Bongs have made their way in and out of history through current events and popular culture and countercultures alike. You don’t have to be a pot head to recognize the glass filtration device; chances are, pictures have crossed televisions and computer screens with bong related news over the years (remember Michael Phelps and the infamous post-Olympics bong picture ordeal of 2009?).
While we’ve gotten pretty familiar with the water pipe and how it’s shaped modern conversations about smoking flower, where it came from is an entirely different story. Where did the bong come from what are its origins? Keep reading for the full details on the history of the bong.
The bong, commonly known as a water pipe, is a filtration device used for smoking specific substances, namely marijuana, tobacco, or other herbs. Similar to a hookah, a bong can be made out of just about anything that is air and water tight, all it needs is a bowl and a stem and a good attitude.
Typically, a bong is made out of acrylic or glass. The shape of the product is universally the same: there’s a large open pope leading to a water chamber, with an inlet for the smoke. Tobacco or cannabis is packed down into a pipe, and then the pipe is placed near the base of the bong.
Essentially, air is guided downward as the cannabis is heated through a hole (nicknamed the carburetor, carb, choke, shotty, and rush, among others) to below the surface of the water, which is being heated. Bubbles are being blown downward, causing the smoke to flow up into the user’s mouth. Here, the process is standard, smoke goes in, where it’s drawn into the respiratory system.
Bongs are known to generate a smoother smoke, which feels less harsh on the lungs. Due to the use of water, the smoke feels filtered, with less ash and carcinogens. The smoke, too, is cooled off. Users feel as though the smoke is cleaner and more concentrated, which is often why they turn to a bong for inhalation.
Though cannabis is often associated with the bong, they are also commonly used for smoking tobacco. Many cultures used bongs only for tobacco consumption, depending on their geography and spiritual needs.
The history of the bong extends far beyond the hippie movement or even the “muggle” days of the 1920s. In fact, the word bong stems from the Thai word “baung,” which describes a bamboo cylindrical tube or pipe traditionally used for smoking.
Bongs got their start centuries ago in Africa, Thailand, and Laos as a clean method of cannabis consumption, though many cultures around the world took hold of the water pipes for various uses. In 2013, Russian excavations led to the discovery that Scythian tribal chiefs used bongs 2,400 years ago, made out of gold, to smoke hemp and opium. In this case, the gold-laced pipes were coveted and elegant and tied to spiritual rituals.
The Chinese Ming Dynasty used water pipes in the 16th century specifically for smoking tobacco, which was discovered around the same time; legend has it that Empress Dowager Cixi loved bongs so much that she was buried with at least three in her collection. Later, the Qing Dynasty further shaped bong use as a class designation, where commoners used homemade versions (out of hand-carved bamboo), in contrast to the royal metal devices, lavishly decorated with jewelry and gem stones.
Bongs found their way into the Western culture around 1944. The word was used in the McFarland Thai-English Dictionary, which writes the uses as “smoking kancha, tree, hashish, or the hemp-plant.” An issue of the Marijuana Review published the term in 1971, and from there, bongs became a popular method of cannabis consumption in the United States.
The first head shop opened in 1966 on San Francisco’s Haight Street, called the Psychedelic Shop. Glassware lined the shelves and set the standard for shops that opened years down the road when medical marijuana became legalized, followed by several instances of recreational use.
In 1963, Peter, Paul, & Mary released their hit song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” which has long been decoded as a counterculture cannabis anthem. Puff, who lived by the sea, blows his fiery smoke into the water and frolicked in the mist. With these marijuana symbols, it seems obvious that the artists were describing a bong, though it was cleverly disguised through a tune seemingly fit for children.
Now, we see bongs littered everywhere, from teenage stoner movies to local headshops decorated with elaborate glassware. While history denotes a designation between the rich and the poor, the present water pipe luckily knows no such bounds; these days, it’s common for everyone, from lawyers to teachers to budtenders and everywhere in between, to take a hit from their favorite bong.
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