rockwell were perhaps the most famous smokers of this type of pipe, along with the cartoon characters Popeye and Frosty the Snowman.
Corncob pipes remain popular today because they are inexpensive and require no "break-in" period like briar pipes. For these two reasons, corncob pipes are often recommended as a "Beginners pipe." But, their enjoyment is by no means limited to beginners. Corncob pipes are equally valued by both learners and experienced smokers who simply desire a cool, clean smoke. Pipesmokers who wish to sample a wide variety of different tobaccos and blends also might keep a stock of corncobs on hand to permit them to try new flavors without "carryover" from an already-used pipe, or to keep a potentially bad tasting tobacco from adding its flavor to a more expensive or favored pipe.
Metal is an uncommon material for making tobacco pipes, but they are not unknown. The most common form of this is a pipe with a stem and shank made of aluminum, which serves as a heat sink. Mouthpieces are made of vulcanite or lucite. The bowls are removable, though not interchangeable between manufacturers. They are made of varying materials to allow the smoker to try different characteristics or to dedicate particular bowls for particular tobaccos.
Pipes traditionally used by many Native American tribes use bowls carved from catlinite, a relatively porous metamorphic rock. Other stones, such as alabaster or slate, have also been used to fashion bowls.
In the most common method of packing, tobacco is added to the bowl of the pipe in several batches, each one pressed down until the mixture has a uniform density that optimizes airflow (something that it is difficult to gauge without practice). This can be done with a finger or thumb, but if the tobacco needs to be repacked later, while it is burning, the tamper on a pipe tool is sometimes used. If it needs to be loosened, the reamer, or any similar long pin can be used. A traditional way of packing the pipe is to fill the bowl and then pack gently to about 1/3 full, fill again and pack slightly more firmly to about 2/3 full, and then pack more firmly still to the top.
An alternate packing technique called the Frank method does not use the above described layering approach. Instead tobacco is first lightly dropped in, then a large plug is gingerly pushed into the bowl all at once.
A cake of ash eventually develops inside the bowl. This is generally considered desirable for controlling overall heat. However, if it becomes too thick, it may expand faster than the bowl of the pipe itself when heated, cracking the bowl. Before reaching this point, it needs to be scraped down with a reamer. It is generally recommended to keep the cake at approximately the thickness of an American dime (about 1/20th of an inch or 1.5 mm), though sometimes the cake is removed entirely as part of efforts to eliminate off flavors or aromas. Cake is considered undesirable in meerschaum pipes because it can easily crack the bowl and/or interfere with the mineral's natural porosity.
Pipes have been used since ancient times. Herodotus described Scythians inhaling the fumes of burning leaves in 500 B.C. Romans, and Greeks adopted pipes from their neighbors to the east and they were subsequently used by Germanic, Celtic and Nordic tribes.
As tobacco was not introduced to the Old World until the 16th century, the pipes outside of the Americas were usually used to smoke hashish, a rare and expensive substance outside areas of the Middle East, Central Asia and India where it was produced.