Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My World Tuesday --- Corncob Pipe Capital of the World

Tuesday is the day we all get to play tour guide and take each of you on a virtual tour of a piece of our real world.

A few weeks ago I wrote about having the good fortune to live in the heart of Missouri wine country. But, believe it or not, there is a "Corn Cob Pipe Capital of the World." and, it is right here in my hometown, thanks to the Missouri Meerschaum Company, that began the tradition that has made Washington, Missouri world famous as the "Corncob Pipe Capital of the World."
The Missouri Meerschaum Company is the world's oldest and largest manufacturer of cool, sweet-smelling corn cob smoking pipes. Missouri Meerschaum has been located in this picturesque riverfront town since 1869. Douglas MacArthur and George Lincoln Rockwell were perhaps the most famous smokers of this type of pipe, along with the cartoon characters Popeye, Mammy Yolkum and Frosty the Snowman.
Legend has it that a local farmer whittled a pipe out of a corn cob and liked it so much he asked a local woodworker to try turning some on his lathe. The farmer was pleased with his pipes and so was the woodworker, a Dutch immigrant named Henry Tibbe. Henry made a few extra and placed them for sale in his shop. They proved to be such a fast selling item that soon Henry was spending more time making pipes for his customers than working with wood. In 1869 Henry went into full time production of corn cob pipes and in 1907 Henry’s company became known as the Missouri Meerschaum Company.

The word Meerschaum is taken from a German word that means sea foam. It is a Turkish clay used in high grade pipes. Henry likened his light, porous pipes and their cool smoke to that of the more expensive meerschaum pipes and coined the name Missouri Meerschaum for his pipes. Henry and a chemist friend devised an innovative system of applying a plaster-based substance to the outside of the corn cob bowls to make a smoother, more presentable pipe, and was granted a US patent for this process in 1878.

Henry entered into an agreement with a St. Louis firm to distribute his pipes for sale worldwide. But, the firm soon decided they could make more money manufacturing and distributing their own pipes. So they came to Washington and purchased the land adjoining the Missouri Meerschaum Company for their factory. Soon other pipe firms developed and by 1925 there were as many as a dozen corn cob pipe companies in Franklin County, most of them in Washington, turning out thirty million pipes annually in over one hundred designs.

Today, Missouri Meerschaum stands alone as the first and last surviving piece of this living history. Corncob pipes remain popular today because they are inexpensive and require no difficult break-in period like briar pipes. For these two reasons, corncob pipes are often recommended as a beginner's 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. Pipe smoking in general is often chosen as a great weaning tool for folks who are looking to quite smoking cigarettes, and corncob pipes are excellent for this type of stop smoking technique. These gentle pipes are smoked and loved all over the world, well as being used as souvenirs, often imprinted with the name of the city, business or event.

The block long, three story brick building that houses the factory dates to the 1880's and is located on the corner of Front and Cedar streets overlooking the Missouri River. A corn cob pipe museum is located next to the ofice, accessible from Cedar Street.

Today about 50 employees work Monday through Friday year round to make the nearly 5000 pipes per day that are shipped to every U.S. state and several foreign countries.

A corn cob pipe can't be made without first growing the corn. When the company began production in the 1860's the by-product of any field corn was usable raw material for the making of corn cob pipes. However, over the years through hybridization, the corn has been modified to produce smaller cobs. It was up to the corn cob pipe industry to develop a corn that produced a bigger cob. This job was given to the University of Missouri, who perfected the corn seed that is used today. Missouri Meerschaum owns about 150 acres that is used for growing corn. Sometimes additional acreage is contracted with local farmers.

After the corn is harvested, it is stored in outdoor bins until it can be shelled. The corn shelling is done with a vintage sheller, as the new equipment is designed to break up the cobs. The cobs are stored in the third floor of the factory for two years. Aging makes the cobs harder and dryer.

Production begins when the cobs are loaded into the chutes that carry them to the lowest level of the factory where they are sawed into pipe lengths and sorted by size. The size determines which type of pipe it will become. After being turned, the tobacco hole is bored in the bowl. Some of the better pipes are bored all the way through and a wood plug is inserted into the bottom of the bowl. Then the cobs go to one of several turning machines. Each machine produces a different shape. A few of the better pipes such as the Macs and the Wanghee are hand turned on a lathe. This requires some craftmanship skills. The next step is "filling" which is the applying of plaster of Paris to the surface of the bowl. The bowls are allowed to dry for a day before the next process, which is "white scouring" or sanding of the bowl to make it smooth. Bowls that will be used for the less expensive pipes are varnished in a concrete mixer and spread out on wire racks to dry. The better pipe bowls are placed on spindles that rotate through a spray booth where they are coated with lacquer. After the bowls dry, the assembly begins. The wood stems are printed with ink so they appear to be cob. A metal ferrule is hammered onto the stem. The stem is glued and tapped into the bowl. The bowls are patched around the stem and any small irregularities in the cob are patched. Then the pipes are ready for packaging and shipping to all parts of the world.

Mark Twain told The Idler magazine in 1892. "I never smoke a new corn-cob pipe. A new pipe irritates the throat. No corn-cob pipe is fit for anything until it has been used at least a fortnight."

He claimed he would hire someone else to break in a pipe, and then would put in a new stem and use it as long as it held together.

This particular corn-cob pipe, which belonged to Twain, outlived him.

The following photos were taken from a LIFE magazine article on Missouri Meerschaum printed in 1945.

To visit the other My World entries are to join the fun visit here

For more interesting reading on Corn cob pipes or Washington, Missouri visit these sites.

River Hills Traveler (this is a hoot and he said it better then I ever could)


  1. Wonderfully entertaining and informative

  2. Hi Rita, My first time visit - I love your blog name and the explanation for it! Thirty Million pipes annually! Who knew there were that many pipe smokers????? Interesting info about your world (which includes corncob pipes.)

  3. Rita this is way better than the brochure! And great photos, as well :)

  4. How interesting! I had no idea the corncob pipes that I've seen lots of places(especially Missouri)were made in Missouri! Terrific post!

  5. Very interesting... Thank you.


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