Snuff Boxes: A Practical Beauty

By Lucia Greene Connolly for Eve Stone Antiques, Ltd.

Of the many social vices that people have embraced over the centuries, a fascination with the use of snuff and the vast industry that accompanied its production has enjoyed particular longevity. During the period spanning from 1680 to the mid-1800’s, snuff, a pulverized form of tobacco to be either chewed or inhaled, was the most popular form of tobacco addiction, enjoying widespread use and transcending class barriers. Until the 1900’s, the volume of snuff produced far exceeded tobacco for smoking or chewing, and even today, with health concerns regarding the passive smoke issue mounting, snuff consumption has enjoyed renewed interest among tobacco enthusiasts.

In 1494, on the second voyage of discovery to the new land that would become America, Christopher Columbus and his entourage noticed the Indians sniffing a mysterious powder; intrigued, he carried it back to Europe. Initially popular in Spain and France, snuff won only limited acceptance in Europe until Charles II returned with it from exile in France. It immediately became popular with both sexes within court circles–history records that Queen Anne and all the ladies of her court enjoyed it. In 1702, when a Spanish convoy bearing fifty tons of Havana snuff was captured by British ships, the booty was distributed among the sailors as part of their payment. They carried it to ports and coastal towns, spreading its popularity. Mills to produce it sprang up in London and Bristol, and some, in Sheffield and Kendal, still exist. There were over 400 snuff shops in London alone. Within a relatively short time, an industry was born.

From royalty down to peasants, snuff became all the rage. In the late 1700’s, at the height of his command, the French emperor Napoleon reportedly sniffed over seven pounds a month! Snuff experienced its highest usage in the 18th century, when it was enjoyed by both sexes in almost all walks of life. First it was inhaled, then dipped into the mouth with a stick or a brush and inserted between the cheek and the gums. Normally the box was kept in the owner’s left-hand pocket, as body warmth improved its bouquet. Before opening, the snuffer would tap the cover three times to settle the powder, and would then take a pinch of snuff between the finger and thumb of the right hand, holding it briefly before raising it to each nostril. A master could inhale without registering discomfort, or spilling, a novice might sneeze and need a dusting off later. During the 17th century, the user commonly bought snuff in a partially manufactured state. Typically it came as a solid roll of hard tobacco, measuring a few inches long, and affectionately called a carotte, shortened from the French term carotte de tabac, or tobacco roll. When the urge struck, the carotte was rubbed against a grater, with the resulting powder collected in a small box sufficient to hold the day’s supply but no more. Blended tobacco leaves used for snuff were normally aged for two to three years, fermented at least twice, ground, and later, flavored with an array of scents and oils.

Demonstrating an early and dazzling sensitivity to marketing, snuff could be tailored to taste–sweet or salty, mild or strong–and could be finely ground or left coarse. The addition of oils such as attar of roses, peppermint, lemon, coffee, or aromatic herbs were the prized domain of snuff sellers, whose recipes were kept secret. Varieties of snuff adopted exotic names, such as Jasmine, High Toast, and Martinique. Since contact with the air rapidly decreased both potency and fragrance, the race to produce efficient storage containers and small boxes grew into a flourishing industry. The snuff box became, accordingly, not only a practical necessity, but a visible indicator of social standing.

Early on, containers meant for pipe tobacco were used to hold snuff, with a box popular in England and mulls favored in Scotland. Most affluent snuffers owned many boxes of varied styles, with heavy ones for the table and lighter ones for transport. All were considered intimate personal property, with sharing by invitation only. Though any box with a suitably tight lid would work, the most prized boxes came in a vast array of sizes and materials, including gold boxes embedded with jewels, tortoiseshell and horn boxes ringed with ivory, gold, silver or copper, and painted enamel boxes with gilded rims. Polished stone, shell, nut, and papier-mache boxes were also in demand. The lids of the best boxes were flat, as rounder versions might allow a pocket of air to form and damage the snuff. Probably due to affordability, more boxes were made of wood than of any other material. Some of the more interesting boxes came in shapes, often mimicking boots and shoes in the fashion of the day, and bearing wishes for good luck and prosperity. With fashionable ladies given to carrying small bags, known as “indispensables,” miniature snuff boxes grew in popularity, and tiny snuff boxes were sometimes given to children as an affectionate reflection of the adult obsession.

During its zenith, the popularity of snuff reached such highs in Europe that two popes issued decrees banning its use while in church. A belief in its medicinal virtues actually led doctors to prescribe it for a wide assortment of maladies, including headaches, insomnia, toothache, coughs, colds, and cases of good old-fashioned nerves. It was not until friction matches were invented in the late 1820s that cigarette smoking became popular and snuff began its decline. Snuff box manufacturers began producing boxes, known as matchsafes, that could hold the easily ignited matches of the day safely. These resembled snuff boxes, but were easily identified by the addition of a roughened surface or folded piece of sandpaper for striking.

The modern collector of snuff boxes should exert caution: there are a multitude of reproduction boxes on the market. Check carefully for authenticity, examining silver and other precious metals for a hallmark offering background, as important gold and silversmiths signed their works. Evaluating less expensive boxes can be more difficult, but the educated collector would do well to search for the wear and patina that only many years of loving use can provide. Of course, one of the pleasures enjoyed by many collectors is that the antique box may actually be used for today’s snuff. For the truly lucky aficionado, who has spent happy years examining the inside of boxes, there is always the hope that one may actually contain remnants of snuff from another age, thereby signaling authenticity. For the less fortunate collector, remember to seek the expertise of a seasoned dealer when in doubt.