Bongs and Pipes
Bongs, or “Water Pipes” have been a favorite choice of smokers for over 2400 years! While the designs, materials, and features of today’s glass bong have evolved significantly from the bongs our caveman ancestors were smoking, the ultimate purpose of the water pipe has remained the same:
Bongs provide a smooth, cooled and filtered smoke that’s easy on the lungs.
While the original bongs made centuries ago were mostly of bamboo, ceramic, and later acrylic, glass bongs and glass water pipes quickly became and stayed the most popular option for smokers after their inception; and for good reason! Glass bongs are the easiest type of bong to clean, they provide excellent filtration, and if treated carefully they can last for generations. Water bongs are an improvement over traditional smoking pipes by filtering your dry herb or tobacco smoke through water; sometimes through one or more “percolators” (percs) to achieve an extra smooth and chilled smoke. Water filtration in a bong has a similar purpose and effect as the radiator in your car: cool it down! As the smoke passes through water inside your pipe, it is instantaneously chilled. Even further, a perc bong uses percolators to force the smoke through many tiny holes underwater, breaking it up into into thousands of tiny smoke bubbles. These tiny bubbles force more of the smoke’s surface area to get in contact with the water, which cools the smoke very quickly to a temperature more comfortable to inhale. There are dozens if not more types of percs out there, but they all serve essentially the same purpose. Some perc bongs provide smoother hits but more drag, and others vice versa. Some water pipes, such as the tree perc bong and removable downstem bong, are super easy to clean. On the other hand, more intricate pieces, such as the fab egg or the pillar percs bong offer smoother hits but are a bit tougher to get clean.
You may be wondering what these percs look like on a bong. While we recommend heading over to the bongs collection page and taking a look at these percs, we do want to clear up some confusion that you might come across. First and foremost, certain kinds of percolators can look very similar yet have different names. Take the UFO perc, for instance. The UFO perc has a sibling that looks strikingly similar to it. This sibling is callled the showerhead percolator. The showerhead percolator is very commonly used in water pipes, which makes sense due to its thorough filtration capability. However, it is very easy to get the showerhead percolator and UFO percolator mixed up. Both of these percs are circular, and have slits going around their entire circumference. The key difference is that the showerhead perc tends to hand from above, while the UFO perc hovers in the middle of the glass it is attached to. However, there is an even more distinct way to characterize one from the other, and that is through their outline. A showerhead perc is not rounded on its edges. Rather, it has angular edges that make it look like a flattened cylinder. The UFO perc, on the other hand, looks like a frisbee disc. It has rounded edges, like that of a flying saucer.
What should I look for in a bong?
Options besides percolator type include the base type (beaker base bong vs straight tube bong), size, and features. Bong features can include removable or fixed down stems, body designs, and ice catchers. Ice catchers are a great way to cool your smoke even more for the smoothest possible hits. Water pipes are available in 10mm, 14mm, and 18mm joint sizes, so be sure to know what size your bong is when buying parts like glass bowls or accessories like ashcatchers. You’ll also want to pay attention to the angle of the joint when shopping for an ashcatcher. While most beakers have 45º joints, most straight tubes and inline perc bongs will have a 90º joint angle.
Bongs, whether they are made of scientific glass or bendy silicone, are part of many smoking setups. They’re so universal that it’s easy not to think about where they came from or how they got so popular. But water pipes have a long and storied history that runs its way from thousands of years ago into today’s cultural mix. Bongs have origins in various places across the world, and it’s nothing if not a display of the range of human ingenuity—at least when it comes to smoking.
Where did the word bong come from?
There’s contention among bong historians about where exactly usage began, even down to how the word itself originated.
There is a case that the word “bong” can be traced to the United States during the Vietnam War. Soldiers stationed at the five military bases in Thailand are said to have heard locals calling bamboo water pipes “baung”s. The anglicized version of the word made an early appearance in January of 1971 when a letter was published in a major magazine thanking a man “for the beautiful special bong he made for my pipe collection.”
The findings of British paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey offered a different origin for the word. As Frederick Foote writes in “How To: Bongs,” in the 1940s Leakey found a water pipe in Tanzania, a follow-up to ones used by the Liberian Bong’om tribe (who, naturally, live in a place called Bong).
Early water pipes
As for the origins of bongs themselves, scientists are split. In 2013, excavations in Russia turned up gold bongs used by Scythian tribal chiefs. These bongs were found in something called a kurgan, a mound of soil and rocks placed over a wooden burial chamber. The date on the whole site was put at 2,400 years ago, seemingly the earliest recorded use of water pipes.
Africans smoked with “earth pipes,” which were frequently made of clay and often built into the ground. Varying shapes of pipes were used—some resembling bowls more than bongs—but a common practice was for smokers to fill their “mouth with water, [kneel] down and [draw] in the fumes with long pulls, thus improvising a rudimentary water pipe.” It might not be your typical smoking apparatus, but it seems to have gotten the job done.
Bongs were also used in 16th century China, becoming the most utilized smoking method by the Qing Dynasty in the 17th and early 18th centuries. They were so popular that different types of bongs were developed for different classes: a homemade bamboo one for country folk, a bronze version for merchants and city dwellers, and jewel-decorated silver ones for nobles. Scythian tribal chiefs weren’t the only ones getting buried with paraphernalia: China’s Empress Dowager Cixi was entombed with at least three water pipes in 1908.
The Chinese metal water pipes were relatively unusual, since many early bongs were handmade of readily available natural materials (much in the way that someone might use a water bottle to make a bong today, although certainly less harmful). Bamboo was popular across Asia, while Jamaicans used coconuts and Africans made do with dried gourds (and the ground).
The birth of modern bongs
Washington-based glassblower Cam Tower has been pegged by the Stranger as the inventor of what’s called “the modern bong”—a bong made entirely of a “single fused piece of glass.” It’s unimaginable to think that you could walk into a head shop or look online and not see double-blown water pipes, and Tower is the reason.
Bob Snodgrass, whose glassblowing work is still displayed in galleries, “is credited with developing the glass-pipe-making techniques used throughout the world today while touring with the Grateful Dead in the 1970s and ‘80s.” And it was Snodgrass who taught Tower to make glass pieces in 1993. He took Snodgrass’ design for a water pipe and adapted it into a single glass piece. At first it wasn’t exactly aligned with the bong aesthetic that we’ve all come to know and love, but it was an upgrade from “crude bongs made with a mix of ceramic and glue.” Tower’s first water pipes looked like “hammers,” but within a year Tower got the formula right and began to produce the recognizable upright, “bubble”-based bongs shape. The design quickly spread among glassmakers and made its way into essentially every head shop.
There’s clearly a lot of history to what now seems like a simple and obvious design. It’s taken thousands of years and lots of strange modifications to come to the bongs that we know and love today, and we should be thankful that we get to stay on the couch instead of smoking straight out of the ground with water in our mouths. It’s hard to binge watch television and eat chips outside, after all.