STUFF ABOUT SNUFF: Beginnings of Snuff and Snuff Boxes

5 snuff boxes, silver, partly with inner gilding, varying forms and sizes, diverse master’s marks, diverse hallmarks, second half of the 18th century - photo by Dorotheum

Snuff refers to any powder that is prepared for sniffing but is more commonly associated with tobacco. Indigenous peoples in Brazil were known to have created snuff. They would grind the tobacco into powder in a rosewood mortar, giving the powder a pleasant woody aroma. The resulting powder would then be kept in airtight bottles.

An extremely rare Charles II boxwood and horn lidded snuff box, named, and dated 1661 – photo by Bonhams

The act of sniffing tobacco powder was first witnessed by Ramon Pane, a friar who accompanied Columbus in his expedition around 1493. Upon returning to Europe, Columbus and his men brought tobacco with them together with pipe smoking and snuffing. Friar Ramon Pane’s demonstration was met with a mixed reception, but it did not stop the spread of tobacco use, either by smoking or snuffing, across the continent. Tobacco products became widespread in 16th century Europe, with snuff being the preferred product of the aristocracy and royalty. Charles II brought snuffing with him upon his return to England from his exile.

Snuffing was considered the more refined of the two methods and was quite favourable among members of the court. Royalty indulged in this habit passionately and often carried special snuff paraphernalia as well as building rooms dedicated to storing them.

18th-Century English Agate Snuff Box – photo by MS Rau Antiques

Snuffing became popular with the common man by the 17th century which led to the rise of snuff mills all over England, especially in cities such as Manchester, Sheffield, and London. Snuff production grew vastly in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was more popular than smoking or chewing tobacco. Aside from being the preferred means by nobility and royalty, doctors recommending it as a cure-all may have also been an impact on its popularity. Snuff was seen as an effective treatment for headaches, cough, and colds. With the growing demand, retail shops that specialise in dealing snuff and paraphernalia popped up all over as well.

Artisans began crafting beautiful containers for which to store snuff. Snuff boxes were made to keep the precious powder dry in between uses. Artisans used a variety of materials in creating these boxes. Fine metals such as silver and gold were often used, as well as horns (which was very common), tortoiseshell, porcelain and ivory. Though rare, some snuff box artisans also made use of precious stones such as agate, lapis lazuli, bloodstone and jade. They often come as rectangular boxes, but one can find them in other shapes like ovals and shells.

Jewelled French snuff box bearing the charge and discharge marks of Julien Alaterre by Pierre-Andre Barbier, 1773 – photo by Antique Snuff Box

Snuff boxes were decorated with engravings or hand-painted with miniature portraits and wonderful scenery and landscapes. They could be enamelled or inset with mother-of-pearl. One could determine the status of the owner based on the ornamentation on their snuff box. The wealthy could have cameos of themselves, family crests, lodge devices, heraldic, masonic or guild symbols engraved, painted, or carved onto their snuff boxes. Tabatieres, which are boxes produced in France, were made using more gold over silver and were encrusted with precious gems like sapphires, rubies, amethysts, emeralds, pearls, and diamonds.

Sheffield was the primary source of silver snuff boxes in the late 18th century as silver plating technologies were perfected there. By the early 19th century, Birmingham developed a thriving silver industry. Snuff boxes of the time featured abbeys, monuments, and castles on the lids as well as their sides. Birmingham’s silver industry allowed the rise of craftsmen like Nathaniel Mills and Samuel Pemberton. Aside from their silver snuff boxes, Birmingham was also known to create them out of papier-mâché layered with enamel to make them sturdier. Birmingham also produced snuff boxes featuring US naval heroes and scenes of victory from War of 1812, which were sold in the United States.

Chinese Cloisonne Snuff Bottle, possibly Qianlong – photo by LiveAuctioneers

In Asia, the Chinese made use of snuff bottles to store the snuff, which they also perceived as medicinal. These bottles were made from porcelain, glass, or jade and resembled flattened discs. The carved glass bottles were painted from the inside with the use of tiny right-angled brushes instead of pointed ones. Some artists preferred the cloisonné method of decorative application, using copper and gold with the enamelling.

The snuff box was a highly customised, major personal possession in the 18th and 19th centuries. It represented one’s personal status and taste and was more generally owned compared to a timepiece (one often carries around two to three boxes on their person). It was often given as a present for very important occasions and was seen in the same light as jewellery and other family heirlooms.

Types of Snuff Boxes

Snuff boxes come in two sizes: small boxes to be carried in one’s pocket and large boxes for use by a group or storage. Small boxes are sometimes referred to as pocket boxes as they are small enough to fit in one’s pocket. They are portable and can store enough snuff for about one to two days’ use. Larger boxes are kept at home and could contain several days’ worth of the powder. They could also be brought out when entertaining guests. These come in a variety of shapes, and the ones made from porcelain often resembled trunks or large shells.

Snuff Mull

Antique Scottish snuff mull – photo by Ruby Lane

Snuff mulls originated in early 19th century Scotland. These are easily recognisable as they are fashioned out of horn and has a metal lid. The lids are often flat and airtight. The name is probably a reference to the hand mills that were once used to grind snuff. Another theory is that the insides of the horn had ridges by which the owner could grind a twist of tobacco (carotte) or further mill the snuff to make them finer. The exact etymology of the term may be unclear, but it is inarguable that the appearance of a snuff mull is where its value lies. Snuff mulls come in fascinating shapes, may feature intricate carvings or engravings, and have decorative hinges or silver lids fitted with gemstones. As with other types of snuff boxes, they may also feature a coat of arms or other symbols that indicate its owner or their status. They come in varying sizes, from tiny personal pieces that could fit in one’s pocket to large ones meant to be placed on a table. The large ones may even be attached to an animal head, like that of a ram’s to serve as a focal point.

Castle Top Snuff Boxes

A William IV Silver Castle-Top Snuff Box Mark of Nathaniel Mills, Birmingham, 1834 – photo by Christie’s | Lot 164

These snuff boxes feature images of landmarks, manor houses, churches and abbeys, and of course, castles. These are the most sought-after type of snuff boxes. Most of them are manufactured by Birmingham who either engraved or die-stamped the featured images. Castle top silver products were very much in vogue from 1830 to 1860, a short period of popularity that makes them highly coveted collectables.

Silver Gilt Snuff Boxes

Silver by itself is susceptible to corrosion when it comes in contact with certain types of substances. Tobacco is one of them. To prevent snuff from corroding the insides of a silver box, smiths and artisans often coat the silver with gold. There are pieces under this category that are gilded not only on the inside but on the outside as well. These gilded boxes are in demand by collectors and are priced accordingly.

Hardstone Mounted Snuff Boxes

A George II Gold-Mounted Hardstone Snuff Box – photo by Christie’s | Lot 3

The mid-18th century saw the pinnacle of hardstone mounted snuff boxes. It was during this time when artisans used gold instead of silver to mount precious stones like lapis lazuli. Agate was also quite a common stone used in these types of boxes. While the more sought after of this type are the ones that use gold, one could also find hardstone mounted silver snuff boxes.

Table Snuff Boxes

These are large snuff boxes meant to be placed on a table and used communally. They could be made of silver or porcelain and are often heavily ornamented as one could bring it out when entertaining guests. They are also a preferred presentation gift (i.e., City Guild) and may contain an engraving indicating the giver as well as the recipient. Such engravings may increase the value of the piece.

Novelty Snuff Boxes

A George III Irish silver-mounted cowrie shell snuff box, by Aeneas Ryan, Dublin, 1807, stamped with maker’s mark only – photo by Lot-Art | Lot 10

These are snuff boxes that come in a variety of shapes and materials. Examples of these are a cowrie shell snuff box, a silver rabbit snuff mull, a Masonic snuff box, to name a few. They could have heraldic symbols or intricately carved to resemble a miniature statue. When it comes to snuff boxes, the more unusual, the better.

That’s the Snuff: Collecting Snuff Boxes

Snuff boxes are considered very personal items. Like jewellery, they can be passed down as heirlooms. The materials used to craft these particular collectables make them valuable pieces. Add in the level of craftsmanship, a well-known place of origin or craftsman, the type and quality of ornamentation, and you’ve got yourself a highly coveted antique with a price that might cost an arm or a leg. Antique snuff boxes can cost from around $300 up to several thousand, depending on the quality, condition, and authenticity.

These days, there are ways in which an item can be made to pass as authentic even though it was probably mass-produced a couple of weeks ago. To avoid paying a fortune for a piece that shouldn’t cost as much, one should always purchase from trusted dealers. These dealers may be affiliated to legitimate associations such as LAPADA (The Association of Art & Antiques Dealers) and CINOA (International Confederation of Arts &Antique Dealers Association) – both of which are based in the United Kingdom – or ADA (Antique Dealers’ Association of America). These associations may be contacted for information regarding one’s snuff box. Some dealers like Mark Littler offer appraisals as well.