This piece first appeared in Connections, PEM’s member magazine, and is part of a series where our curators are asked to tell about a piece in the collection that intrigues them.
Inside a glass case in East India Marine Hall, eyes are often drawn to the stuffed king penguin, believed to be the first ever exhibited in North America. Its oddly elongated, chicken-like neck is evidence that local taxidermists in the 1800s didn’t have much experience preserving the animals of the Falkland Islands. Daniel Finamore, The Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History, invites us to look below the penguin to discover a less-familiar object that has captivated him for years.
In 1799, just a month after the museum was founded, this clay smoking pipe was fished out of Salem Harbor with a live oyster growing out of its bowl. At first glance, the pear-shaped shell appears to be an intentional design element. “It’s just a crazy, quirky thing that someone pulled up and said ‘Wow, people ought to see this,’” says Finamore. “It was thought of as a natural curiosity, but it was also a rarified antique of early Salem.”
Historians later determined the muddied clay pipe had been lying on the bottom of Salem Harbor for more than a century. It was made in the Netherlands around 1650 and imported to places like Salem packed in boxes filled with sawdust. At that time, smokers would fill a pipe with enough tobacco to take only three or four puffs, so the small size of the bowl served as a telling clue. As tobacco became more available, the size of pipes grew to accommodate the practice of casual puffing.
What appeals to Finamore is the way the piece expresses the passage of time and represents an intersection of nature and human involvement. He also holds an appreciation for the person (probably a wharf worker) who pulled the pipe out of the harbor and decided that others might want to see this strange and wonderful oddity, too.
“What we are drawn to in a museum is often not really easily explained. It all begins with the emotional impact,” says Finamore.
“To me that’s one of the reasons archeological objects are so interesting. Sure you can try to explain them in a scientific manner and you can talk about the development of societies, but when you pull something up from the ground and make a discovery, whether it’s a city or a ship or a fantastic artifact, everyone turns and says, ‘Wow. What is that?’ Then you can start the process of trying to figure something out.
“So what I like about the pipe is that it has unclassifiable appeal,” he says. “It’s like a four-leaf clover. You can look for an oyster growing out of a pipe for the rest of your life, but this lucky guy, he found one.”