Little did itinerant merchant Joseph Sherburne and Ponca Chief White Eagle know, but their trading in corncob pipes would ignite a fashion frenzy lasting 30 years. Sherburne had obtained a license to trade with this group of Native Americans, who in 1878 were living in Indian Territory, which is now Eastern Oklahoma. Among his trade goods were pipes fitted with bone stems. They quickly sold but without comment from the purchasers. When Sherburne next visited, Chief White Eagle showed him an elaborate neck ornament made from bone pipestems strung on buckskin strands. White Eagle requested more pipestems—in quantity.
For centuries preceding, Native Americans had favored necklaces made with long, slender tubular beads. Grave site excavations have found such beads made from bird bone, conch shell, and rolled copper. The Native Americans wore these beads around their necks and in their hair, which may account for their name—hair pipes, but nobody knows for sure. They were, however, clearly valued, because one early European trader noted that one conch shell hair pipe, about the length and girth of a man’s index finger, traded for four deer skins. Lewis and Clark took a supply of hair pipes with them on their Voyage of Discovery and would disperse one or two per tribal chief according to each one’s eminence.
Recognizing the Native Americans’ fascination with hair pipes and their commercial value, government traders offered silver hair pipes beginning in the early 1800’s. Private traders preferred less expensive ones made from large West Indian conch shells.
A cottage industry sprung up in New Jersey to produce hair pipes in industrial quantities. Beginning in about 1830, a family of Campbells paid their neighbors to perform the preparatory steps, and then they hand-lathed, drilled, and polished the shell beads to perfection. Drilling a narrow hole through the entire length of the 4” long hair pipe was a technical challenge, and the family kept their method a closely guarded secret. Over generations, the Campbells perfected machines to produce the hair pipes in large numbers. Eventually a worker could produce 400 pieces in a day.
Traders of every ilk then distributed them to Plains Indians, mostly men, who used them as hair adornments and ear pendants. Tribes east of the Mississippi did not seem to be interested (maybe jaded by NY fashion), and the style spread only slowly from the Great Plains to the Rockies and farther west.
The conch shell hair pipes were fragile and broke easily, however, and early photographs show some instances of wearers styling damaged goods. Along came Chief White Eagle and his unusual request for hundreds of corncob pipes. Trader Sherburne contacted a wholesaler in New York from whom he had previously bought glass beads and asked him to produce bone hair pipes in quantity, which he did. The Armour meat beef packing plant in Chicago sent cattle leg bones to New York where they were turned into hair pipes and then sent west.
The bone beads mirrored the size and shape of the conch shell hair pipes and were more durable. They were also considerably cheaper, selling for 10 to 15 cents each, depending on their length, compared to 50 cents for those made from shell. Within 10 years, the 60-year old Campbell business for conch shell beads folded.
The bone hair pipes became widely available in the 1880’s, which was a time of economic and mental depression for the Plains Indians. The buffalo were gone, reservation life was strange and tedious. Government rations were meager. Bone beads, however, were plentiful and cheap, and an elaborate display of hair pipe adornment symbolized prosperity. Even though conch shells were whiter and did not have the dark streaks characteristic of bone, the price and durability were right, and the Native Americans captured the opportunity to regain a bit of dignity.
Not only did they style hair pipe adornments for their own ceremonies, they also did so when socializing with other tribes, for visits to the Great White Father in Washington, and for participation in or attendance at Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West shows. Photographs from the time show elaborate choker-type necklaces and bandoliers of hair pipes in long strings and wide bands. The piece de resistance, however, was the breastplate—numerous hair pipes strung on buckskin and arrayed horizontally on two or more vertical rows.
The trend likely started with the Comanche tribe in the mid 1800’s and spread quickly through the Great Plains. When the durable, cheap bone product became available, it seemed to create a contest of “my breastplate is bigger than yours.” Workmanship also counted, and in the early 1900’s, a well-made breastplate had the same value as a horse.
Then the hair pipe trade dried up. Buffalo Bill’s death in 1917 and the closure of his Wild West Show, which employed 65 Sioux performers, may have contributed. Also by that time the Native Americans had a large number of entirely durable hair pipe adornments on hand, so they stopped buying the beads. Hence the traders stopped stocking them.
The story of hair pipes is an interplay of co-operation. Two individuals, White Eagle and Sherburne, and two extended families, the Plains Indians and the Campbells, had something that the other wanted. This is endearing considering the historical animosity between the two cultures. The co-operations turned out to be win-win. The story is also one of creative destruction. Bone supplanted shell as the raw material, and industrial-scaled manufacturing squelched a successful family business. Then the new product saturated the market and disappeared. Sound familiar?
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