By Sara Rivers Cofield
This page documents smoker’s companions,
the multi-purpose tools used by 17th and 18th century smokers
to tamp, light, and clean their pipes. Archaeologists often
refer to the smoker’s companion as the “Swiss Army
Knife” of the colonial pipe smoker because it was designed
to serve so many useful functions. Styles of smoker’s
companions varied, but most have an integrated tamper, a disk-shaped
upper grip, and a spring-loaded pinching mechanism so that the
tool could grab a hot ember. Many also have a robust spine that
might have been used as a strike-a-light if a hot ember wasn’t
available. For examples found archaeologically, this heavy-duty
upper portion may be all that survives. The pointed ends for
pinching embers, the tamper, and the scraper tend to be more
prone to breakage when the object corrodes. Smoker’s companions
are generally forged from iron by highly skilled blacksmiths.
They would have been considered somewhat of a luxury item since
smokers could get by without them by lighting their pipes with
candles or hot embers stored in chafing dishes.
Archaeologists have not developed a dated typology for smoker’s companions so this section of the website offers comparative chronological information in the form of images, measurements, site summaries, and context data for every example we have found in our collections.
1. Pinching tips- these held a hot ember so that it could be
inserted into a pipe to light tobacco. The tips also may have
been used to pick and scrape ash out of hard-to-reach areas
of the pipe bowl.
2. Basal notch- some smoker's companions have a basal notch,
possibly to allow the tool to perch on the edge of a chafing
dish or brazier without sliding.
3. Spine- serves as one of the main arms of the tool, but it also
may have served as a strike-a-light when a hot ember was not
4. Spring- keeps tension on the pinching tips so the ember held
there does not fall until released by the user.
5. Disk scraper/grip- the disk or oval platform at the end of the upper spine might have been used to help pack loose tobacco
into the pipe before tamping it down. It also may have helped
scrape ash off the walls of the pipe during cleaning. In addition, it makes a cvonvenient platform for the thumb when
pinching the tool together and it generally holds the rivet for
the spring mechanism.
6. Tamper/grip- the bottom arm has a small flat disk for tamping
tobacco down into the pipe. It also might prevent the forefingers from slipping when gripping the tool, or serve as
another scraper for cleaning.
Smoker’s companions have been known by
several different terms, including pipe tongs, pipe tongues, and
ember tongs. These terms may refer to other types of ember-holders
that would not be considered smoker’s companions. For example,
there were much longer tools with a similar spring-loaded grip
that are referred to as pipe or ember tongs. These were usually
at least 14 inches long, and some measured as long as 26 inches.
They might have tampers and pipe scrapers integrated into their
design, but they were not as portable as the smaller smoker’s
companions and they were too skinny and delicate to serve as a
strike-a-light. These long pipe or ember tongs were clearly something
to be kept by a fireplace, not something to be carried by a smoker
on the go.
Other types of ember tongs include small versions
of fireplace tongs and styles that look like scissors, but with
ember-grabbing tips instead of blades. The latter scissor-like
style might also have integrated joints that would cause the tongs
to extend when closed. These were known as “lazy”
The term “smoker’s companion”
would not refer to any of these long pipe/ember tongs. “Smoker’s
companion” usually has one of two meanings: it either refers
to modern desk sets that might include an ashtray, cigarette holder,
and lighter, or it describes the small portable tools used for
pipe smoking discussed above. This section of the website is devoted
to smoker’s companions in the latter category only.