Snuff Accessories: A History of the 1700 and 1800s

Snuff, a pulverized form of tobacco, became popular from the mid-1600s to the mid-1800s and was more popular than smoking. It was enjoyed by all classes and by both sexes, despite certain critics claiming it “deformed the nose, stained the skin, [and] tainted the breath.”[1] The popularity of snuff resulted in a highly lucrative business not only for tobacco growers but also for manufacturers of snuff accessories. That was because snuff takers needed a variety of snuff accessories to accommodate their snuffing habit. This wide variety of snuff accessories was something the English Elizabethan dramatist and pamphleteer, Thomas Dekker, termed “artillery” and included such things as snuff-boxes, snuff jar or bottles, snuff mills, snuff rasps, and snuff spoons.

Man Taking Snuff in the 1800s, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Man taking snuff in the 1800s., Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The centerpiece of snuffing was the snuff-box (called a snuff mull in Scotland). Snuff-boxes were popular because when snuff was exposed to the air, it dried out. What kept snuff from drying out was airtight snuff-boxes. Sometimes snuff-boxes stored only a day or two’s worth of snuff and were small enough to carry in a person’s pocket. However, snuff-boxes could also be large enough to house communal portions of snuff. The boxes were created from a wide variety of materials: wood, metal — gold, silver, or brass — or ivory, and came in a wide variety of sizes. They could also be extremely plain or highly decorative, and, sometimes the box had a painting so well hidden under the lid only the owner of it knew how to access the prize inside.

Snuff Accessories included this Snuff-Box of Louis XV's Children, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Snuff-box of Louis XV’s Children. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides snuff-boxes, there were also snuff jars or snuff bottles. Jars or bottles usually held large amounts of snuff, and similar to snuff-boxes, the shapes and sizes varied. They could also be plain or highly decorative, such as the diamond encrusted snuffbox inset with the King’s portrait given by Louis XVI to Benjamin Franklin or the sold gold snuff-boxes monogrammed with an “N” and gifted by Napoleon Bonaparte to 100 of his friends, relatives, foreign dignitaries, and diplomats in 1806. Snuff-boxes could also be created from wide variety of materials, such as wood, bone, silver, horn, ivory, and even porcelain. Porcelain jars and bottles often came in a wide variety of colors and frequently sported delicate figures in relief on their sides.

1805 Snuff-Box. Courtesy of V&A.

Another popular piece of artillery was the snuff mill. For the most part, tobacco preparations used for snuffing were primarily achieved at home, and, so, snuff mills were used to grind the snuff for the users. These mills were created from ivory, bone, or wood and most were small, with the largest being about 4 inches high.

Some snuff users preferred rasps to snuff mills. The rasp supposedly derived its name from the French word râper, to grate. In this case, the tobacco, which was sometimes steeped in wine or liquor, was rolled into a carrot shape and the end scraped with the rasp as needed. Rasps were created from ivory, wood, or metal and were usually about twice as big as a mill (8 to 9 inches high). However, occasionally, they were small enough to fit into a snuff-box. They also came in a variety of shapes and could be engraved, carved, or highly ornamental.

Snuff Rasp from the Late 17th Century, Courtesy of the British Museum

Snuff Rasp from the Late 17th Century. Courtesy of the British Museum.

English snuff takers also frequently used a snuff spoon. Spoons supposedly first appeared between 1702 and 1704 and became popular because of characters in a comedic play titled An Act at Oxford. The spoons were used on the Scottish border beginning in the 1750s and described as being made of bone and small enough to fit inside a snuff-box, thereby allowing users to form a complete and tiny package that they could carry in their pockets.

No matter what snuff accessories were used, whether it was a box, jar, mill, rasp, or spoon, snuff was a popular pastime up to mid-1800s. Almost everyone enjoyed it from Queen Charlotte to ordinary people like Madame Tussaud. At that time, it began to fall out of fashion for a variety of reasons. However, during its heyday hundreds of poems honoring it were written. Here is one poem that caught my eye:

  • “Without it, Tinsel, what would be thy lot?
  • What, but to strut neglected and forgot!
  • What boots it for thee to have dipped thy hand
  • In odours wafted from Arabian land?
  • Ah! what avails thy scented solitaire,
  • Thy careless swing and pertly tripping air;
  • The crimson wash that glows upon thy face;
  • Thy modish hat, and coat that flames with lace?
  • In vain thy dress—in vain they trimmings shine,
  • If the Parisian snuff-box be not thine!”[2]

References:

  • [1] Chambers, Robert, etal., Chamber’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, Vol. 44, 1867, p. 239.
  • [2] A Peep Into My Album, 1870, p. 2.

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