Snuff and Snuff-Boxes

Man Taking Snuff in the 1800s, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Man Taking Snuff in the 1800s, Courtesy of Wikipedia

From the mid 1600s to the mid 1800s, snuff was enjoyed by all classes and was much more popular than smoking. It was particularly popular throughout the 1700s and all the rage among the elite, although it also had its critics. Among the critics were Louis XIV, who had a personal distaste for snuff and resulted in his personal physician, Monsieur Fagon, spewing “a violent oration, against the pernicious effects of the newly introduced and abominable custom.” Louis XV of France also disliked snuff and banned its use at court during his reign.

The Grand Duke of Moscow was much more severe when it came to snuff. He disliked it so much he instituted punishments for anyone bringing tobacco into his dominion with the first offense being personal chastisement and the second offense death. Additionally, when the Grand Duke discovered a Muscovite snuffing, he had his nostrils halved.

Despite critics and punishments, people continued to use snuff. In fact, its use increased so rapidly that by the time of George II, the types of snuff were infinite, and, according to one source, “new ones are daily invented so that it would be difficult, not to say impossible, to give a detail of them.” To store all the infinite varieties of snuff, the snuff-box was invented. And if there were infinite varieties of snuff, there were even more varieties of snuff-boxes.

A Group of Snuff Takers, Public Domain
A Group of Snuff Takers, Public Domain

Snuff is a pulverized form of tobacco and was created from either the tobacco leaves alone, the leaves and stalk, or just from the stalk. It also required more care to produce than tobacco. For instance, Scott and Irish snuff was achieved using a “liquoring,” process that added water.

Although the types of snuff were endless, snuff could be broken into three grades: granulated, impalpable powder, and coarse or bran that was achieved by sifting the impalpable powder. There were also several kinds: High dried (dried to acquire a slight flavor of scorching) and rappee (chiefly from the leaves and in two kinds, brown or black, with the black produced by wetting). Snuff could also be scented, which was claimed to help impart the flavor.

Different people, preferred different types of snuff. For example, Scotch snuff was preferred by females. One writer noted, “with a certain class of old maids, Scotch snuff divides their time and affections with their cats and their parrots.” Those who didn’t like snuff but indulged in it “for the mere sake of ostentation,” were claimed to love scented snuff, and men were noted to prefer rappee snuff.

The names for snuff were acquired in different ways. Sometimes the name came from places where it was manufactured. Other times the name was linked to the shop owners who sold it, or to “men of rank and fortune, persons known as great consumers of snuff, [such as] poets, painters, and warriors.”

Popular types of snuff varied and all grades were popular. One popular snuff was Madame Grandmaison’s Martinique, a snuff named for the Caribbean island where it was manufactured. It was sold in long-necked bottles, required moistening before use, and possessed a slight perfume and mild character. Penalvar, an equal mixture of impalpable powder and red earth, came from Havana and was claimed to be so pungent it created “a violent attack of sternutation,” which was a name given by Nosologists for sneezing. There was also a popular tobacco mixture that was a combination of Rapee, a dark-colored, coarse tobacco, and bitter almonds, reduced to a fine powder. To this was added ambergris, a waxlike substance from the sperm whale used in perfume manufacture, and attar-gul, which is Persian for essence of roses. It was called Violet Strasburg. Supposedly

“[It was loved by] a few dowagers, inhabiting apartments in Hampton Court Palace, who fondly cherish their recollections of the good old times, tap their gold and silver receptacles, with courtly solemnity; and, as they lift the subtle powder to their ‘right honourable noses,’ think of the days when they were Maids of Honour.”

Man Taking Snuff Using the Thumb and Finger Method, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Man Taking Snuff Using the Thumb and Finger Method, Courtesy of Wikipedia

One writer humorously described the process of snuffing saying that after drawing out the snuff-box,

“[The snuffer was to] give it three distinct taps and … apply a portion of the contents to your nose with an artificial cough, consisting of one long pectoral a-h-o-o! Gently flap off the scattered particles from your frill with the knuckle of your right hand, take out your kerchief with a theatrical swing, and having gradually folded down the extremities till it has assumed the form of a silk ball, draw it athwart the cartilage of your nose, bending it far to the right, then to the left, then to the right again — flap your frill, return your handkerchief … and by the time you have heaved another a-h-o-o, you will have been able to compose a very solemn and sententious piece of pomposity.”

The Macaroni and the Dandy were said to be even more theatrical in their use of snuff. They used a spoon to raise it to the nose. Amazingly, however, there were claims the Scottish were still more theatrical. They not only used a spoon but also a brush to remove the excess from their upper lip.

If the Macaroni, Dandy, and Scot were busy being theatrical, there were a slew of royals who were not theatrical. They used no spoon or brush. Among them were Frederick of Prussia, George IV, and George IV’s mother, Queen Charlotte. In fact, Queen Charlotte supposedly had a whole room devoted to snuff and was a “confirmed snuff-taker” at seventeen, which is one reason why she earned the nickname “snuffy Charlotte.”

Engraved Lid of a Snuff-Box, snuff and snuff boxes
Engraved Lid of a Snuff-Box, Public Domain

To supply snuffy Charlotte and the millions of other snuff takers, snuff was sold at tobacco or snuff shops in papers that were sometimes “adorned with grotesque heads” or with riddles. After purchasing the snuff, there were several ways to store or carry it. For large amounts, stone jars, “especially if glazed in the middle,” were said to be the best to keep it fresh and to store substantial amounts. When carrying snuff, a small snuff-box that a held a day or two’s worth was the ideal size and there were legions of varieties that could slip into a secret tube in an accommodating walking stick or fit inside a person’s pocket.

Small snuff-boxes also came in a variety of materials from wood to metal to stone, with the most popular shapes being either round or oval. Supposedly, the best snuff-boxes had tight-fitting lids to keep the snuff fresh. Snuff-boxes were also created from wood or papier-mâché as metal was a conductor of heat and snuff was easily ruined if left over night on a fireplace mantel.

Snuff and snuff-boxes were used by everyone, including royalty. Napoleon was said to prefer narrow oval boxes with hinged lids created from “dark tortoiseshell, lined with gold, and ornamented with cameos or antique medals, in gold or silver.” It was also customary for aristocrats and royals, to present snuff-boxes to foreign dignitaries. For example, at the coronation of George IV, 8,205l. 15s. 5d. was spent for snuff-boxes distributed to attendees. Although plain snuff-boxes were available, those distributed to aristocrats were usually engraved or highly ornamental, with cameos, mosaics, or “national, poetical, patriotic, and political” themes.

Those who took snuff often did so for more than just pleasure. Supposedly, snuff served as “a letter of introduction … [and] the foundation of many friendships.” One writer claimed of snuff that it was “always eloquent, always conversational, always convenient. In a railway carriage, or a stage-coach, with what can a conversation with a stranger be so conveniently broached?” Besides a friendly conversational tool, snuff takers, some proponents thought, were “a reflecting race” as snuffing supposedly made a person more judicious. It apparently took nothing more than a mere pinch for snuffers to “consider diverse worlds … the history of man, … the superiority of peace and quiet over war and childish dispute.”

But apparently snuff offered more than conversation or superior judiciousness. It supposedly also offered health benefits. A Dr. Cullen considered snuff “a wholesome stimulant.” Moreover, it was noted that “during the ravages of the plague in 1665, it was remarked that all smokers remained uninfected.” One writer stated snuff caused users to sneeze and sneezing promoted “mucous discharge from the nostrils, and thence it [was] … occasionally of service in headachs [sic], and complaints in the eyes.” All these reasons led one writer to sum up snuff in this way:

“As the Turk takes to his pipe, the Chinese to his opium, the drunkard to his dram, and the sailor to his quid, so [the Englishman] … to his pinch … What can be more expressive or more elegant?”

References:

  • Hill, Earle Benson, A Pinch-of Snuff, 1840
  • Sinclair, Sir John, The Code of Health and Longevity, 1844
  • Snuff and Snuff-Takers, 1846 
  • The Academy, Vol. 10, 1876 
  • The Smokers’, Chewers’ and Snuff Takers’ Companion, and Tobacconists Own Book, 1841

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