While I was sitting at my desk, looking over my pipe cabinet the other evening, it suddenly came to me that I could divide my pipes into two distinct groups – all grouped by the shape of the airway in the end of the button or stem – either round/orific or a slot. I have often wondered about the transition between the two types of airways as they each seem to come from two different time periods. What happened to the rounded one and when did the slotted airway begin to have ascendancy? I am not sure I can answer that question with any definitiveness but I want to look at both types and surmise what may have transpired to bring about the end of the orific button.
The pipes I would place in the first group are all older pipes with stems made of a variety of materials – amber, vulcanite, Bakelite and horn. In this group there are 45-50 pipes with this type of airway. All of them come from the mid to late 1800s and the early 1900s, literally another time and place. For some of them I can identify the time period they were manufactured and for some I have only the faintest idea of the era. The earliest dateable pipe I have is from 1912 – this is knowable from the hallmarks on the silver band on the shank of the pipe. The earliest ones in my collection appear to come from the 1850s and possibly earlier as far as I can tell. They have the filigree decorations, stampings and shapes of that earlier time. The stems, regardless of the time frame within this lot, all have a round/orific opening or airway in the end of the stem. The orific opening is a hole shaped like an O and is sometimes tapered into the airway from the outside. But often it is a straight shot into the airway with no variation in size. The button is generally oval/or round in all of them and the stem coming into the button is also thicker and more oval as well. There is not one thin stem in the lot. As a rule they are thicker and more rounded on the top so they are harder to clench. The two photos below show two different pipe stems from pipes that are in my collection. The first picture shows a horn stem with the orific or “O” shaped opening. The button on this one is quite oval and rounded. The stem itself is also oval and shaped similarly to the shape of the button. The second photo shows the same orific opening on a vulcanite stem. The shape of the button on it is an oval with pointed ends, like an American football. This stem is on a bulldog with a diamond shaped shank and stem. The blade or flat portion of the stem is crowned terminating in the button. The crown on the top and bottom of the stem matches the oval shape of the button both having pointed edges on the right and the left side.
I spent some time examining all of the pipes that I have with this kind of stem to observe similarities and differences. In looking at them I have found some interesting observations. First, it can be generally stated that when I received these pipes as estates that they did not have bite marks or tooth marks in the stem itself though there were marks/dents in the button surfaces on many of them. All had tooth chatter or tooth scratches on the surface of the stem regardless of the material. A second observation I made is that in the straight stems the airway is the same size from front to back or at the most minimally tapered from the tenon to the opening in the button. Holding the stem up to light and looking down the stem the airway is uniform. I would assume that the same would be true for the bent stems that are in my collection. Third, all take a pipe cleaner very easily. Fourth, all of them are thicker than my stems with slots. Fifth, at one level all are less comfortable than the thin stems. I say at one level, in that I find them uncomfortable when I am smoking them on the go or in the car as they are hard to clench. However, if I am sitting in my office or on my porch with one I find that the thickness is no detriment as I tend to hold them in my hand.
The second group of pipes in my collection is “newer” in age as a whole. As I observe this group of pipes I can make the following generalizations. I know that they are generalizations but that is my point in this article, I want to look at broad commonalities of each group. The buttons are thinner on the pipes throughout this group. They are flattened on the top and the bottom edges, which reduces the thickness of the button. The airway on the end of the stem is either a flat slot or a flattened oval that flares inward toward the airway in the stem. This slot becomes a funnel shape from the slot to the airway in many of the pipes. The drilling is also tapered and the airway flattened in the button end of the stem so that the stem can be significantly thinner. This is true in all of the pipes in this group regardless of the material that is used for the stems. In this group of pipes the stems are made out of vulcanite, Lucite, Bakelite and acrylic. All of the tapered stems have a more flattened profile, with more gentle angles to the taper from either the saddle or the taper from the shank to the button. The higher end pipes and handmade pipes all show a customization of the button slot. The machine made pipes generally have a straight line slot. Some of the machine-made pipes have slots that are very thin/ tight and will only take a thin pipe cleaner with effort. Others are wider and accommodate pipe cleaners easily. In my handmade/artisan pipes the slots are all of various shapes and adaptations. The one overarching theme in all of them is the flare on the inside of the slot that tapers back to the internal airway. The next three photos show a customized slot on three different pipes in my collection. Both pipes have vulcanite stems and both have oval shaped buttons and slots.
What have I learned from this comparative observation of both kinds of buttons/stem? What generalizations can I take away as I try to understand why the orific button was replaced with the slotted button? I can say unequivocally from my observations, that it seems the quest for ever thinner stems and the advent of “new” ideas regarding internal engineering of the airway from the bowl to the tip of the stem have brought about the end of the old orific button. I don’t know if anyone ever questioned its disappearance or mourned its demise. It almost seems to me that it just disappeared slowly and like the dinosaur left behind a few “fossil” remains to remind us of its presence.
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Steve, I love the fact that I can search for a pipe related topic on Google and almost always find a thoughtful commentary somewhere in your blog.
As someone who has smoked a lot of pipes with orific buttons, do you find that there is any difference in how often you get tongue bite from one of these pipes? I seem to remember a popular theory that pipes with slotted bits are easier on the tongue for some reason.
As far as why the change was made, I wonder if customers began to prefer and demand pipes they could clench as pipe smoking became more popular and the average pipe smoker’s hands became busier.
I find no difference Herb. I think that the thicker/rounder stem made it hard to clench and the stem tends to roll in the mouth a bit. I think the thinner flatter stems took care of the problem and marked the end of the orific button.
An what of the Peterson bit,? Is it not comfortable to clench an shifts the smoke flow to the upper palate…. an Edsel or perhaps a Hybrid that never caught on… any thoughts?
Thanks Ken. I was speaking about just that topic with Mark Irwin last week. We were conjecturing that the stem was developed during the time period of the orific buttons and are a specialty item. It is interesting that the round open draw on the Pete has become an interesting part of their P-lip stem. I think the P-lip is what makes it clenchable. It sits behind the teeth and hangs comfortably.