Tuesday, August 14, 2012

World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893: Columbus Pipe Redux

By Ben Rapaport
(original article published in CIGAR Magazine, Fall 2008)

Aerial view of the Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893

The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, sometimes referred to as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (May 1 to October 30), was a colossal spectacle celebrating the new world with 65,000 exhibits from 46 countries and showcasing myriad products to about 27 million visitors. 

It followed on the heels of three successfully similar exhibitions in Paris in 1878 and 1889, and the internationally acclaimed 1873 Wiener Weltausstellung (Vienna World Exhibition) in which 92 distinguished meerschaum pipe carvers exhibited their wares. The World’s Columbian was also the next large-scale U.S. exposition after the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. 

What’s all this have to do with pipes? The answer will be obvious soon enough.

The serious collector of antique pipes, more specifically, antique meerschaum pipes, knows that only a few truly memorable and impressive pipes were made that deserve our admiration, that are worthy of lusting after.

In America, two meerschaum masterpieces, in particular, automatically come to mind; both are gigantic sculptures, super-sized showpieces, when compared with an average-size pipe. The first, known as the “Battle of Bunker Hill,” was carved by Gustav Fischer Sr. of Boston, Massachusetts in the early 1900s modeled after a painting, “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill,” by the artist John Trumbull.This 34-inch-long pipe depicting 31 high-relief-carved figures remains with descendants of the Fischer family in the USA.

The other is the “Christopher Columbus” pipe made for the World’s Columbian Exposition. One hundred years later this pipe was relocated from Richmond, Virginia to Vienna, Austria.

These two pipes are artistically, without question, sui generis. Thus far in my research, no other American-made or -commissioned meerschaum pipe of record comes close in size, embellishment, or grandeur, and few other centerpiece pipes of this caliber were produced elsewhere; if they were, none has been outed… until now.


I have come to know both pipes ‘up close and personal,’ but the focus of this story is not just about big pipes, but about pipes made specifically for the World’s Columbian Exposition and this story is and, simultaneously, is not just about this “Christopher Columbus” pipe, as you will soon learn!

The William Demuth Company of New York, claiming to be the largest pipe production company in the United States, exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition with nothing exceptional in pipes, but it consciously commissioned the Columbus pipe for the Columbian Fair that took two years to make. It depicts Christopher Columbus claiming the new land for the Spanish empire, alongside his shipmates, a priest, and Native Americans (altogether, 21 high- and low-relief-carved figures), and measuring 33 inches in length, including a very ornately crafted, sectional, multicolor amber mouthpiece.

Why a pipe in honor of this event? Well, the exposition was all about commemorating the 400th anniversary of the landing of Columbus, 1492-1893. The conceptual idea for this pipe may have been any of a number of artists’ renderings of this explorer coming to America, perhaps Moritz Rugendas’ painting, “Columbus Landing in the New World,” or maybe the image borrowed from an actual 19th century national banknote described as follows:

5s.—Columbus introducing America to Europe, Asia, and Africa,—the countries represented by female figures.  Columbus discovering America; four men. 5 on right end, Five on left end. Reverse side.—Landing of Columbus and men. Spread eagle on right; arms of the State on left; Five and 5 on each end. [John Groesbeck, The Crittenden Commercial Arithmetic and Business Manual (Philadelphia, Eldredge & Brother, 1891), 336].

From what I have ascertained, only two New York tobacco pipe companies exhibited in Chicago, the F.J. Kaldenberg Company, and the Demuth Company. According to the Official Catalogue, Demuth’s exhibit booths were situated in “Department H. Manufactures, Group 108: Traveling Equipments, Valises, Trunks, Toilet Cases, Fancy Leather Work, Canes, Umbrellas, Parasols, etc.” Several catalogs and historical accounts, albums, guides, handbooks, and portfolios were published in conjunction with and soon after the Exposition; in at least one, Herbert Howe Bancroft, The Book of the Fair (1893) a black & white illustration of this pipe is on page 171, and the caption is short and simple, “The Columbus Pipe,” with no accompanying descriptive text. The only Demuth Company catalog in circulation is dated around 1875, so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the company published any information as to the pipe’s background: who, by name, carved the pipe, how it was received at the fair, its disposition after 1893, etc.  However, in the early 1900s, the company circulated an advertising postcard promoting its products using the image of the pipe on one side—and the accompanying description, “The Discovery of America by Columbus. Cut from a solid block of Meerschaum”—and the company’s inverted triangle logo, WDC, on the other side. And, in its 1932 company catalog appeared a full-page illustration of the Columbus pipe and the text “WDC $50,000 Meerschaum Pipe.”

 The pipe appears in Carl Ehwa, The Book of Pipes & Tobacco (1974), and both the postcard and the company catalog page are prominently illustrated in my Collecting Antique Meerschaums (1999), and in my article, “Antique Smoking Pipes,” Brandywine River Museum Antique Show 2003 Catalog.

Now something about its disposition. D.A. Schulte, Inc., purchased the Demuth Company in 1925, and in 1940 the American Tobacco Company acquired the Demuth antique pipe collection and placed it on exhibit in its factory in Richmond, Virginia. In 1957, the entire collection, some 250 pieces, was donated to the Valentine Museum in that city. If memory serves me right, I saw the Columbus pipe ‘in the flesh’ in 1963 when I visited the Valentine; many of the Demuth pipes were on open display. Shortly thereafter, a fire caused the museum to move the collection out of future harm’s way, and the Columbus pipe, along with all the other Demuth pipes, remained in storage until 1991. In that year, the Museum dispersed the collection, and the gaining organization was the Austria Tabak (AT) Museum, Vienna, Austria.

The Columbus pipe was the centerpiece attraction in October 1992, when AT celebrated the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America… and tobacco; there, it was simply identified as “Meerschaumpfeife, New York, ca. 1893.”  I was at that celebration to see the pipe encased in Plexiglas, restored and rejuvenated to a pristine, snow-white color, as if it had just come from the carver’s workbench, not a pipe that should have shown the signs of age and gradual decay. Unfortunately, in 2003, the Columbus pipe went back into storage when the AT Museum was shuttered.

But enough about this Columbus pipe.


As a rule, modern briar pipe collectors do not have to search far, wide, or for very long to learn something about a carver or a trademarked briar pipe, and details are typically forthcoming in short order from one or more collectors. Not so with antique pipe collectors who continuously and diligently strive to uncover details of every antique pipe they collect, its history and provenance—its past and, if it has survived and still in circulation, its present—and we have been relatively confident and content with our knowledge and belief that only one celebratory pipe was specifically made for (or by) an American firm to be exhibited at that fair. Sure, there were many other pipes, all types of tobacco pipes on display from a handful of American and foreign manufacturers, but I had believed that no other pipe in any medium matched the stature, significance, size…and motif as this one. (I’ll conjecture that Hungary, a country that led the way in great meerschaum carving for at least a half-century before 1893, might have exhibited one or more spectacular meerschaum pipes at the World’s Fair, but it declined the U.S. invitation to participate, because it had earmarked funds for its own millennial exhibition scheduled for Budapest in 1896.)

That’s all any American collector knew about Chicago, Columbus, and 1893 until Christmas Eve 2007. On that day I encountered a totally unexpected and revelatory discovery. That discovery came in the form of a heretofore-unknown 40-page booklet with six illustrations (four of which are of the pipe) authored by a so-called Alter Missionar (Old Missionary [no doubt, a pseudonym]), Die Berühmte Columbus-Pfeife. Ein Meisterwerk Der Plastischen Kunst, Architektur Und Skulptur. Einzig in Seiner Art Und in Der Originellen Auffassung (literally translated: The Famous Columbus-Pipe. A Masterwork of Formative Art, Architecture, and Sculpture. Unique in Its Kind in the Original Conception).

This booklet, as you can readily see, was written in German and published in Chicago, I must assume, at the time of the fair, but bears no publication date. Between 1893 and the present, too few details have been revealed about the Demuth Columbus pipe, and absolutely nothing, until now, has ever appeared in print about this companion piece… companion in the sense that it was also made for the same exposition and bore the same appellation, but that’s where the similarity between the two pipes ends.

Demuth’s creation is best categorized as a contemporary configuration for its time, a large bowl ornately carved with high- and bas-relief figures, a long shank, and an amber mouthpiece.

This pipe is also meerschaum, but of a markedly different configuration, harking back to a much earlier European stylistic era, the first half of the 19th century.

This style—what the Germans call a Gesteckpfeife—is comprised of several interconnecting parts; when assembled, the bowl’s height is six inches, and the combined length of the stem and mouthpiece is 21 inches, or an overall height of 27 inches, almost as tall as the Demuth pipe is long.

 Now to some of the more significant and interesting details from this written account.

According to the author, the inspiration, idea for and the images on this pipe bowl came to the creator-carver, a resident of Chicago identified only as “ein katholischer Priester, ein alter amerikanischer Millionär” (a catholic priest, an old American millionaire) from the many tobacco pipes exhibited at several earlier international exhibitions, including the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.

The creator-carver and his masterpiece

 A table in the monograph identifies everything that is intricately carved in-the-round on the bowl, 370 assorted figural symbols of both heaven and earth, the world in miniature: 56 angels; 12 men including Columbus and Juan Perez who blessed him and his fleet as he set sail in the Santa Maria; 160 architectural elements; 16 animals; 59 plants; and 67 assorted other embellishments that the artist believed were expressive of the event and its significance.

The concept for the pipe’s final appearance evolved slowly and took shape over a lengthy period of time; he began carving it in 1875, adding features, script, and nuances when the spirit moved him, and finished it just in time for the exhibition in 1893 (the inclusive dates, 1875 -1893, are incised near the top of the bowl).

The ornately carved stem is a blend of meerschaum, amber, silver and ebony wood.


The major thrust of the monograph details the mental process by which the unidentified artist formulated the shape and décor of the pipe, and the step-by-step physical aspects of its evolution over time. This level of detail is not sufficiently important to include in this article, because the sepia images of this magnificently crafted centerpiece speak louder than any number of words could ever describe.  

I would not expect a book on antique tobacco pipes authored by a German and published in that country to give mention to the Demuth Columbus pipe. After all, Columbus and Germany is a non sequitur, but what is most peculiar is that no book on tobacco pipes published in Germany has ever acknowledged its own contribution to this world-renowned celebration, other than this recently discovered booklet.

So, there you have it, another chapter in the unending story of learning about one’s hobby one step at a time. We collectors are constantly digging, searching, and investigating the past to answer all the interrogatives about a particular pipe, to “fill in the blanks.” I thought I knew all about The World Columbian Exposition and Demuth’s Columbus pipe, and I had no idea that a blank existed, that someone in another country had decided to crown the event and mark the occasion with a special pipe for visitors and exhibitors to see. I am unaware of a German-language retrospective catalog, book, or written account of this exhibition, so 2007 marks the year in which a second Columbus-themed meerschaum pipe comes to light in a very roundabout way, via a brochure written and illustrated in German and published in the very city where this event occurred. Having collected antique pipes for about a half-century, I can confidently say that in our unpredictable and somewhat zany hobby, things as strange, or stranger than this are the norm. Infrequent discoveries, such as this obscure publication, reveal new and interesting facts about and shed additional light on the mystery and magic in the manufactured wonders of this industry’s lengthy annals. Ironically, more than 100 years later, news comes to light about a significantly historic commemorative pipe… from someone with the pseudonym, Old Missionary! I’ve read that Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, an American evangelical Christian theologian, once said “The gospel is only good news if it gets there in time.” Luckily, I got the Old Missionary’s news in time for me to spread this word (certainly not a gospel) to all the fellow pipe collectors who greet such a scoop with as much enthusiasm and excitement as I.  

For those serious students of genealogy or for someone with access to Chicago’s census records, according to this booklet, the eventual owner was one Otto Vogelgesang, another Chicago resident.

 Because there is no mention in the text that this pipe was actually displayed at the Fair, or what was its fate thereafter, and no one has turned this jewel up anywhere, perhaps a trace of this family name might yield the current whereabouts of this elusive pipe. Wouldn’t that be a find, so much better and more valuable than my little, new-found booklet.

To conclude, I had seen the Demuth pipe in 1963, and I had always believed that it was the singular commemoration, as a pipe, to Columbus made for a public exhibit. Forty-four years later, I learned of a second, heretofore-unknown pipe carved to memorialize him. Now my confidence is shattered, my expertise is in doubt, because I now live with the nagging and unsettling question that haunts me: Could there have been a third or a fourth World’s Columbian Exposition pipe celebrating this most famous explorer to the new land? Maybe with time and the discovery of other World’s Fair documents, that answer will be found. And even if it’s not found, the antique pipe collecting world is still slightly better informed about the who and the what of meerschaum pipes at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 than it was prior to Christmas Eve 2007!

(Photos courtesy of DB/Darius Peckus)

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