Saturday, November 23, 2019

Gustav Fisher Sr., The "Man in the Window" on Court Street

Revisiting Gustav Fischer Sr., 
the “Man in the Window” on Court Street, Boston

Originally published in Pipes & Tobaccos
By Ben Rapaport
Photography by Daniel Beck

Gustav Fisher Sr. in his workshop, Boston

Pipe history matters to me, so long ago I assumed a self-appointed role as a chronicler of pipe history. When new information comes to light, when a compelling story is encountered that expands our knowledge and understanding of any aspect of pipe lore, and thanks to P&T, it gets published. “Revisiting Gustav Fischer Sr.” is a hagiographic account about meerschaum and one of its most talented carvers. I had written “Fischer’s Who’s Who” about the Orchard Park, NY, Fischers and the Boston Fischers (P&T, Fall 2012), and “Remembering: An Oral History of Gustav Fischer Sr. and Gustav Fischer Jr. of Boston, Massachusetts” ( in November 2012. He’s back, but it’s not a repeat performance. We live in an incredibly present-minded and disposable society, and there is very little sense of history and understanding of what has come before. But here’s a narrow window into a bygone era to hail one of the best European-trained meerschaum carvers who left an imprint on his adopted country. As Paul Harvey, radio pioneer, used to end his talk show: “Now you [will] know the rest of the story.”

Some of what follows is anecdotal, rather than verified facts, and these anecdotes aid in disproving myths and correcting misunderstandings (including my own) about U.S. pipe commerce in the late 19th–early 20th century. In detailing this cottage industry, I am obliged to acknowledge other principals in the trade here and abroad and to cite a few historically important events of the times in which these carvers participated. I also provide a more accurate timeline regarding these artisans on both sides of the Atlantic. However, fair warning: there are many claims and counter-claims—I list those I found—about who got credit for “In the beginning...” Frankly, it is impossible to know, with certainty, the where, when, and how. Lamentably, a true, accurate, and complete historical account of the genesis of meerschaum use may never be penned, but it’s necessary to start somewhere near the beginning. 

Lion's Head by Gustav Fisher Sr.


Although its economic importance throughout time is unquestionable, the origin of meerschaum use in pipes is obscure—it’s like unraveling an enigma—so I’ll skip over how and exactly when meerschaum was first used in Hungary as a pipe medium. The generally accepted Karl-Kovàcs-cobbler/wood carver-of-Pesth story is more industry legend or collector folklore than fact-based history. The generally accepted story is that Kovàcs carved two meerschaum pipes around 1720-25, but some reports indicate that Kovàcs lived in the 17th Century; other stories indicate that Hungary’s Count Andrássy was born in 1823. No matter, because it has been refuted by the Hungarian National Museum, but an unsubstantiated anecdote from this tale is worth quoting. Supposedly, when the count gave a chunk of meerschaum to Kovàcs, he was to have said: “Make, fellow, something pretty out of this.” This request actually became the watchword for about 200 years of meerschaum pipe production.

Suffice to say that the general acceptance of meerschaum as a pipe material traveled from Hungary across Western Europe in the 1700s. Reports indicate that Johann Christoph Dreiss of Ruhla, Germany, exhibited his meerschaum pipes at the 1750 Leipzig Trade Fair. Ruhla, Germany founded its first meerschaum pipe factories in 1767. At the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, meerschaum pipes from England’s Benjamin Barling & Sons and John Inderwick and from Vienna’s Mr. Saltiel were exhibited alongside other Austro-Hungarian and Prussian craftsmen in this first of a series of world fairs. 

Demonstrable evidence of the birth of a new era of exceptionally well-crafted meerschaums was Vienna’s Carl Astrath who received a prize medal at the 1851 Exhibition for “…an assortment of most exquisite specimens of meerschaum pipe-bowls and cigar-tubes; the sculpturing of the figures displaying remarkable artistic skill, and the execution of leafage being bold and sharp” (Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, Reports by the Juries, London, 1852, 673). Some have said that this first world exhibition launched meerschaum as the artistic medium of choice over clay and, simultaneously, the transition from low-relief carving to high-relief carving.

“The chief centre of manufacture was Vienna, where, in the mid-19th century, over 50 firms, employing from 10 to 15 carvers each, were kept busy with the production of meerschaum pipes and cigar-holders” (Roger Fresco-Corbu, “How to Smoke an Economical Cigar,” Country Life, Vol. 137, April 1, 1965, 747). As Carl Weber (Weber’s Guide to Pipes and Pipe Smoking) reported: “During this period, numerous Austrian factories, employing hundreds of carvers, turned out thousands upon thousands of handsomely shaped meerschaum pipes.” (And these carvers underwent guild training (typically, a Drechsler Fachschule, a turner school) and advanced by rank, from workman (apprentice) to journeyman to master craftsman.) Several reports of the Exposition Universelle, Paris (1867) noted that more than 90 meerschaum manufacturers from Dresden, London, Munich, Paris, Ruhla, and Vienna participated. At the 1873 International Exhibition, two Londoners, Leopold Bertram and Frederick Follit, and Frederick Kapp of Dublin displayed their carved meerschaum pipe specimens. By 1876, London was boasting 30 meerschaum pipe makers and importers, names familiar to most readers, among them William Astley, Adolph Frankau, and Emil Loewe. (According to Andrew Duncan: Inderwick “…introduced meerschaum pipes into England” [Walking London, 2003, 28]) and GBD “…introduced the manufacture of meerschaum pipes in France” [“G.B.D. Pipe First Branded Pipe in Existence, Oppenheimer Claims,” The Retail Tobacconist, Vol. XII, No. 23, September 21, 1922, 45]).

And what was the breadth and assortment of meerschaum pipes encountered in Europe in the mid-to late1800s? This is one portrayal:

"The tobacco shops display in the windows a whole museum of attractive subjects; sleeping Venuses, fainting Ledas, sirens who, if more modern, are not more clothed; rosy Cupids, spitted on amber needles like large butterflies or moths; next, spread out fan-shape, are heads of heidukes with ferocious moustaches sculptured in meerschaum with unparalleled skill; heads of negroes and of gypsies in hats, the top taken out—for these, as well as the busts of sirens and amazons with high hats, are destined to hold cigars and cigarettes; serpents in coils, doves billing and cooing; all the products of an art almost unknown among us, but which is developed here in this wonderful carving in meerschaum fro the benefit of smokers, and for those who watch them colouring these carved goddesses” 

(Victor Tissot [English translation by A. Oswald Brodie], Unknown Hungary, Volume II, 1881, 264-65).

European carvers were well represented in the United States. The Official Catalogue of the New-York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (1853) listed exhibitors of meerschaum and other pipes: three from Germany, one from Austria, one from Prussian Silesia, two from Gouda, and two from England. American pipe makers were noticeably absent at this New York fair, because our manufacturing capabilities were not yet a mature commercial enterprise.

Smoking Sailor by Gustav Fisher Sr.

America’s Fledgling Industry

How and exactly when did this industry begin in the United States? Which seems to be the most plausible scenario? I don’t know which to believe, and it may not matter one whit to pipe collectors. One claim is that the process of manufacturing meerschaum pipes and holders was introduced in 1855 by an Armenian, Bedrossian, who brought two cases of raw meerschaum from Asia Minor to New York City, and introduced them to Kaldenberg; and the company’s ads read “Fred. J. Kaldenberg. First introduced the manufacture of MEERSCHAUM PIPES and AMBER GOODS in America.” “In fact, the first meerschaum ever carved in this country by an American-born workman was made for a Russian General named Raffolovitch, and the bowl was ornamented by a portrait of the General’s wife. This was made by a man named Kallenberg [sic]” (“Smoking Portrait Pipes,” Current Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 6, June 1896, 532). There is an alternate interpretation. “The first meerschaum pipe made in the United States was carved by Charles Pollak, in New York City, in 1860, from a block which Rev. Dr. Tyng, of Brooklyn, New York, brought from Turkey. He had learned his trade from his father-in-law in Old Buda. He imported the raw material in blocks the same year to manufacture it into pipes for the trade, thereby introducing into this country a new industry” (“What is Meerschaum?,” The Bulletin of Pharmacy, Vol. XVII, No. 8, August 1903, 337). That version was recounted in a later article about Arnold Pollak, his son: “…his father, C. B. Pollak, having been the first manufacturer of meerschaum pipes in the United States, as well as a large retail cigar merchant and cigar manufacturer” (“When Pollak Put Chalk on John Bremond’s Shoes,” Tobacco, January 16, 1919, 22). There’s a third account. “This [meerschaum] industry was introduced in the United States by Demuth, and his exhibit has been very favorably noticed” (Reports of the United States Commissioners to the Universal Exposition of 1889 at Paris, Volume II, 1891, 332). And a fourth: “The earliest manufacturer whose name is now recorded was Thomas Smith, tobacco-pipe maker, of the city of New York, in 1847” (The Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 22, 1945, 108). This last claim is specious and ridiculous. But in 1858, at the Second Industrial Exhibition of the Mechanics’ Institute of the City of San Francisco, “Fifteen Meerschaum Pipes and two boxes Cigars,” deposited by the Becker Brothers of San Francisco, were on exhibit. Unfortunately, nothing more is known about this event.

Soon “… the field was opened, and so rapid was the progress made that in 1867 …  at the Paris exhibition, a magnificent display was made of American made meerschaum pipes” (Fritz Morris, “The Making of Meerschaums,” The Technical World Magazine, Volume IX, No. 1, March 1908, 195). According to Cope’s Tobacco Plant, “The most beautiful meerschaum pipes are made in Vienna; but Paris, and even New York, have entered into rivalry with the Austrian capital” (“Meerschaum,” No. 124.– Vol. II., July 1880, 496). By 1885, the American meerschaum pipe industry had made great strides, competing internationally in exhibits, receiving awards and gaining recognition. ). “The Meerschaum pipe trade in New York is…a flourishing institution, and the manufacturers do a good business” (Cope’s Mixture. Selected From His Tobacco Plant, 1893, 56).

However, opinions about this industry varied. “The carving of meerschaum pipes is not now so prosperous a business as it was twenty years ago. Comparatively little of this kind of work has been done in America; only isolated artists work at it, and of these very few can turn out really fine pieces” (“A Few Words About Pipes,” The American Stationer, Vol. XXIX.–No. 15, April 9, 1891, 762). “But Americans haven’t generally been successful at meerschaum carving; our best workmen have come from Germany” (“Pipes and Smokers. Stories of Meerschaum Coloring Told by An Expert,” Daily Kentucky New Era, November 28, 1895). And John Leitch noted in Man to Man. The Story of Industrial Democracy (1919): “In the beginning it [Demuth] employed foreign pipe makers; there are only a few pipe factories in this country and a few native pipe makers, so it was very seldom that trained workers could be hired” (64), and “Americans do not shine at careful hand labor; the [pipe] industry is an imported one anyway and it has always drawn its labor largely from the immigrants who used to flock into New York” (65).

Ram's Head by Gustav Fisher Sr.

New York

At mid-century, New York City’s most prominent firm was F. J. (Frederick Julius) Kaldenberg & Son, founded in 1853, advertising as the “… Most Extensive and Celebrated Meerschaum and Amber Emporium in this Country,” and “The Pioneer Manufacturer of Meerschaum Pipes & Amber Goods.” The company had three stores in the City and branch stores in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis.

German-born William Demuth came to the United States at age 16 in 1851. He began
carving pipes in 1861, then founded the William Demuth Company in 1862, a retail, wholesale, and import giant, identified in the press as the “largest manufacturers of pipes and smokers’ articles in the world.” Demuth’s empire was extensive. The Universal Tobacco Dealers Directory for the Year 1867 lists affiliate stores in Chicago, one run by William’s brother, I. (Isaac) Demuth and two others, Francis Elder & Company, and Metzler, Rothschild & Co., all four linked to a network of Continental suppliers of tobacco wares. By 1890, Demuth was the largest pipe manufacturing operation in the USA. A lesser City player was Charles Pollak & Son, established in 1839, advertising as “…The Largest and Finest Stock of First class MEERSCHAUM GOODS in the United States.” 

Gustav Stehr, a Vienna native born into the trade, opened for business in 1867. “The talents he [Stehr] manifested were of the highest order, and he has developed his genius for this high class of art work, until we have no hesitation in saying that he is the finest meerschaum carver in the world to-day … His establishment contains the finest as it is the complete stock of truly artistic meerschaum goods ever brought together and is well worthy of a visit from the art-loving public” (Richard Edwards, New York’s Great Industries, 1884, 145). Nothing significant is known about I. Hamburger, Carl Kutschera, and Carl Weis & Co. (successor to Pollak), three other City meerschaum craftsmen.

The Boston Scene 

Boston ca 1830

“Between 1825 and 1830 there were nine pipe makers active in the town, and in 1834 a tobacco factory was also established, processing imported cured tobacco leaves” (Richard Gurnham, The Story of Boston, 2014, n.p.) Of course, these were clay pipe makers. 

Years later, there were several importers of European-made meerschaum pipes and manufacturers operating concurrently, each a virtual stone’s throw from the others: Wendall Bourguingon and Louis Britt, C. P. Conant, Frederick Kreckler, F. W. Steffens, and the Susmann Bros. on Washington Street; H. Carruth & Company, N. Schloss, and F. P. Kruse on Hanover Street; F. J. Kaldenberg on Chauncy Street; Meyer and Wondra on Friend Street; and F. Abraham on Court Street. (A little-known Bostonian carver, A. Ruth, received a diploma for his “Meerschaum Pipes. Many of them well cut, and a few quite spirited in design” [Tenth Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association of Faneuil and Quincy Halls, September 1865, 165]). Author Robert Luce mentions a Mr. Bean who had purchased a meerschaum pipe in Munich that he thought was a bargain. When he got back to Boston a pipe merchant “…offered to duplicate it for fifty cents less; he maintained that the best meerschaum pipe makers have come across to America” (Going Abroad? Some Advice, 1897, 122). It’s obvious that this reporter had not painted an accurate picture of the times: “There is very little meerschaum carving done in Boston, and, in fact, there are but few first-class artists in meerschaum in this country, and even those came from some foreign place” (“The Carving of Fine Meerschaum,” The Morning Call, San Francisco, April 5, 1891).

Ferdinand Abraham, a German immigrant who arrived in 1866, went to Boston in 1868, and became the city’s leading manufacturer and importer. “Among the tobacco houses of this city none are more worthy of honorable mention than that of Mr. F. Abraham, importer of smokers’ articles and leaf tobacco, and manufacturer of fine cigars, at No. 25 Court street. This gentleman started in business in a small way at the corner of Washington and Union Park streets, in the year 1868, as a retail tobacconist and manufacturer of cigars. In 1879 he removed to his present location.” In the same year, “Mr. Abraham first began the importation of pipes and smokers’ articles, and in this branch of his business he now ranks second to no other dealer in the city” (Leading Manufacturers and Merchants of the City of Boston and A Review of the Prominent Exchanges, 1885, 200). Here is a later, more expansive description of the establishment:

F. Abraham, Importer and Manufacturer of Smokers’ Articles, Cigars, Tobacco, Etc., Nos. 25, 27 and 29 Court Street.—This gentleman has been established in business here since 1868, and his house is accounted one of the most accomplished meerschaum manufacturing and amber houses in the country, as it is the largest manufacturer of meerschaum goods in the New England States. Mr. Abraham makes a specialty of the manufacture of meerschaum pipes, of which he turns out some one thousand varieties, a fact to be accounted for by the variety of shapes in which the crude meerschaum is imported, the pipes, of course, having to be designed and made accordingly, while every kind of meerschaum goods are made to order, and every variety of carving, engraving and mounting in gold and silver is done (American Publishing and Engraving Co., New York, Boston and Bostonians [1894, 178]).

F. Abraham advertised with the slogan: “Special attention given to the manufacturing of Society and Class Pipes. In 1881, at age 20, David P. Ehrlich went to work for Ferdinand Abraham. In 1889, the company made its presence known by displaying meerschaum pipes at a city-hosted exhibition (John W. Ryckman, Report of the International Maritime Exhibition, Boston, 1889–1890, 186). F. Abraham became Ehrlich & Kopf. In 1908, then moved to 37 Court Street and, in 1916, it became the David P. Ehrlich Company. Into this meerschaum milieu entered the goateed Gustav Fischer Sr.

On background, of several hundred 19th-century Viennese meerschaum carvers on record, a certain Joseph Fischer medaled in London for “artistic curves in meerschaum and amber applied to pipes” (International Exhibition, 1862. Medals and Honourable Mentions Awarded by International Juries, 2d edition, 1862, 121). In a complementary report, he was listed as a producer of “...all kinds of pipes of real meerschaum for export to England and France” (The International Exhibition of 1862. The Illustrated Catalogue of the Industrial Department, Vol. IV, Foreign Division, 110). He also exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition (Philadelphia, 1876). Fischer is a common European surname, but what’s not known is whether there is a family connection between Vienna’s Joseph Fischer and the central figure in this narrative or a mere coincidence.

Plantation Worker by Gustav Fisher Sr.

Gustav (1847–1937) attended the Vienna Academy of Design at the age of 11 to study sculpture; he apprenticed at painting, wood carving and sculpture in stone, clay and plaster of Paris, and began carving pipes at the age of 14. He arrived in America in 1880, and worked in New York until 1893 when he moved his family to Boston. Known as the man in the window at 37 (and later at 33) Court Street, Sr. plied his craft from about 1900 to the early 1930s as an Ehrlich employee and continued carving until his death at 91. This snippet certainly refers to Gustav: “A firm named Erlich [sic] & Kopf of Boston for years has been making a line of meerschaum pipes that compete to good advantage with the higher priced imported products” (“‘Digging in for Peace,’” Printers’ Ink, Vol. CV, No. 5, October 31, 1918, 47).

And about that window, “The new but temporary store of Ehrlich & Kopf at 40 Court street had its opening today. …One of the show-windows is being arranged for the firm’s carver in meerschaum, and the other has a display of the clear Havana brands…Plans are being made for the firm’s splendid new store at 37 Court street, which they will occupy after September 1” (Poor Showing in Boston,” The Tobacco Leaf, February 12, 1908, 28). And two years later, “The Meerschaum and briar pipe display shown in the Court street window of Ehrlich Kopf, the pipe manufacturers of New England, surpassed any of their previous exhibits…The meerschaum exhibit was unusually attractive, the largest piece of block meerschaum ever found being in the center of the display” (Boston Records An Exceptional X Trade,” United States Tobacco Journal, January 1, 1910, 22). And “Ehrlich & Kopf, the well-known pipe manufacturers, have a handsome window display of meerschaum and briar pipes in their Court Street store” (“New Monopole Tobacco Packages,” The United States Tobacco Journal, October 1, 1910, 20). 

David P. Ehrlich Pipe Shop on Court Street, Boston

A troubling distraction in recounting Gustav’s life is the obituary of George W. Maurer:  
…who, for forty-seven years carved meerschaum pipe bowls at his bench in David P. Ehrlich’s store window in Court Street, died yesterday at the age of 71. Thousands of Bostonians have watched Mr. Maurer working at his bench surrounded by specimens of his art …. He specialized in busts of famous men and there are a few figures, past or present, who have not been rendered in meerschaum by Mr. Maurer. Just before his final illness five weeks ago he completed a likeness of Abraham Lincoln. His carvings were of many sizes, but all of them showed a remarkable attention to intricate detail” (“George W. Maurer, 71, Boston Pipe Carver; For 47 Years He Was Familiar Figure in Court St. Window,” The New York Times, March 11, 1939).

Later in this obituary: “Born in New York of German parents, he received his early education in the public schools there. In Boston he lived on Beacon Hill.” It’s a puzzle, because this means that George and Gustav were contemporaries, but Maurer is not mentioned in Ehrlich company history or in pipe history. So which one was the man in the window? I’m confident that it was Gustav! 

Moose's Head by Gustav Fisher Sr.

Now to correct my earlier narrative regarding Sr. and his son, Gustav Jr. In the prior P&T article, I had incorrectly stated that Sr. worked at 268 Tremont Street; he never did. Gustav Jr., advertising as “Gustav Fischer, meerschaum pipes,” owned and operated the shop at 268 Tremont Street (Boston Register and Business Directory, Volume 83, 1918, 469), and as “G. Fischer, Manufacturer of Meerschaum Pipes & Amber Goods” (The Harvard University Register of Organizations and Athletic Events, 1905–1906, Vol. XXXII, 1906, 405.) (The distance between the Fischer shop and Ehrlich’s was about two miles.) Jr. relocated his shop to Massachusetts Avenue sometime later. Because Jr. was more skilled in mastering briar than meerschaum, Sr. worked by day at Ehrlich’s, and in his off-hours he crafted meerschaums for sale in his son’s store, raising the question about proper attribution—mentioned later—as to who carved the meerschaums. The fitted cases of Sr.’s meerschaum pipes and holders bore a embossed gilt stamp of his son’s shop: “G. Fischer, 268 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass,” or “Fischer’s Pipe Shop, Boston.” As an Ehrlich’s employee, inside the case of every pipe and holder that Sr. carved was a metallic-like label, “D. P. Ehrlich.” Why is this important? As is true with all antique meerschaum pipes and cheroot holder carvers—European and American—Sr. never signed his pipes! Without the fitted case, it’s impossible to discern who might have made a particular pipe or holder.

The inspiration or motivation for the creation of a pipe or cheroot holder might have occurred as described here: “A young man gives an order to some famous maker of meerschaum pipes for a pipe with the image of his sweetheart or wife carved on the bowl” (“Smoking Portrait Pipes. Meerschaum With Personal Carvings,” Current Literature. A Magazine of Contemporary Record, Vol. XIX, No. 6, June 1896, 532). Not far-fetched, considering this Kaldenberg advertisement: “Manufacturers of Amber Goods, Meerschaum Pipes, Cigar Holders, &c., Monograms, Portraits from Photographs, and Crests and Pipes of any shape or design to order” (The National Guardsman, Vol. I, No. 1, August 1, 1877, 14). And C. Weis & Co. advertised similarly: “Any special designs of Pipes or Cigar-holders cut to order within ten days’ notice. Pipes, etc., cut from Photographs, Monograms, Crests, etc., a specialty.”

Did Gustav accept commissions to produce a particular pipe? Hard to know, but he is quoted as having said: “I never use a model….My models come from my head.” But not always. Working and living not far from Charlestown and, perhaps, having an interest in local history, Gustav’s inspiration for one of his meerschaum masterworks, the “Battle of Bunker Hill,” was John Trumbull’s famous oil on canvas, “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775” (1786). 

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Trumbull was called the patriot-artist, and so was Fischer. This was a remarkable sculpture, weighing two-pounds, 34 inches long, with 31 high-relief-carved figures, three American flags, and one British flag. He finished it sometime in 1905, having labored on it for four years. 

Battle of Bunker Hill by Gustav Fisher Sr.

The pipe got immediate reviews. An announcement appeared in The Boston Journal, December 24, 1906, “Battle of Bunker Hill is Carved on Wonderful Meerschaum,” claiming it as “...probably the most valuable meerschaum pipe in America.” “Remarkable Skill Shown in Meerschaum Carving” (The Boston Traveler, December 22, 1906) placed its value as $40,000. “A Wonderful Pipe” appeared in the United States Tobacco Journal, January 5, 1907: “… what is probably the most remarkable and costly pipe in the world now on exhibition in the window of Ehrlich & Kopf, of Boston … He is said to be the most expert meerschaum carver living.” (A black & white postcard from that time period illustrates this pipe with the caption: “Battle of Bunker Hill. Made and on exhibit by G. Fischer, 268 Tremont St., Boston, Mass.” Although the address is Jr.’s store, Gustav Sr. had carved this pipe!

Detail of the Bunker Hill Pipe: Major General Warren lies mortally wounded in the arms of a fellow patriot who holds off a British soldier's bayonet. British Major John Small helps push away the bayonet that would kill a man he had served with before the Revolutionary War forced them to take sides. 

Sr. had other models as inspiration! One of many he carved for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1915) was the likeness of Buffalo Bill

Buffalo Bill by Gustav Fisher Sr.

In 1918, he carved one depicting the head of Directum, trotter of the year in 1913. 

Directum by Gustav Fisher Sr.

With time, Gustav evolved into a pipe virtuoso of mind-boggling detail, a consummate craft professional who exhibited versatility in his meerschaum creations. His earliest compositions were elegant, intricate, imaginative, involved, tasteful, and microscopically detailed. 

Venus and her entourage by Gustav Fisher Sr.

 He tackled most every subject, producing a veritable palette of motifs—from the heads of real people to imaginary and mythical themes to motifs of the American Wild West and frontier life, particularly famous and infamous Indian chiefs of the day, each realistic, each detailed. “... Fischer’s work ... features his art nouveau style of depicting faces, mermaids and animals” (Adele Abrams, “Museum of Tobacco Art and History,” The Tobacco Observer, October 1984, Vol. 9, No. 5, 9). 

Mermaid by Gustav Fisher Sr.

He was also adept with briar, and the first visible proof, a rare exemplar of his briars, is presented here. 

Bearded Turk with fez by Gustav Fisher Sr.

Not surprisingly, In his final years, the pipes and holders were rough-edged, rather crudely finished, and that might possibly be attributed to failing sight—he chose not to wear glasses—and an arthritic hand; he was still carving intricate meerschaums as late as 1934, at the age of 87, while factories here and abroad were mass-producing slick, clean, and geometric meerschaum pipes … superseding their ornate and intricately carved forebears.

The Bunker Hill pipe received renewed attention years later when the City celebrated the 161st anniversary of the Battle on June 17, 1936. This appeared in The American Magazine, Volume 122, 1936, 36:   

“GUSTAV FISCHER, 90, Jamaica Plain, Mass. has carved on the largest Meerschaum pipe in the world, a picture of the Battle of Bunker Hill, including 25 miniature soldiers.” 

And the same story appeared in two out-of-state newspapers in that year, albeit erroneously reported: “Boston (U.P.)—A reproduction of a scene of the Battle of Bunker Hill has been carved on a briar-pipe bowl by Gustave [sic] Fischer, world’s oldest pipemaker” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle (November 14, 1936, 3), and in the Tonawanda Evening News (November 18, 1936, 4). Frederick Simpich writing in The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 70, 1936, also got it wrong: He  “…even carved ‘the Battle of Bunker Hill’ with 50 brier figures on one big pipe!”

“When Mr. Fischer passed on, all the pipes that he carved, and could be obtained, were taken off the market and arranged into a permanent display for public viewing. The collection, while largely Fischer’s handiwork, also contains other valuable and unique pipes. There are over 300 pipes on display” (“Classic Pipes,” The Antiques Journal, August 1964, 12). I saw all those pipes and holders in my many visits to Ehrlich’s 207 Washington Street location in the 1950s. 

In January 1968, to celebrate a Centennial Exhibition of Tobacciana, his meerschaums were on display—filling 25 cases!—at the Boston Public Library. U.S. Tobacco, Greenwich, CT, purchased the collection from Ehrlich’s in 1978 for its fledgling museum next to company headquarters. When this museum closed in 1986, some Fischer pipes were sent to its sister museum, the Museum of Tobacco Art and History, Nashville, some were donated to the Bruce Museum (where they remain in storage), and others were sold at a New York PBS public auction for charity. In 1998, the Nashville Museum closed, and in 1999, the contents were privately sold. Some of Sr.’s pipes are now in private collections, and others have appeared in recent public auctions.

As a pipe historian, I had two nagging questions: Where is the Battle of Bunker Hill pipe now, and are there more Fischer exemplars in circulation? After many years, I found the answer to the first question, contacted a family member, and coaxed the Bunker Hill pipe out of hiding. It was the centerpiece of “The Art and Design of Antique Smoking Pipes,” an exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, PA, May–July 2003.

Battle of Bunker Hill
at the Brandywine River Museum Exhibition

Gustav Jr. and his wife, Anna, had two daughters. One, Thelma, and her husband had one son, Bob, the unofficial family historian, whom I met at the exhibition acting as the custodian of his great-grandfather’s pipes. He stated that many others that have never been seen publicly remain with various family members. I contacted Bob some 15 years later, and he welcomed us to his home in October 2017 to share what he remembered about his great-grandfather. I was overwhelmed by the quantity, variety, and pristine condition of so many pipes and holders that were never displayed in the Ehrlich shop. I encountered the Bunker Hill pipe again and some new ones.  I also learned that Sr. found a use for meerschaum residue and amber scraps: he made small, decorative objects, and Bob owns some of these figurines. 

Crucifixion (Meerschaum and Amber composition) by Gustav Fisher Sr.

On reflection

Artists don’t always receive the attention and praise they rightfully deserve while alive. It may be maudlin, but I am reminded of Mark Anton’s aphorism, “The good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2), because it rings true for Gustav. I find it ironic that in the March 1948 issue of Pipe Lovers appeared J. Harte’s “The Famous Fischers” about the Orchard Park, NY, carvers, but in its 52 monthly issues nothing about Gustav. Most praise and admiration for him and his work came after he passed away. In 1975, Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc. published Boston Artifacts. Objects Collected for Where’s Boston? A Bicentennial Exhibition. From among the many Bean-Town artifacts, a meerschaum pipe of a naiad is illustrated: “Meerschaum pipe. Gustav Fischer, Boston (about 1900) .... The shop [Ehrlich’s] still maintains, for public display, one of the best pipe collections in the world.” He was cited in the Time-Life series, Encyclopedia of Collectibles. He got the attention of Robert Croul who offered hyperbole: “Gustave [sic] Fischer Sr. of D. P. Ehrlich was one of the first generation carvers who became known throughout the world for the creation of meerschaums equaling any of the best of Europe” (“Fine meerschaum pipes were carved in a variety of forms,” Bangor Daily News, January 10, 1985, 13). There is no proof that Gustav was “known throughout the world.” He received honorable mention in James A. Crutchfield’s article, “The United States Tobacco Company’s museums” (The Magazine Antiques, Volume 130, No. 3, September 1986, 502). Sandra Gurvis reported on the Museum of Tobacco Art and History: “The collection of forty meerschaum pipes contains the unparalleled art work of master carver Gustav Fischer Sr. who plied his trade in the window...” (The Cockroach Hall of Fame, 1994, 108). I heralded him in A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes (1979), Museum of Tobacco Art and History Guide Book (1996), and Collecting Antique Meerschaums (1998), but it may not have been enough.

Here’s how I see it. Kaldenberg and Demuth advertised in many local newspapers, and both companies had international exposure. Kaldenberg received a bronze medal “for superior meerschaum goods” (Annual Report of the American Institute of the City of New York for the Years 1865, ’66, 1866, 45). It was the only exhibitor at the Exposition Universelle (Paris, 1867) where it received a “first medal” for a large meerschaum pipe depicting a complex scene of Macbeth, Banquo, Shakespeare, and three witches Soon thereafter, the company was identified as “... the best makers in this country of meerschaum pipes, holders, etc” (The Round Table, No. 154–Vol. VII, January 4, 1868, 13). In newspaper ads that year the company trumpeted: “America is represented at the Paris Exposition by only Kaldenberg & Son.” It also received the only award from the International Jury for American-made meerschaum pipes at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition (1876) for “…a prodigious meerschaum-pipe in the form of a temple over two feet high with the most elaborate carvings upon it.” Kaldenberg received another gold medal at the Exposition Universelle (1889). Praise continued to be heaped on the company: “Indeed, even Vienna at her best has not produced superior examples of meerschaum carving to those of the Kaldenbergs; while many of their more elaborate works have, at European exhibitions, repeatedly carried off the prizes above all competitors” (“The Meerschaum Collector,” The Collector, November 15, 1889, 46). Carl Stehr also received a medal at this exhibition, “commended for excellent quality, tasteful designs, and skill in workmanship.”

In “The Presidents in Meerschaum” (The New York Times, March 9, 1889), there is a comment regarding a particular Demuth meerschaum pipe in this same exhibition: “It is said to be the largest pipe in the world, the bowl having been cut out from the largest piece of meerschaum ever found. It is a calf’s head, 11 inches high, 13 inches long, and 15 inches from tip to tip of the horns; the entire pipe is 35 inches long, the stem, of 23 inches, being made of 75 pieces of amber.” Demuth received a gold medal for this pipe and for a display of a fraction of the series of meerschaum busts of presidents Washington to Harrison. The company also displayed at the Columbian Exhibition, Chicago (1893) where a large meerschaum pipe, “Columbus Landing in America” was awarded four medals. His meerschaums were on display at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, New Orleans (1884) and at the Exposition Universelle (Paris, 1900). He also exhibited a vast array of meerschaums at the American Museum of Natural History in 1910. The New York Fischers were well known beyond state borders. Even as a family-run operation, they crafted many celebratory pipes to display at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo (1901).

Amber Stem surmounted by carved Amber Eagle. Detail of Battle of Bunker Hill Pipe.

Sr. never owned a shop. If Ehrlich did not advertise widely and often about Boston’s preeminent pipe maker, how would anyone outside the city know about him? There is no evidence that Ehrlich’s publicly acknowledged or promoted his achievements. The Bunker Hill pipe never strayed far from Ehrlich’s or Jr.’s store or Gustav’s home. None of his pipes were exhibited at a national exposition or at a world’s fair. These facts are probably why there never was broad acclaim or recognition of his skills. However much his name appeared alongside the Bunker Hill pipe in local newspapers, I consider it all very token. Did he get his just due? Not in my view. A degree of international fame and fortune followed several other American carvers, but Gustav was a casualty of the times who had no exposure outside Boston, the unintended consequence of working for someone else. As the adage goes, talent is universal, but opportunity is not. Fortunately, Ehrlich’s gave Sr. the opportunity to exhibit his trade for many years, but there’s no legacy, no testimony. The reasons are obvious: no maker’s mark on his pipes and holders, no catalog of his life-long output, no record of his accomplishments … and he had no champions. His fame was narrowly limited to Ehrlich’s and Ehrlich’s is now long gone.

Detail of amber stem work on Bunker Hill Pipe

However, there is much to applaud. “The making of meerschaum pipes is not dissimilar from the work of carving pieces of statuary from blocks of alabaster” (M. J. Carrigan, Life and Reminiscences of Hon. James Emmitt: As Revised by Himself, 1888, 476). Sr. possessed the ability to carve amber, meerschaum, briar even alabaster. The following personifies Gustav: “A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist” (Louis Nizer, Between You and Me, 1948). Figural carving, in general, is difficult, more so with soft, fibrous meerschaum. Great care must be exercised to carve deep relief and in the round, to assure the general sweep, contours, and grooves, to preserve the pipe’s proportions. 

Detail of Venus and her entourage by Gustav Fisher Sr.

Gustav employed all these techniques; he was a master of pipe dreams or, more specifically, a master of dream pipes who transformed raw meerschaum into exceptional works of art. The results of his labor were transformed through his genius into objets d’art! His life’s oeuvre in meerschaum is unparalleled. In my opinion, he’s America’s gold standard, rightfully earning a place in that illusory pantheon of pipe carvers.

Sadly, that special talent is now a lost art form. Contemporary Turkish meerschaum artisans—many are self-proclaimed “master” carvers—have been unable to replicate the intricate, complex, ornate, graceful, and delicate details that comprised yesteryear meerschaum pipes and holders. The Turks have come a long way since they began exporting finished pipes in the 1950s, and they are getting better at execution, but they’re not yet at par with those who carved 150-200 years ago. As the French are wont to say, chacun à son goût, and anyone with an eye for high art would easily win the battle comparing the artistry of antique and new meerschaums with bruce74 ( who posted: “…in my experience and opinion the difference between old meers and new is in general the modern carvers are better.” Having studied this pipe medium for more than a half-century, I contend that no modern Turkish meerschaum pipe exhibits the grandeur of, or can compare to, the old-school European—or American—diligence exhibited in the extremely intricate, life-like meerschaum images, especially those from Gustav Sr.’s deft hand and exacting eye.

In closing, I strongly believe that if some of his pipes and holders had been preserved—they were worth saving as a permanent collection in an American art or history museum—they would have been ideally suited for an imagined future audience of pipe collectors, or sculptors, or students of pipe history, but in today’s anti-tobacco climate, unfortunately, it ain’t gonna’ happen.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Porsche Design Pipe

Porsche Design Nature P'3614 (2009)

Porsche Design Nature P'3614 (2009)

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Haida Panel Pipes

Upcoming at First Arts Auction on may 28th, two Haida panel pipes of exception:

HAIDA,Whistle Pipe, c. 1835-1850, argillite, bone and abalone, 4.5 x 10.75 x 1 in, 11.4 x 27.3 x 2.5 cm

The pipe stem is surmounted by two men in European clothing; one man is depicted riding a dog, whose front paw is charmingly raised in greeting to the other. The pipe bowl depicts the head of a man in a European-style top hat. Quite amusingly he is forced to hold the whistle in his mouth, and the abalone inlay in his eyes makes it look like they are watering with the strain of the effort. The men’s men’s heads, carved from bone, are a further elaboration and source of rarity for this remarkable work

HAIDA, Ship Panel Pipe, c. 1840-1860, argillite, 4.25 x 14 x .5 in, 10.8 x 35.6 x 1.3 cm

A few of the earliest Haida ship panel pipes may have been created in the 1820s. By the 1840s Euro-American ships and their crews had become popular subjects for Haida argillite carvers, supplanting panel pipes with traditional Haida motifs. The artists found the exotic look of the ships themselves, their captains and sailors, and their cargoes fascinating. Ship panel pipes became highly prized trade goods, the subjects themselves providing a ready market for these fascinating creations.

The bow of the ship is adorned with a scrolled billet head, a common feature of sailing vessels from the period, and cluster of berries. Tobacco leaves decorate the keel halfway to the stern (tobacco was of course the very raison d’être for pipes and was thus an important motif, even though these elaborate works of art had become pipes in name only!). The woman at the bow and the man at the stern lean against the jumping legs of insects, probably grasshoppers. The woman at the center sits leaning against the ship’s deckhouse. Unlike the various animals that typically adorn ship panel pipes – mostly dogs and birds - the two insects are carved fully in the traditional Haida style.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

Ojibwe Catlinite Effigy Pipe Bowl

As described by Sotheby's

 "Much has been learned about the origin of this extraordinary pipe since it was first offered at Sotheby's in 1993. One of six known pipes with the distinctive curved-neck horse created by the master carver Pabahmesad or Awbonwaishkum (aka One Who Uplifts By His Company),

Portrait of Awbonwaishkum by Paul Kane, 1845   
"This Chief is a man of great ingenuity and judgment" Paul Kane

on Manitoulin Island prior to 1845, 

Lake Michigan and Manitoulin Island, 1718

"it is the only known example in private hands and one of three thought to be complete; the other two complete examples are in the Karl May Museum in Radebeul Germany and in the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. (cat. no. 12/105).

Pipe bowl probably carved by Pabahmesad, Ojibway, Manitoulin Island, c.1845. 61⁄2" long (16.5 cm).
National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Cat No. 12/105

It is also the only known example in catlinite."

"The basis for much of what is known about these pipes is the documentation that was made by the Canadian artist Paul Kane.

Self Portrait, Paul Kane, 1845.
“On my return to Canada from the continent of Europe, where I had passed nearly four years in studying my profession as a painter, I determined to devote whatever talents and proficiency I possessed to the painting of a series of pictures illustrative of the North American Indians and scenery.”
- Paul Kane, preface to Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America (1859).

"While traveling through Europe, Kane met the American artist George Catlin. Catlin was then exhibiting and also lecturing in northern England and at Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, on his paintings of Indians from the American prairies and the foothills of the Rockies.  

                             The routes of Indian painter George Catlin during the years 1830-1855                               Smithsonian Institution. 
The George Catlin Indian Gallery in the U. S. National Museum. Washington 1885

"In his book, Letters and notes on the manners, customs and conditions of the North American Indians (London and New York, 1841), published just before Kane’s arrival in London, Catlin predicts the early disappearance of the North American Indian because of his contacts with Europeans. 

Thus, he argues, it is the artist’s duty to record his features and customs for posterity, while this is still possible. 

Kane, obviously inspired by this argument, decided to do in Canada what Catlin had done in the United States." (Canadian Museum of History)

Kane visited the Manitoulin Island in 1845, sketching images of campsites,

wild life,

ceremonial dress, including elaborately decorated pipe stems,

Paul Kane,
Kee-akee-ka-saa-ka-wow, Plains Cree,
c. 1849–56, oil on canvas, 75.9 x 63.4 cm, Royal
Ontario Museum, Toronto
and pipe bowls 

"Stone Pipe Carved by Awbonwaishkum" by Paul Kane, 1845. Oil on paper. 71⁄2" x 121⁄4" (19.1 cm x 31.1 cm). 
 Courtesy of the Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas. Cat. No. 31.78.184

made by these talented carvers" for respected elders.

"Among the numerous Indians assembled here, was one that particularly attracted my attention from his venerable and dignified appearance. In reply to my inquiry, as to who he was, I learned that he was called Shawwanossoway, or 'One with his Face towards the West,' and that he was a great medicine-man, skilled in the past, present and future."

"A compelling essay by Arni Brownstone on these pipe makers appeared in American Indian Art Magazine, Summer 2011. The pipes, Brownstone tells us, were carved from a volcanic, Precambrian rock identified as chloritic schist and most likely obtained from exposures above Lake Huron.

Pipe bowl probably carved by Awbonwaishkum,
Ojibway or Ottawa, c.1845. Carved chloritic schist, glass beads.
" long (18.4 cm). © Royal Ontario Museum. Courtesy of Victoria University, Toronto, Ontario. Cat. No. HK924. 
Photograph by Brian Boyle.

"In his essay he writes: "We now appreciate that the narratives carved on these pipes from Manitoulin Island have complex religious, commercial, humorous, political, mythological and social overtones (2011:63)...Since it is rare to have documentation providing the names of nineteenth-century First Nations artists, we are fortunate to know the identities of the Manitoulin pipe makers Pabahmesad and Awbonwaishkum (ibid)."

Pipe Bowl, Ottawa, c. 1845. Carved chloritic schist, glass beads, 6.5" long

"Pipes are an integral part of Native American ceremonial life, the smoke from which is thought to carry prayers from the user to a supernatural or spiritual realm. The meaning of the narrative depicted on this pipe is known only to its maker leaving the outside viewer to ponder its significance."

"The quality and sensitivity of the carving on this pipe is exceptional and undeniable. The two standing figures, each with their hands pressed to their chest, appear to be bowing to each other in a sign of mutual respect. Or perhaps it is a sign of respect for the function of the pipe itself."

"The horse, with its gracefully curving neck, stylized mane of finely executed saw-tooth notches, resting its nose on the tulip-shaped bowl, adds complexity and visual appeal to the overall sculpture of the pipe."

But, the presence of the horse speaks to the mystery of the natural world, and the emotions that it can conjure."

For additional references: Harper, 1971, pp. 174-175; National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Cat. No. 12/105; Royal Ontario Museum Toronto, Cat. No.HD15A.

 Courtesy Sotheby's New York