Tobacco has had a significant impact on the popular culture and social etiquette of many societies around the world. While a slightly less popular indulgence today, its influence can undeniably be felt in the exquisite art and unique objects it inspired. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is the snuff box.
The snuff box inspired some of the greatest craftsmen and became a symbol of class and social grace. It often featured precious stones on its hinged lid, intricate metalwork and elaborate enamel techniques and work. Some even boasted elements for entertainment, such as musical parts or erotic scenes. Varying in style, these treasured boxes were often customized to flaunt the personality of the owner.
Exhibiting rich history, meticulous artistry and craftsmanship, and universal functionality, snuff boxes are unique and highly desirable collector’s items. In 2011, a Meissen gold-mounted royal snuff box made for King Augustus III of Poland sold for a record-breaking $1.3 million.
Read on to learn more about the history, significance and art of the snuff box.
A History of Snuff in Europe
The tobacco leaf, a luxury crop of the Americas, quickly enraptured the senses of the European elite and, eventually, the rest of the world. While it is hard to pinpoint the exact time of its introduction to Europe, its reception by royalty can almost certainly be credited to the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortez. In 1518, Juan de Grijalva, a relative of Diego Velasquez and one of the first conquistadors to explore the coast of Mexico, met with the ruler of the Tobasco natives and noticed them ceremoniously smoking a fragrant plant. Intrigued, he brought it to the attention of Cortez, who, in turn, sent a specimen to King Charles IV of Spain.
The spread and popular use of tobacco, especially in snuff form, began primarily as a medical endeavor rather than a recreational one. Jean Nicot, a French scholar and ambassador to Portugal, touted tobacco as a panacea, or cure for all maladies. (Linnaeus later even named the plant Nicotiana in recognition of his pursuits). In 1561 he brought it to Catherine de Medici, prescribing it as an errhine, or remedy taken up the nose, to cure her consistent headaches. She was so impressed with its effects that she promptly designated it Herba Regina, or queen herb, and continued to use it for the rest of her life. She is credited with snuff’s increased popularity among the nobility in France.
As prevention seemed better than treatment, snuff quickly became a recreational indulgence. By 1620, it flourished, particularly among the courts of nobility. It became so popular that in 1642 Pope Urban VII threatened to excommunicate snuff takers in his papal bull, Cum Ecclesiae. Snuff usage purportedly disrupted mass, with priests often conveniently keeping their personal snuff boxes on the altar.
Despite this, snuff remained popular. Queen Anne of Great Britain thoroughly enjoyed snuff and everyone on her court would carry around decorated snuff boxes of porcelain, agate, ebony and tortoiseshell; some would even store snuff in the heads of their unique walking canes, an indispensable accessory at the time. By Queen Charlotte’s reign, the act of snuff taking had developed into a shared pastime. People would gather to partake in snuff together, sharing different blends of ground tobacco and showing off their intricate decorative boxes. As snuff boxes became more ornate, they also became popular gifts.
The Art of Snuff Boxes
Snuff boxes were commonly made for personal use and were usually small enough to fit snugly inside a pocket. These would hold and preserve a day’s worth of snuff powder (for the average consumer). However, larger boxes were also produced to sit atop tables and store larger quantities of snuff for parties and other social events.
Snuff-taking was a popular habit for all classes; and, accordingly, the materials used to craft snuff boxes varied widely. Boxes for the lower classes were typically made from more ordinary materials such as papier-mâché, tin, wood and even potato pulp. For the upper classes, there was no limit to the artistry involved, and only the finest materials were used. Silver, gold, porcelain, carved stone, tortoiseshell and ivory were popular choices, sometimes even further decorated with intricate engravings, gilding, enamel work, inlaid jewels, tiny portraits, and/or micromosaics.
The subject matter of the art on snuff boxes varied as widely as the materials used to craft them. Boxes were adorned with ornate patterns, familiar and exotic landscapes, vignettes, portraits and occasionally erotica (learn more about erotica history and its role in other antiques). Some snuff boxes were even fashioned into elaborate shapes, most commonly animals.
As snuff boxes were coveted luxury objects, the more complex they were, the better. Some featured mechanical parts such as attached watches or music boxes. An exquisite example of this can be seen in the video below. This Swiss silver-gilt snuff box with neoclassical engravings was crafted by François Nicole, and with the turn of its key, the hidden mechanism inside plays a lovely tune. The musical movement plays two airs with a fine single piece comb of 61 teeth.
The most valuable snuff boxes often possess royal provenance and are masterfully made from precious materials. However, all snuff boxes are wonderfully tactile and magnificent in their uniqueness. No two are quite alike, and their variety and continued usability make for a collector’s item that is certainly nothing to snuff at.