What are Corn Cob Pipes?

Michael Pollick

The smoking devices known as corn cob pipes really are made from corn cobs, although the actual cob may be buried under layers of other materials such as meerschaum and lacquer. It is believed that farmers and others fashioned rudimentary pipes from corn cobs long before commercial pipe manufacturing became possible. Suitable cobs were first allowed to dry for several months or years, then they would be sliced into cross-sections. They were then turned on a lathe and turned into the bowls for the pipes. A thin hollow reed would then be forced through a small hole bored into the bowl and the user would pack a supply of tobacco into the bowl itself.

The "Corn Cob Pipe Capital of the World" is the town of Washington, Missouri.
The "Corn Cob Pipe Capital of the World" is the town of Washington, Missouri.

Corn cob pipes of this nature were rarely intended to be permanent. Once the homemade pipes became too dirty, they were usually thrown away in favor of brand new ones. When an immigrant farmer in Missouri introduced them to a commercial pipe company in 1869, however, the popularity and availability of corn cob pipes expanded significantly.

Corn cob pipes may help absorb unpleasant flavors found in tobacco.
Corn cob pipes may help absorb unpleasant flavors found in tobacco.

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Believe it or not, there is a "Corn Cob Pipe Capital of the World," and it is the town of Washington, Missouri. The Missouri Meerschaum Company is credited with producing the first pipes of this type, and other pipe companies in the surrounding area are also still in business. The Missouri Meerschaum Company used corn cobs as the base for a new line of smoking pipes for beginning smokers and those who enjoyed taste testing various tobaccos.

The corn cobs are usually dried for two years before production begins. Because modern cobs have been bred to yield larger kernels, they are generally too small for the construction of pipes. The University of Missouri maintains a 150 acre (60.7 hectare) field of old-style field corn with larger cobs suitable for pipe production. After drying, the cobs are cut into various sizes and hollowed out mechanically to form the bowls. Cheaper pipes equipped with cheap stems may be marketed at this point, but better pipes receive more attention.

The corn cob pipes are often coated with a layer of special Turkish clay called meerschaum, literally German for "sea foam." This plaster is remarkably light but sturdy and malleable. After the plaster has been applied, the bowl may also be treated with a lacquer to provide a shiny and protective top coat. Meanwhile, holes are bored into the bottoms of the pipes and hollow stems are attached. Any leaks are usually sealed with more lacquer or plaster patches. The lower part of the stems may be decorated to look like rows of corn on a cob.

Corn cob pipes are appreciably lighter than other smoking pipes, which makes them ideal for beginning pipe smokers. They are generally more affordable than the elaborately carved meerschaum pipes marketed towards experienced pipe smokers. Pipe smoking enthusiasts also say corn cob pipes do not require a breaking-in period before reaching maximum efficiency, unlike other more expensive brands. They are said to absorb many of the unpleasant oils and other liquids contained in many tobacco blends. This can also mean that the pipes may become too saturated for continued use, so smokers should be prepared to replace them often.

Corn cob pipes are made out of corn cob.
Corn cob pipes are made out of corn cob.

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