Briarwood, meerschaum, and a good ol’ corn cob—though there are any number of materials a tobacco pipe might be made from, these three comprise a trilogy essential to most modern pipe smokers’ collections. Given the price difference between the humble maize and an ornate meerschaum or artisan briar, it’s easy to see how one unfamiliar with corn cob pipes may assume they can’t hold a match to the other materials. That’s an assumption worth testing, because you may be happily surprised to find a new favorite pipe for the price of a movie ticket. Corn cobs are great smoking instruments, embraced in the rotations of innumerable veteran pipers. The cob being no exception, pipes made from any of these materials are well worth holding a match to.
Though one may certainly have a preference between pipes made from different materials, it’s not a matter of which is “better.” It’s that each has their own qualities and unique characteristics to offer, they shine in different ways. Many gravitate to a certain material for pragmatic, aesthetic, or functional reasons—but as pipe smokers we should let our curiosity reign and uncover our taste and preferences through the palate court. Just like how your favorite meal isn’t necessarily the one thing you want to eat forever, variety is a pleasure to the pipe smoker.
Corn cob pipes certainly deserve a fair shake as a piece in any curious smoker’s arsenal. Let’s dig into the merits of corn cob pipes to understand what makes them special.
1. Cob Pipes Are History Preserved
Corn cob pipes’ sustained prominence in pipe smoking over the past 150+ years speaks to their quality. Let’s start with exploring that history so that we may approach their low-cost in the right context. There are plenty of cheap materials out there for pipes to be made from, however, the precedence of corn cobs being a favored pipe since they first came around makes the case that there is something particularly favorable about these classics that has seen them endure as respected instruments of tobacco smoking.
When dealing with an item as bucolically resourceful as the corn cob pipe, it’s difficult to pin down with hard origins. I’m reminded of the alleged origins of the slide guitar. In late 19th Century Hawaii, Joseph Kekuku was strumming his steel string while walking down a railroad track when, upon noticing a loose metal bolt on the ground, was stricken with curiosity. He picked it up and started sliding it across the strings and—viola. Was that the first instance of this technique? No one experimented with a bottleneck before? Who knows, but it sure doesn't make it any less appreciable. In fact, there’s something to be romanticized about the passing along of such home-spun fixtures.
In the case of the corn cob pipe, one company deserves praise for preserving and upgrading this novel contraption and sharing it to wider realms—
“The Missouri corncob pipe is as indigenous, as American—and as persistent—as the Missouri mule. It is an institution so well established, so satisfactory to those who use it, that it has never been necessary to advertise it. Every year one American in 10 buys a corncob pipe.”
The Saga of the Cob Pipe by Stanley Vestal—written for a 1945 issue of the Southwest Review
Legend has it, in 1869, a Dutch woodworker by the name of Henry Tibbe observed a local farmer in his town of Washington, Missouri smoking from a corn cob that he had whittled by hand into a pipe. The farmer approached Tibbe inquiring if he would use his lathe to make more of these pipes, to which he agreed. After satisfying the famer, Tibbe went on refining this imaginative apparatus, eventually producing some to sell. They grew in local popularity, selling more and more—Tibbe found himself less occupied by woodwork as demand grew.
Pictured above is Tibbe’s first patent for his pipes, issued after some critical upgrades. In 1878, Tibbe and a chemist friend would truly revolutionize the corn cob pipe in concocting a polymer similar to plaster of Paris that would make the pipe fire resistant. This stroke of brilliance added very little to the production process, but in improving longevity, it did wonders for the cob.
By 1907, the operation was incorporated as Missouri Meerschaum, and Missouri was now the Corn Cob Pipe Capital.
Missouri Meerschaum remains one of the most celebrated pipe manufacturers today. And the legacy continues to grow as they’ve integrated another great pipe company’s line of cob and clay pipes in recent years—
Old Dominion Corn Cob Pipes
Since its founding in 2013 by brothers Bob and Bill Savage, Old Dominion Pipes have honored the uniquely American corn cob tradition by crafting historically accurate cob pipes. Old Dominion traces their corn back to the “Bloody Butcher” variety grown in Virginia since the 1840s. This unique and colorful corn was dubbed “Bloody Butcher” because of the distinct, deep red coloring of the kernels. Now considered an “heirloom” variety, it was commonly used in pipe making during the mid-19th century, particularly in the Southern and Midwestern United States. Also setting Old Dominion’s cobs apart is their use of bamboo stems, a style unique to American cobs that was popularized in the late 19th century.
These great pipes, as well as the tradition they sustain, were nearly lost in 2020. For the Savage brothers, this venture was a matter of passion and yearning to revive “reed stem” cob pipes. However, the brothers’ careers outside of Old Dominion started to impose on their capacity to run the operation to their standards. When Bob approached Phil Morgan of Missouri Meerschaum about acquiring some of Old Dominion's lines, Morgan went a step further, taking in all of the lines and expanding some of them (Bob stayed on part-time to help development of the clay pipe line).
Bob says of the acquisition:
“I know with the utmost confidence that [Missouri Meerschaum] will honor and preserve the legacy my brother and I started and will be able to manufacture [Old Dominion Pipes] to the same strict quality standards that they have always done with their own pipes and be able to offer them in greater quantities than our limited production capabilities allowed.”
Famed Corn Cob Smokers
We wrap up the history of these American icons with a list of some notable cob smokers. The history of the corn cob pipe can’t be told without mentioning some of its notorious champions:
- Mark Twain - Real name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, helped make Missouri Meerschaum the name it is today. He also remains the author we hold up as the gold-standard for writing The Great American Novel.
- General Douglas McArthur – US General of the Army and Chief of Staff, especially known for his defense of the Philippines in WWII and for running Japan during the US occupation immediately following their surrender.
- Daniel Boone - An icon of the American frontier. Boone was a hunter and pioneer.
- H.L. Mencken - Known as the “Sage of Baltimore,” Mencken was a journalist, editor, and scholar who greatly influenced the politics and literature of much of the early 20th century.
2. Corn Cob Pipes are an Affordable Smoking Option
Although there are some artisans that make high-grade cobs in a bit steeper price range, a great smoking corn cob from Missouri Meerschaum or Old Dominion will put you back anywhere from around four to thirty dollars. At ten bucks, the Missouri Meerschaum Diplomat 5th Ave was one of my first pipes and it’s still getting smoked regularly.
One thing you must appreciate about cobs is their humbleness. The cheapness of some pipes is exposed by their observable flaws, both in appearance and performance. However, the great allure of the corn cob is in its unpretentious discretion, backed by its adroitness as a smoking pipe. As I previously wrote in a blogpost exploring pipe smoking characters, “...we couldn’t imagine Popeye winding his swollen forearms to give Bluto a pounding with a long, ornate Churchwarden in his mouth.” The cob smoker is grounded and practical without compromising a quality smoke.
But even still, some cobs manage to keep that homespun charm while nodding to elegance—I’m sure we can all think of a few of those special folks through our lives whose affability could penetrate any social sphere and have them fit right in. In a way, that’s how I see models like the Missouri Meerschaum Emerald or Freehand; the cob we know and love with stems that flout a modest sleekness. Whether hard at work or mingling in polite society, these are apt for the occasion.
3. For Tasting Pipe Tobacco
One of the most popular uses for a corn cob pipe is as an inexpensive and unbiased “tasting” pipe. Many smokers feel that briar sweetens or otherwise alters the flavor of pipe tobacco. To get a true sense of a blend, pipe smokers will often use a cob like a Missouri Meerschaum Mini Morgan. The minis are cheap enough to always have a few on hand and the small bowls are perfect for getting a quick sampling of a new blend.
Another benefit of using a cob for tasting is that you will prevent unnecessary ghosting problems on your briar pipes. Ghosting is what happens when a particularly strong tobacco leaves a scent and/or flavor on the pipe, affecting future smokes with different and less intense blends. This is particularly important with strong varieties like Latakia, Perique, and heavy-cased Aromatic tobaccos. Many pipe smokers will keep a single cob dedicated to certain strong blends—as in, one dedicated to Latakia forward blends, one for Perique, and so on.
Traditionally, meerschaum pipes have been used for tasting, but a quality meerschaum can be both expensive and delicate. Priced as low as four dollars, it is much easier for modern smokers to keep a few cobs on hand.
4. To Learn About Pipe Smoking
As a vehicle for a blend's unadulterated flavor, corn cob pipes can be great for the intermediate pipe smoker who is getting acquainted with their palate and the nuances of mixtures.
However, for a truly fresh piper just learning to smoke a pipe, one may not be so concerned about such details when simply trying to learn the basics. Getting the rhythms and methods down for fluid pipe smoking can take patience and practice, but corn cobs are great for this phase as well.
Investing as much as a few hundred dollars in smoking pipes, pipe tobacco, and accessories may not be a good way to start. An inexpensive corn cob and a good tobacco are often an excellent alternative for learning and cost next to nothing compared to other options. This also makes them low risk for some of the trials and tribulations we go through while learning things like pipe maintenance and lighting methods. If you don’t want to char the rim of a nice bowl, it’s good to go through some of those growing pains on an inexpensive corn cob.
And if you do decide to learn with one, check out this piece on breaking in a corn cob to help you along.
Additionally, cobs are great to keep around for a smoker who is always looking to help a curious friend take the hobby up. As pipe smokers, we’re always happy to broaden our circles and help along a potential pipe smoker in navigating the often-confusing early stages of taking up the craft. So having a stalk—I mean— stock of corn cobs on hand to gift to an interested acquaintance is a great idea.
5. Cobs Are Great Activity and Work Pipes
Expanding on the advantage of cobs as brunt-taking pipes, they’re excellent activity pipes for much the same reason they’re good learning pipes—they smoke great, but they’re easily replaced.
Many of us enjoy lunting or having a smoke while getting the yard work done, working in the garage, or doing another activity which has us engaged beyond our smoke. However, it’s usually best to stick to pipes that you aren’t too worried about taking some damage in these situations. Just like how you’re probably not mowing the lawn in your nice loafers, cobs are the perfect workhorses of the pipe collection.
6. They Offer Variety
When it comes to corn cob pipes, there’s more variety than one may think. When conjuring the image of a corn cob pipe, most folks’ imagination will invoke an archetypal shape, like the cartoon simplicity of Popeye’s—a tight cylinder at the end of a straight rod. Unlike wood and other pipe crafting materials, cobs aren’t shaped from a block to the mind’s fancy—for the most part, nature has decided its shape.
But as is so inherent to pipe lovers, the impulse for individualizing finds a way. Throughout Missouri Meerschaum’s catalogue you’ll see plenty of varieties of stems, shanks, and finishes. Even the cobs are manifold in their shapes; the acorns, barrels, peanut shells, and beehives—to name a few of the silhouettes (my best approximations, you don’t have to take me cloud watching). There is also the infamous MacArthur shape—long, narrow, and sure to stand out, even among its kind.
And as I mentioned before, there are cobs made by artisan pipe makers as well. In our store we have the gorgeous Custom Papa cobs from JWK 2366, the pipe making operation of the talented craftsman John Keller. Though he works with briar as well, cob lovers the world over admire him for his cob-mods—the craft of deconstructing basic corn cob pipes and customizing them. You can learn more about John Keller and the art of cob modding in our interview with the artisan.
7. You Can Do Mods of Your Own
Many of us are curious about getting into the craftsman side of pipes. Unfortunately, it’s not all that easy to casually hobby around with woodturning unless you’re fortunate enough to already have access to a woodshop, to say nothing of materials and expenses.
And to be clear, I don’t say this to dissuade anyone flirting with taking up pipe making by any means. It’s never a bad idea to take up a craft. But sometimes the allure cannot conquer the demands—sometimes we seek a more casual, leisurely creative outlet.
With cobs, there are plenty of ways that you can customize and employ your creativity. You can stomp around the web and find a lot of hobbyists’ customizations to help you generate ideas, and there are even some great videos from the YouTube Pipe Community which show the process, such as this series from CaneRodPiper.
A corn cob pipe is a time-tested tradition that we believe every tobacco pipe smoker ought to try at least once. Check out our selection of great corn cobs and enjoy a piece of history with your smoke.