Chinese Water Pipe Artifact Highlight #21

This pipe was donated to our collection in 1949. It is a Chinese brass water pipe covered in shagreen and decorated with a large tassel. It dates to around 1850.

The box of the pipe is wrapped in shagreen, which is the skin of a stingray. It is durable, flexible, and waterproof, and was often used in decorating furniture, small personal objects and even weapons. Its use was very popular during the 18th century and later during the Art Deco movement.

Although smaller than a typical hookah, it operated on the same principle: the hot smoke passed through water in the container at the base of the water pipe, which removed impurities and cooled it, and was then inhaled through the long pipe.

The length of the pipe stem affected the taste. The longer the stem the milder the taste. This type of pipe is often mistaken for an opium pipe, but it was used for smoking tobacco, which was sometimes flavored with spices and fruits. Many historic photographs of opium dens show opium pipes along with water pipes, which leads to the confusion.

Men smoking opium in a Chinese lodging house in San Francisco, California. c. 1890.

Tobacco was introduced in China sometime in the 16th century and smoking it grew in popularity due to its supposed healing properties. Tobacco, except for snuff, was made illegal during the Ming and early Qing Dynasties in the early 17th century. Even though the penalty for breaking the law was harsh, people of all classes still indulged in the practice and tobacco had an important part in social gatherings and entertainment.

In the late 19th century, smoking was predominantly a male habit, but this type of pipe was favored by wealthy Chinese women. Water pipes were expensive and when not in use they were used as decoration. Today about one-third of the world’s tobacco is produced and consumed in China, mostly in the form of cigarettes.

Background Photo: Chinese man with water pipe on the table c.1890. PCM Collection

The pipe was donated by Jack E. Amundsen. Amundsen was born in 1914 in San Francisco. He graduated from Placer Union High School and later attended Oregon State College.

During WWII he served with the 864th Air Engineers Squadron of the 438th Fighter Group. In 1946 he was appointed to the position of jailer and deputy sheriff in Auburn.

Auburn Journal October 16, 1947

He was a training officer for the vocational rehabilitation and education division and later worked as a forest ranger in Ukiah. He died in 1996.