While many recall the Bronze and Iron Ages, the history books don’t highlight the rise of brass. Although many might think that is because brass wasn’t all that popular, the truth is it was. However, the reality was that brass was challenging to make because it required melting and boiling metals at very high temperatures. With the advancement of technology, blacksmiths' developed more ease creating new metals, and as the middle class rose, so did the demand for brass. Discover the history of our favourite alloy, from the ancient brass to modern brass to brass pipes of today.
The history of brass goes much farther back than many realize, and in fact, this alloy often is considered prehistoric in countries around the globe. Chances are you don’t associate brass with the Roman period, which was referred to by many at the time as “aurichalum”. Still, the method for making brass was around then, as that is when people began mining zinc and sometimes accidentally creating brass. However, there was not enough of the alloy available to use it for coins, which needed to circulate widely. After that, the knowledge of making brass would travel from England to Spain as well to India from Iran.
Because brass is a zinc metal that must be melted at 420ºC and boiled at about 950ºC, it was not easy to make it before the 18th century. Also, during Medieval times it was difficult to find a pure source of zinc with which to make this alloy. Eventually, countries such as Wales, China, Holland, Germany, and Sweden discovered areas where they could successfully mine zinc, and their brass industries began booming. In the beginning, the alloy was popular only in the woollen trade, however with new inventions such as the chronometer, brass soon became an important material leading to its higher production. Additionally, cities and towns became better connected, trade improved, allowing the brass to reach the hands of more people.
Even though metal has been used for pipes since the 16th century in China, the earliest metals utilized in smoking accessories were nickel and copper. Of course, as more metals were made available, pipe makers began to use them. In Europe, brass was not a popular material for ornate or luxury items like pipes, however, in Africa and the Americas, this alloy was gaining popularity since it was more affordable than gold and silver. As pipe smoking skyrocketed between the 18th and 20th centuries, the first brass pipes were likely created on these continents. In the Americas, one of the first confirmed producers began manufacturing brass pipes in the early 20th century, setting the trend for years to come.