Risqué Trinkets:   Erotic Snuff Boxes

Quite some time ago, I posted a pair of articles here on the topics of snuff and snuff boxes in the Regency. Snuff was the most common form of tobacco used during the Regency and was enjoyed by a great many people, across all classes. A wide range of snuff boxes were made for the use of all those many snuff-takers. Most of the snuff boxes made during the Regency were pretty, often very creative little trinkets, but some of those snuff boxes were very naughty indeed.

To mark St. Valentine’s Day, a review of these risqué tobacco trinkets …

Until the turn of the eighteenth century, snuff had been taken only by the elite among the English aristocracy. That changed in 1702, when a British Admiral and his fleet captured a huge shipment of snuff from a Spanish convoy off the coast of Spain. This enormous booty was brought back to England, and the great volume of snuff flooding the country finally brought down the price so that nearly anyone could afford it. To carry their snuff, these snuff-takers needed some means by which to contain this powdered tobacco in their pockets. These containers were also designed to maintain the correct level of moisture in order to keep their snuff at the peak of flavor. Early in the century, most snuff boxes were fairly simple containers made of wood, papier-mache, tortoiseshell, porcelain and metal, usually silver or gold. But as the century progressed and snuff boxes became an important part of a gentleman’s or lady’s attire, they became increasingly more decorative.

Snuff boxes made of silver or gold were often ornamented with pictorial engravings or enamels depicting a whole range of scenes, from pastoral landscapes to portraits of loved ones or public figures and even copies of famous paintings. Wooden, tortoiseshell and papier-mache snuff boxes were often decorated with similar paintings, typically painted on paper or card-stock and set under glass. In the days before there were legal protections for intellectual property, there were no prohibitions against copying paintings, engravings and other visual art. Other snuff boxes, most often those made of wood, papier-mache or porcelain, were fashioned in shapes such as hearts, shoes, hats, animals, fruits and vegetables, and even coffins.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, attitudes were changing, especially in France, where erotic art was becoming increasingly popular. Erotic art, or erotica, is distinguished from fine art, which simply featured nudes in artistic poses, by the fact that erotic art is intended to be sexually arousing. The subjects in such paintings were usually engaged in some type of sexual activity. It was not long before this art crossed the Channel to England, where it was warmly received by a small but appreciative segment of the population, mostly male. Attitudes toward erotica had not changed as much in England as they had in France, so this art could not be displayed in public where it might be viewed in mixed company, certainly not by anyone who wished to be considered at all respectable. Therefore, most collectors of erotic art usually displayed their collections in specially-built hidden or secret locked rooms in their homes, to which they allowed access only to close friends and fellow collectors.

A number of these aficionados of erotic art wanted to enjoy similar erotica outside their secret display rooms. And how better to do that than to carry it in their pockets, the images concealed within their snuff boxes, an item which was a regular part of their toilette. Each time they took a pinch of snuff in public, they could enjoy the private thrill of knowing what was hidden within that small box. In private, they could expose the secret image which was known only to them while they enjoyed a pinch of snuff. Though most erotic snuff boxes were made in such a way that the risqué images were hidden away, there were some on which the image was in full view at all times. There was also another type of snuff box, similar to those which were made into shapes, but this type of snuff box was made in the shape of human naughty bits. Such boxes might be fashioned in the shape of a woman’s breast, or were realistic scale models of either male or more often, female, genitalia. In most cases, these more graphic snuff boxes were not used in public, but were part of their owner’s collection of erotic art and were hidden away with the rest of his, or her, collection.

The largest group of erotic snuff boxes were those within which the erotic image was concealed in some way. The most common were those made of silver or gold with enamelled images. Some had the erotic image painted on the inside of the lid while others were made with a double lid so that the erotic image was concealed under a perfectly respectable image and could be revealed only by pressing a small hidden catch. Others had the erotic image concealed in the base, usually painted inside a false bottom, which, like the double lid, was generally released by a small hidden catch. Another version of the hidden lid box was made as a puzzle. The upper lid would pivot on a small pin hidden within one side of the box, and when the upper lid pivots away, the puzzle is how to open this second lid. Quite a number of these second lids were decorated with erotic images. Perhaps the erotic image on the inside lid was a means by which to distract any one attempting to open the puzzle box.

A much more rare type of erotic snuff box was made of agate, or with a lid of agate. The lids of these boxes were actually two thin layers of agate or glass. If the top layer was glass, it was painted to look like agate, while the lower layer was painted with an erotic scene. Between these two layers of stone or glass was placed a layer of wax. The wax would be opaque at room temperature, concealing the painting. But when the box was held near a source of warmth, like a fire, a candle or placed in direct sunlight, the wax would liquify and become transparent, thus revealing the secret painting in its lid. Once the temperature dropped, the painting would disappear as the wax solidified and again became opaque.

For men of wealth with a taste for art and a fondness for a mistress, it was very common for them to have a portrait of their mistress painted in a suggestive pose, either fully nude or in a state of dishabille. These were miniature portraits, to be concealed within their snuff boxes. There are at least a few such snuff boxes which actually carry a miniature of the men’s wives, rather than their mistresses. Apparently, there were several miniaturists working in London from the latter decades of the eighteenth century though the Regency who were quite willing to accept commissions for such paintings. There are suggestions that even some well-known and successful artists were also willing to paint such miniatures, either for the money or simply for the pleasure of the work. However, such prominent artists preferred not to reveal publicly this aspect of their work. Snuff boxes with erotic portraits of mistresses were also very common on the Continent. But it seems these boxes caused at least a few men some guilt. For example, in 1799, Nelson was evacuating the royal family of the Two Sicilies from Naples, to save them from the anger of their subjects. One of the male members of the royal family being evacuated was terrified of being captured and possibly executed by the angry crowd. Though he was a cardinal, he was carrying a snuff box which concealed an erotic painting of his mistress. The cardinal threw this snuff box overboard, into the sea, thinking that God would show him greater mercy for having disposed of it.

The single largest collection of erotic snuff boxes, over eight hundred, was assembled by Louis Ferdinand de Bourbon, Prince of Conti. He seems to have lived his life almost entirely in the pursuit of women, and he took trophies from all his conquests. Early in his lascivious career, he developed the habit of requiring each woman who succumbed to his amorous advances to give him her ring, probably in exchange for a more valuable one from him. He also demanded two locks of her hair, one from her head, and one from her nether regions. In addition, she was obliged to sit for an erotic portrait in miniature. Each of these portraits was mounted on the lid of a gold snuff box. The ring and the locks of hair were placed inside the box. A small card was also put inside the box. On this card were inscribed the lady’s name, her age, her description, and the exact date, time and place of his conquest of her person. The Prince displayed his small trophies in a private suite of room in his palace. He periodically invited close friends to visit his trophy display. Apparently, as the Prince grew older, quite a number of outsiders also gained access to this remarkable suite of rooms by bribing one of his footmen.

Though a sensual portrait of a man’s mistress was one of the most common erotic images to be found concealed in a snuff box, other images were also popular. Couples, usually male and female, (but not always) enjoying a tryst, sometimes in an elegant chamber, but just as often in a lush pastoral setting, were much in demand. Less common, but highly prized, were images of multiple couples engaged in a variety of wanton acts. There were a few snuff boxes in which the chase was depicted. Typically, a scene of a man pursuing a woman, with both parties fully clothed might be depicted on the outside lid of a snuff box, while the culmination of the pursuit is shown on the inner, hidden lid. Some men, and perhaps a few ladies, who collected full-size erotic paintings had miniature reproductions of those paintings made and set into their snuff boxes. Those with great wealth could afford many such snuff boxes, while a man of more limited means might be able to afford only one. Some of the best of these erotic snuff boxes also had a small musical device included so that the images could be enjoyed while listing to a pretty tune.

Of course, custom-made erotic snuff boxes were the most expensive. However, for those of limited means, in the second half of the eighteenth century, and into the Regency, China had become a source of inexpensive erotic snuff boxes and snuff bottles. Though not as finely made as some of the European boxes, they often depicted more exotic, non-traditional images. These were probably imported into England by the officers of the ships which carried on the China trade. It does not seem that such cargo was brought into the country in any volume. It may well have been a such controversial cargo that the East India Company would not carry it officially. But the officers of their ships all had space in the cargo holds to carry what they pleased, and erotic snuff boxes and snuff bottles were small, thus easy to carry. They were also easy to sell in England.

Below are links to pages with images of erotic snuff boxes. (Fair warning, if you do not wish to view these images, do not click the links):

Erotic snuff boxes were popular with a number of gentlemen, and some ladies, during the Regency. However, those who owned them had to be quite discrete and their erotic trinkets were hardly ever displayed in public. These snuff boxes could be made in a number of shapes, from a wide array of materials, featuring an impressive and uninhibited range of subject matter. Some had a musical mechanism for the entertainment of their owners, while others were puzzle boxes which might well defeat any effort to open them by anyone who did not know their secret. Some had double lids or bottoms which hid the erotic image, while others simply had the erotic image painted inside the single lid. Custom-made boxes could be quite expensive, but they could also be exquisitely lovely. Though the less expensive Chinese imports might not be quite so fine, they often included much more exotic images that those seen on European boxes. Wealthy collectors might have a significant collection of these snuff boxes, while those of lesser means might be able to afford only one.

Dear Regency Authors, might there be a place for an erotic snuff box in one of your stories? Perhaps the villain has a collection similar to that of Prince Conti, and wishes to add a box for the heroine to his collection. The hero might have one, perhaps a bequest from his father or grandfather. The rather proper heroine happens upon it and is scandalized by what she sees. What will happen then? Or, mayhap the heroine has a small collection of such boxes, which came to her upon the death of her father. She has no idea of the erotic images they conceal, but the hero knows exactly what they are when he sees them. Will that cause him to take liberties with this young lady? Are there other ways in which an erotic snuff box can serve your story?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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21 Responses to Risqué Trinkets:   Erotic Snuff Boxes

  1. You started two plot bunnies there; one which is fairly conventional, in that a rake wishes to impress the heroine, and has been succeeding, but he makes the mistake of picking up the coat with the wrong snuff box in his pocket, and reveals unwittingly the picture he has of the poor girl who left town in disgrace who was his last victim…
    the other plot bunny is a puzzle box erotic snuff box, but that’s only half the secret; anyone discovering the salacious picture inside thinks they have penetrated the secret, but in fact the picture itself is a spy’s message [or code book] as the message is scratched through paint on glass and by shining a dark lantern through the picture it is projected onto the wall.

  2. helenajust says:

    Fascinating article. It’s a little surprising that one of these boxes hasn’t already featured in a romance novel – would it be in the hands of a rake, or a villain, or would it be found hidden in the desk of someone who’d died and had always seemed ultra-respectable? Would you hide something in the box, relying on a searcher’s being distracted before he even opened it?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Though snuff boxes were nearly ubiquitous during the Regency, the erotic ones were not usually known to the wider population. Nor were they a subject about which many people would write, either in diaries or correspondence, since they wished to conceal rather than expose their taste for such subjects.

      And, sadly, during the uptight, strait-laced Victorian era, many of those snuff boxes were destroyed by later generations to hide the fact that any of their ancestors might have ever owned such things. Perhaps the most egregious example of this, IMHO, was by Queen Victoria herself. George IV was reported to have had many very fine erotic snuff boxes in the vast collection of those exquisite trinkets which he had amassed over his lifetime. Victoria ordered her uncle’s entire snuff box collection melted down for the precious metals and gems, which she then had re-made into more “respectable” jewelry for herself.

      So, I suspect that few Regency authors are aware of these naughty little boxes, since there are not a lot of them which survive. And even for some that have, their secret images may not have been discovered by later owners. And, even today, they are seldom the topic of articles on aspects of the decorative arts. I only became aware of them through extensive research into the history of snuff and its accoutrements, triggered by a conversation with a friend who had seen a small collection of them in a museum in Europe.

      I think both of your scenarios are perfectly plausible for a Regency romance. I strongly suspect that many very respectable men, even a few churchmen, might have owned an erotic snuff box which they hid from everyone, only to have it betray them by being found after their passing. Having an erotic image on the inner lid of a puzzle box might be a good way to startle someone trying to open it, either long enough that they will be caught, or maybe embarrassing them so much they put it down.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. elfahearn says:

    Loved the article and it does get the mind stirring on how to use those secret compartments in a novel. Kathryn, was snuff always snorted or was it also stuffed into the cheek? Do you know what effect it had? a little jolt of energy, or what?

    • Elf,I wonder if you are thinking of chewing tobacco, which was popular with sailors?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Snuff was finely powdered tobacco and it was always inhaled. I suspect, as Sarah has suggested, that you may be thinking of chewing tobacco. No Regency gentleman, or lady, would have used chewing tobacco, it was much too coarse. Both men and women took snuff. Both Queen Charlotte and the Princess of Wales were very fond of snuff. The Queen’s nickname was “Old Snuffy” because she used it so often. Snuff-takers did get a bit of a high or an energy boost from it.

      The only form of tobacco which was socially acceptable during the Regency was snuff. Some men might smokes pipes, or very late in the period, cigars, but never in public, or even in mixed company. It simply was not done.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • I assume Heyer had it right that some officers in the Penninsular war came back with the habit of ‘blowing a cloud’ [Hugo Darracott] with cigarillos, which I presume to be small cigars ie more akin to cigarettes in size? Tobacco was a currency on ship-board, every man had his allowance, and those who didn’t chew would trade for other things. Some captains also gave tobacco as prizes for well performed evolutions [I use this in 'William Price and the Thrush', blatant self advertising]

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Heyer did get it right, some of the men who served in the Peninsula did take up the habit of smoking cigarillos. Based on my research, they were larger and longer than modern-day cigarettes, but about half the diameter of a cigar and a bit shorter. However, most people in England, particularly women, thought the habit quite disgusting. Therefore, those who smoked, or “blew a cloud,” did not do so in polite company, and very few would smoke in their homes, since their wives and/or mothers would not tolerate it.

          There was also the problem that in order to smoke a cigarillo, one must set fire to it. But fire was not portable during the Regency, since the friction match was not invented until 1827, and was not in commercial production until the 1850s. Very few men, however much they wanted to smoke, were going to take the time to kindle a fire with a tinderbox in order to light their cigarillo. Based on the little anecdotal evidence I have seen, those men who did not drop the habit when they returned to England typically lit their cigarillo from a fire in the hearth or from a candle and then went outdoors to smoke.

          During the Regency, some coffee houses allowed both pipe and cigarillo smoking. A few gentlemen’s clubs in London set aside “smoking rooms,” but that did not happen until the very end of the Regency and into the early 1820s. By the mid-1820s, “cigar divans” were opening in London. These were clubs dedicated solely to smoking. Most had several rooms with nice furnishings and took subscriptions to numerous newspapers and gentlemen’s magazines. They offered a wide range of smoking materials and had fire readily available. Unlike gentlemen’s clubs, cigar divan members did not have to be voted in, but there was membership fee to be paid in return for using the facilities.

          The portability of fire should not be discounted in the history of smoking. Research has shown that the number of smokers rose rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century, after the introduction of the friction match. Further evidence for the importance of portable fire is the fact that the tobacco of choice for sailors was chewing tobacco. It could be enjoyed without the need for fire.

          I hope that helps to clarify.

          Regards,

          Kat

          • Thank you, one learns so much from your most learned replies as well as from the post. I was considering doing a post on the rise of the match in the hopes that it might prevent the all-too-prevalent occurrence of Regency heroines lighting a lantern with a match… my researches came up with a match as early as 1805, Chancel’s match, but it was pretty risky. This developed into the Promethean Match [I love the way early inventors used Classical allusion so appropriately]

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              Sadly, I am not sure another match post will help those who simply cannot be bothered to understand the period. I, too, posted an article on matches here some years ago. Yet I still read of the use of friction matches in Regency novels from time to time.

              I would describe those early “matches” as tiny explosives which were carried in the pocket. They were not particularly reliable, were quite dangerous and very expensive. Not the sort of thing most people would have used as a matter of course. Then again, I can see where they have potential for making mischief in a romance novel.

              =^..^=

  4. Sarah’s plot bunny is brilliant!
    How about this one:
    Lord X. dies and leaves his only child (a “natural” daughter), lovely D., nothing but a derelict estate and debts – and his priceless collection of erotic snuff boxes. The collection is obnoxious but the only thing D. can sell and make a profit from. D. is in desperate need of money, but to sell the collection she has to ask rakish, handsome Lord B. for assistance (he is a known collector and … ahm…connoisseur). He is also rather brazen and enjoys teasing D.. After some quarreling, D. and B. get along better and even start to fall in love with each other. But now an erotic snuffs box with the picture of D. painted as Venus of Milo and in the buff appears on the market. Shocking scandal! The society is buzzing with it. D. suspects B. to have launched the snuff box. She calls him a traitor and many other names. Can Lord B. get his hands on the offensive snuff box, find the real culprit who tries to ruin D., and restore D.s reputation and as well as her love for him?

    Best regard from beautiful Cremona/Italy,

    Anna

    • Oh Anna I think that’s one of your best ever! HOW did someone…. aha, I presume it’s a model in the buff with D’s head on it. Can Lord B convince her it wasn’t his doing because he’s seen the merest glimpse of a mole or birthmark that is not included in the saucy painting? And why has someone done this? has she spurned someone offering her a less than honourable liaison and this is his revenge?
      I am jealous of beautiful Cremona, here in windy Britain we are in a brief break between rainstorms. And the usual way to tell if it’s not raining in Britain right now is because it’s foggy… though at the moment we had, I admit, cold, hard sunshine with skies the colour of arctic ice and about as friendly.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Great story! Just wondering, is the portrait of D as Venus de Milo perhaps a portrait of her mother, which her father had painted after they were married and had it set in one of his snuff boxes? That would explain the resemblance. Mayhap that box was stolen from D’s father by a man who had lusted after her mother and wanted it as a memento since he could not have her. It was then inherited by the man’s son, a demented weasel who thinks to use it to destroy D because he blames her mother for the fact that his father never really loved his own mother. Since her mother is gone, his target is her daughter.

      Just my $0.02

      =^..^=

  5. Thanks for picking up the loose ends of my plot. I had the outline typed down between two visits to museums, my mind – crammed with Stradivari violins and the art of the Cinquecento – obviously unable to deal with the finer problems of the story.
    The plot looks perfect now, actually ready to use. I especially like the solution for the character wanting to destroy D.s reputation. Chapeau!

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