It seems that every time I make a trip to a pipe shop I inevitably pick up some bags or bundles of pipe cleaners. It seems that I can never have enough of them around. Thin, fluffy, regular or bristle I buy them every single time. I use them for my own pipes and go through many of them as I work on estate pipes. They are an indispensable tool of my hobby and craft. There was a time in the past when I ran out of pipe cleaners and had to go hunting for them. The nearby shops did not have them. The craft shops wanted way too much for inferior ones and I did not have a vehicle available to run down to the local pipe shop to pick up a bunch. When that happened I decided I would never let it happen again. So to this day I have a case of pipe cleaners like the one in the picture on the left that I am constantly refilling.
The other day I was checking my supply of pipe cleaners and adding the new bunches I had purchased to the case. It has become a habit to check it regularly. But this time I paused for a moment and wondered about the invention of this amazingly simple device. Where did the idea come from? When was the pipe cleaner invented? Who came up with the idea for the design? Why? This wondering always leads me to “Google” the information and research for the answers to my questions. For me this is as much a part of the hobby as the pipes themselves. The questions lead me to interesting discoveries and information in the process.
I have heard for many years that in times past pipe smokers used chicken feathers (and I suppose other feathers as well) to clean out their pipe stems and shanks. This makes perfect sense when you think about the stiff feather shank and the soft “bristles” of the feather. They function well as a brush when turned inside of the pipe. I am sure many a pipeman used them and threw them away until they needed another. I can almost envision them going out to the henhouse in the yard and either plucking a feather or picking one up, wiping it off and thrusting it into the stem to clean up before or after a smoke.
I discovered through my research several things that were fascinating to me. There is no end to the different tools that inventive pipe smokers have come up with to clean out their pipes. Some of them seem way too complicated to my mind to be a tool that I would use. Others are quite simple but in my life I have never seen them. Pipemen seem to continually come up with ideas for a better pipe cleaner. The have bent and twisted wire, made creative twists and turns of metal, and designed tools that looked like cutting saws for the purpose of cleaning a pipe bowl. I came across many patents for unique designs. A quick Google search for tobacco pipe cleaners will give you ample opportunity to have a look at the wild creativity of designs for a simple tool. I have included two of the more recent patent diagrams from the 1980s that show that the search for the perfect cleaner continues to go on. I am convinced that pipemen will always be looking for a better tool and thus there will always be new inventions that flood the patent office.
There are many more unique and quirky versions of pipe cleaners that have been on the scene for a long time. I have several in my collection that are quite unique but nonetheless no longer made as they did not gain a following. For example, people have put spring cutting blades inside Bakelite cups to collect the scrapings of the blades. But there are also ones that have a growing following. These include such items as small shank brushes that can be washed and reused and also small barrel brushes like those used in cleaning firearms that can be run through the shank and the stem to clean out the debris left behind by the combustion of tobacco. Each of these two tools work quite well and have their place in the refurbishing kit.
But even with all this creativity and inventiveness churning out new and “better” pipe cleaners none of them have displaced the fuzzy cotton pipe cleaner. For its band of supporters it will never be replaced by any manner of new-fangled notions. It is to the pipe cleaner alone that title of “old pal” has can be given. If you come across a pipe smoker in your travels you will inevitably find pipe cleaners near at hand.
But what triggered the design. I cannot prove this assumption on my part but it seems to me that the idea of the pipe cleaner came as a spinoff of the chicken feather. Its design is kind of a modern art version of the feather. It works in the same way as the feather – a central shaft with brushes attached that can fit in the stem and shank doing exactly what the feather did for those who used it in their pipes. Can’t you imagine it as a “modern” manmade feather?
But who invented it? After a bit of research on the web I found that they were invented by John Harry Stedman (b. 1843, d. 1922) & Charles Angel in Rochester, New York in the early 1900’s. Stedman was a creative inventor who throughout his life invented not only the fuzzy pipe cleaner but also the streetcar transfer ticket in 1892. He sold the pipe cleaner rights to BJ Long Company who has continued to make them for over 60 years and still makes them today. A quick look at their website shows the expansion of the pipe cleaner’s uses to include medical and craft areas. Their product has wide uses and diverse purchasers. To me this brand epitomizes the pipe cleaner. I am sure many of us are familiar with it as most pipe shops in North America sell BJ Long pipe cleaners in bundles and they are sold across the World Wide Web in online shops and on EBay as well.
Pipe cleaners are normally made from some absorbent material, usually cotton. Bristles of stiffer material like nylon\plastic are added to the bristle version of the cleaner to enable the pipeman to scrub out the shank and stem of their pipes. Typically the cleaner is used by pipemen after a smoke of their pipe or when cleaning their pipes. It is used either dry or it is dipped in alcohol or is wetted with the tongue before it is inserted into the airway. The cleaner absorbs the moistures and oils from the stem and shank. It can also be folded and used in the bowl to knock out debris left behind once the dottle has been dumped. Some pipe cleaners are tapered so that one end is thick and one end thin. The theory behind the design is simple – the thin end is for cleaning the smaller airway of the stem and the thick end for the shank. Some are thin and some are fluffy. The designs are made for different sized airways and stem designs. Pipe cleaners are designed to be thrown away after use though there are many tales of them being washed and reused.
The construction of pipe cleaners is simple and involves two lengths of wire, called the core, twisted together trapping short lengths of fibre between them, called the pile. Pipe cleaners are usually made two at a time, as the inner wires of each pipe cleaner have the yarn wrapped around them, making a coil; the outer wires trap the wraps of yarn, which are then cut, making the tufts. Chenille yarn is made in much the same way, which is why craft pipe cleaners are often called “chenille stems”. Some pipe cleaner machines have actually been converted into chenille machines. The pipe cleaners produced vary from machine to machine type. Some machines produce very long pipe cleaners which are wound onto spools. The spools may be sold as-is or cut to length depending on the intended use. Other cut the pipe cleaners to length as they come off the machines. The pipe cleaners used by pipe smokers and refurbishers are usually 15 – 17 cm (6 – 7 inches) long while the ones used for crafts are often 30 cm (12 inches) and can be up to 50 cm (20 inches). I have found that these longer pipe cleaners work well in cleaning church warden pipe stems so I have a few always on hand.
I have no idea what you might think about the pipe cleaner or if you even do. It may well be a silent partner in your smoking/cleaning regimen but to me the history and manufacture of them is an interesting piece of our hobby. So to the humble pipe cleaner I raise my pipe!