Adventures in Nomenclature

Comoy Blue Riband shape no. 87

Shape names evolve and change over time.

Anyone immersed in words and meanings knows that the meanings of words evolve and sometimes change over time. This is also true in the world of pipes, particularly in the nomenclature of shape names. For example, a shape that most pipe smokers today would call a squat bulldog was once called a Rhodesian. The billiard was once called a neogene.

If one develops a fondness for a particular shape, if one undertakes a study of that shape, one will encounter brambles and barriers in pipe nomenclature. If you’re using key-word searches in Google books for “billiard,” your trail may run cold because that name wasn’t used at a certain point.

When it comes to pipe shapes, I have a great fondness for the zulu shape. I have been collecting examples of the shape for over a decade. As pipe shapes go, it is an old and venerated shape with examples dating back into the 19th Century.

Scholarship emerges from collecting focus.

As one would expect of any collector with a strong interest in the shape, I have tried to bring a certain rigor to my scholarship around the shape. I’ve compared, contrasted, and documented dimensions, weights, bowl flare, cant angles, and degree of stem bend for every brand and maker I have acquired over the years.

Definitions are useful, but they can be a trap.

1914 BBB ZuluFor the purposes of definition, the zulu shape possesses a forward-canted bowl (17 to 20 degrees) that transitions upward from an oval shank. The shank length mirrors the bowl height, but in some examples the shank length is measured from the tobacco chamber’s center vertical axis and in others it is measured from the transition point where the shank meets the bowl’s rear wall. The zulu shape is not amenable to scaling up; if it is too big, the massing works against its graceful, lithe lines, so it is typically no longer than 6 inches or 154 mm. Many people believe the zulu to be derivative of the dublin family, which is not true. The forward cant of the bowl tricks the eye into seeing a flare that, in fact, is not there. The classic zulu has the same diameter bowl at the transition that it does at the rim.

I’ve developed an opinion about which brand’s zulu shape I believe to be iconic, and while this opinion cannot help but be informed by my own aesthetics, what I consider most beautiful also happens to exhibit a proportional schema where the dimensions of the shape exhibit certain classical poetics in its designer’s premeditation.

In my opinion, Comoy’s shape No. 87 – an example of which is depicted at the top of this post – surpasses all other examples of the classic zulu shape. This is no small feat, especially since there are many other beautiful shape expressions from other makers.

The delight of being wrong.

Having read the above, you can imagine my surprise at discovering that the House of Comoy did not consider shape no. 87 a zulu. The pipe we think of as the modern zulu shape was originally called “The Boston” (Illustration below) in the company’s very first catalogue of shape names and numbers.

The pipe that the circa 1910-1911 Comoy’s catalogue called a zulu was decidedly different from our modern construct. While it had the same forward-canted bowl, the earlier zulu featured a much shorter shank. The shank was round rather than oval. It’s unbent stem was decidedly shorter and it featured a rather dramatic taper that is unnecessary in an oval stem. (See illustration below) The illustration reveals through the hallmarked silver that the depicted pipe was made in 1905, so the manufacture of this pipe preceded the catalogue’s publication by a period of at least five years.

Over the years, the shape has had many names, some of which – like the Woodstock or the Yachtsman – are generally well-known to pipe collectors today. In his book, The GBD St Claude Story, Jacques W. Cole writes that the 19th Century zulu was known by the shape name “ribolboche.” By the 1950s, Comoys of London had changed its shape charts to refer to shape no. 87 as a “horn,” a shape name that today is freighted with quite different connotations by most pipe collectors.

My names and numbers theory

While I can’t prove it, my theory is that pipe nomenclature had two decidedly different purposes. I believe that the people in operations, manufacturing, and accounting referred to pipe shapes by numbers because these numbers were assigned to the masters used by the frasing machines in shaping bowls. This is why we see more constancy in the relationship between shape numbers and pipe shapes. (There are also examples of shapes being renumbered, however, i.e. Comoy’s shape no. 283 became shape no. 440. Why? I have no idea.)

The people in sales and marketing, however, wanted to use word-names in order to freight particular pipe shapes with meanings. Words have far more associative meanings (brand marketers call these “equities”) than numbers do. This is why I suspect that Comoy’s sales and marketing men respectively named shape no. 69 “The Yale”, shape no. 122 “The Harvard”, and shape no. 62 “The Cambridge.” These shape names were intended to appeal to the faculty and alumni of these prestigious centers of learning as well as to those who might aspire to some connection with what they symbolize. The numbers 69, 122, and 62 would never accomplish the same purpose.

Comoy was most certainly not alone in assigning numbers or letters to shape names. Do you know what a Dunhill CK or FET is? If so, consider yourself a first-order pipe geek. (They are respectively an author and a straight prince.) 1943 Shell Dunhill FET (Straight Prince)

How many people refer to an author as a CK? Probably only those who are Dunhill collectors or those immersed in the esoterica of nomenclature. Most of us would call the pipe by its marketing name: an author.

Over time, I believe that the terms invented and assigned to pipes by the sales and marketers of pipes became the primary designators of what pipes were called. The names fueled by customer adoption took on increasing weight and usage. But, it is not as simple as name overtaking number because within particular name designations – take the billiard for example – there can be a world of variation.

In the 1960s, Comoy was making and selling 21 different billiard shapes that were all called “billiard.” Comoy must have believed that their customers valued the shape differences represented in their product array or they would not have offered so much variation to their customers. The variation kept the number-nomenclature alive because once person wanted a shape no. 6 (saddle-stemmed billiard) and another wanted a shape no. 342 (a beefy-shanked, tapered stem billiard akin to the Dunhill LB).

As someone who values words, meanings, and history, this discovery presents me with a dilemma. I will never again think so simplistically of Comoy’s shape no. 87. Will I think of it as “zulu” or “Boston”?

Further, I know from other early catalog research that Barling’s zulu had a saddle stem, a trait that, before I knew this fact, disqualified several pipes from my consideration for acquisition into my collection. I wish I had bought them now. They were what Barling considered “zulus”.

When I think of how I have narrowly and precisely defined what a zulu is or is not, my new knowledge gives me pause. I find comfort and security in defining terms with some precision. That precision, however, is a more an artifact of my cognition than it is of reality. There are some aspects of this hobby that defy clean and easy definition.

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Reader Comments (3)

I knew what the CK and FET were before this article ;)
August 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercakeanddottle
"...There are some aspects of this hobby that defy clean and easy definition." Some? Just when we think we have an easy clean definition, we're wrong! Its like peeling an onion but with fewer tears. Thanks for steering us away from the easy clean to the curious discoveries. That's fun.
September 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Guss
Great post, I definitely agree sometimes a clear definition is hard.
September 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrett James

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