The History of Bongs and Other Iconic Smokeware

Bong. Bubbler. Piece. Steamroller. Rig. There’s no shortage of creativity when it comes to weed smokeware. Although the latest smoking innovations have offered new and entertaining ways to consume cannabis, the history behind our favorite glass pipes may prove even more impressive.  

The birth of glass 

Glass has been around for centuries, so it’s no wonder our ancestors crafted clever ways to smoke out of it. According to the American Scientific Glassblowers Society, “the earliest recorded use of glass was by the Egyptians who used it to glaze tiles, make figures and create the earliest beads. Excavations place its first known use to be about 1500 BC.” Later in 323–30 BCE the art of glassblowing gained widespread notoriety, eventually leading to the invention of our favorite ganja gear.  

The first water pipes 

Contrary to stereotypes, the first bongs and pipes date way back before hippies and their groovy weed-loving counterculture movement. In fact, some of the oldest known bongs pre-date American history and were originally used in ancient Africa, Russia and China. 
Although the birth of the original bong remains up for debate due to scarce research and varying data, new findings reveal a closer look at the first cannabis creations. 

In June 2019, Science Advances published findings by Meng Ren of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and her team of scientists, who excavated 10 wooden burning pots, or “braziers.” These vessels, which contained burnt stones from tombs at the Jirzankal Cemetery, are believed to have been used for “ritualized cannabis smoking.” Upon closer examination, Ren’s team indicated that cannabis plants were burned in these wooden braziers during mortuary ceremonies and religious activities at the Jirzankal Cemetery (ca. 500 BCE) in the eastern Pamirs region. This suggests cannabis was smoked in western China by at least 2,500 years ago!

Further testing also revealed traces of CBN (cannabinol, a cannabinoid created when THC ages or is exposed to excessive environmental factors including heat) inside the relics. 

Prior to Ren’s findings, in 2013, archaeologists unearthed two bongs in southern Russia made of pure gold that date to 2400 years ago. According to Tech Times, the “historic paraphernalia” was used by tribal chiefs of the Scythians, a group of nomadic tribes who originated in what is now southern Siberia and extended their influence across Central Asia, to smoke cannabis and opium. Before this discovery, the earliest known water pipes were a group of 11 found in a cave in Ethiopia, which were dated to around 1400 CE. 

It was also discovered that in 16th-Century China, the ruling class of the Ming Dynasty used water pipes to smoke tobacco. The succeeding Qing Dynasty reinforced the use of bongs as a status symbol: While commoners used rustic, homemade bamboo versions, elites  opted for extravagantly decorated and bejeweled bongs, according to Leafbuyer.

Before these modern discoveries, in 1922, archaeologist Henry Balfour reported on “earth pipes” used by African people and how they mimicked the use of water pipes by smoking tobacco or hemp while holding water in their mouths. His paper “Earth Smoking-Pipes from South Africa and Central Asia” includes drawings of the devices, which combined natural elements like dirt mounds and grass stems with man-made pipes made of packed mud, as well as diagrams and sketches of people using them.

The growth of glass 

Thanks to our water pipe-savvy ancestors and the innovations of China, glassware boomed and the bong industry spread rapidly along the Silk Road, the world’s most significant trade route, which has connected East and West for two thousand years. However, it wasn’t until the 1940s that bongs and weed-ware made their mark in the United States when the word “bong” was added to the McFarland Thai-English Dictionary. In 1971, the Marijuana Review published the term “bong,” quoting its use as  “smoking kancha, tree, hashish, or the hemp-plant.” From that point, bongs and hand-held water pipes became a popular means for cannabis consumption in the U.S.

The Bong Renaissance

Paralleling the bong phenomenon and the rising “hippie movement,” head shops and smoke shops gained momentum, sprouting all throughout the San Francisco area with glassware and pot-painted smoking devices lining every shelf. Traditional glass workers, like renowned American lampworker Bob Snodgrass, shifted their focus to artisanal smokeware and elevated the boundaries of the bong movement forever. 


The future of glass

Today, there is an abundance of glass and smokeware to choose from and there’s no telling where the weed industry will take us. Whether you prefer a traditional bong, a discreet hand pipe, a trippy bubbler or an impressive rig, you can thank our ancestors and centuries of glass and smoking enthusiasts for the future smokeware inventions to come. 

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