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Antique Snuff Boxes and Social Etiquette

Antique Snuff boxes are so diverse and made from a wide variety of materials, but why were they needed and how were they used?

Believed to originate from America, snuff was shipped in air-tight casks, to keep the powdered tobacco fresh in transit, some was even shipped in glass long neck bottles and the snuff was extracted using a long handled spoons made from lignum vitae.

Once at the tobacconists the snuff would then have been stored in large canisters made of lead with tight fitting lid. This was necessary to keep the snuff fresh and preserve its perfumes or flavourings.

Smaller versions of these canisters were used to store the snuff in at home.

To transfer snuff to the snuff box or the back of the hand small spoons were used. In Europe snuff spoons were used to deliver the powdered tobacco to the nose of the snuffer. That was not common in England, where snuff was usually taken by the pinch with the fingers. In fact the use of a snuff spoon for consumption was considered extremely old-fashioned in Britain described as being ‘foreign and feminine’.

Handkerchiefs were also a necessary snuff accessory used for dusting the hand and upper lip after snuffing but also used by an inexperienced person while snuffing to cover a neck-cloth and waistcoat or bodice to protect from any spillage of the grains of tobacco.

Initially, snuff-takers used white handkerchiefs, but these tended to become stained by the snuff so by the mid- eighteenth century special snuff handkerchiefs were being made. Handkerchiefs which were printed with hearts and lovebirds and were known as "flirting squares."

Antique snuff boxes were the most diverse and intriguing objects made for the use of the snuff-taker. Made from a variety of materials from gold, ivory, bone, enamel and wood. With a diverse range of shapes being round, square, oval, animal shapes, figural men, shoes, bellows, acorns, coffins, fish, books, grandfather clocks and pocket watches, to name but a few. Pull off lids or hinged.

Small or large, for the pocket or the table. These little antique snuff boxes were needed to keep the snuff airtight until use and small amounts were carried around. Some boxes were so small that they literally only carried around enough for a ‘pinch of snuff’.

Two main sizes of snuff box exist, those made for the table and those made for personal use. Table snuff boxes were made, as the name suggests, to be passed around a table, after a meal, or other gathering.

The Prince of Wales had more than one table snuff box set out on his wine table each day. Nearly every officer’s mess had a table snuff box, as did many a mess room aboard Royal Navy vessels. In Scotland, the table snuff box was referred to as a "mull," and was usuallymade of a large curly ram’s horn with silver or gold fittings.

These small, beautifully made boxes were an important part of the attire of a gentleman. Some men had one snuff box for winter, and one for summer. Others had a snuff box for day wear and another for evening. Some, like the Prince Regent, had so many snuff boxes they could carry a different snuff box every day of the year.

A special pocket was even stitched into most gentlemen’s waistcoats specifically for their snuff box. The purpose was that the box was carried close to the body to keep it warm, thus releasing the bouquet of that particular blend. There were even some gentlemen who had their snuff box fitted to the head of their cane, though this was not common.

Throughout the decade of the Regency, a snuff box was an essential item of a gentleman’s wardrobe. But by the death of George IV, in 1830, snuff was falling out a favour. Fewer men took snuff and fewer carried snuff boxes. Once the height of the jewellers’ and carvers’ art, these boxes languished unused. By the time of his death, George IV had amassed a collection of at least 700 snuff boxes. His niece, Queen Victoria, had a large portion of them converted into personal jewellery for herself!

The Regency period had been the end of the Golden Age of Snuff and the decline of the popularity of the snuff box, although they continued to be made throughout the 19th century.


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