Snuff is another commodity to which I was introduced by the historical novels of Georgette Heyer. On first reading, it was not clear to me from the context of the story just what snuff was. Once again, I had resort to the nearest dictionary, where I discovered it was a form of tobacco. It was not until many years later that I learned snuff had a long and storied history and that it is still used by many people, even today.
For more than a century, snuff was the luxury tobacco of choice for noblemen, and women, across Europe. Yet by the death of George IV, an avid snuff-taker, this powdered form of tobacco was falling out of favor. Within twenty years of his passing, snuff consumption had dwindled to a trickle and had lost its fashionable status among the elite. The Regency was the end of what might be called the "Golden Age of Snuff."
Tobacco was discovered by Christopher Columbus and his crews in the New World. There they found the native inhabitants using this "Soverane Herbe" in diverse ways. They smoked it, chewed it, and sniffed it, depending on the requirements of the particular ceremony in which they were engaged. Though Columbus brought word of this plant back to Europe, tobacco did not immediately become popular there.
Snuff first achieved real notice in Europe circa 1559, when the French diplomat, Jean Nicot, while serving at the Portuguese court in Lisbon, sent the powdered tobacco back to France. He recommended it to Queen Catherine de’ Medici as a cure for the chronic migraines suffered by her son, King François II. It is said Catherine herself became addicted to this form of tobacco.
Queen Catherine’s influence did not extend to England, and tobacco in any form was slow to be adopted there. Pipe smoking was the usual method of tobacco consumption among the English by the end of the sixteenth century. Some sources claim Sir Walter Raleigh was the person who introduced tobacco in England in the early seventeenth century. However, more scholarly studies show that he did not introduce it, though he was partially responsible for popularizing it, as he was one of the first people of note to smoke a pipe in public. It took another century for snuff-taking to become widespread in the British Isles.
Charles II and his court brought the practice of snuff-taking back to England from France when he regained the English throne in 1660. However, it remained a habit only among his courtiers. During the Great Plague of London, from 1665 to 1666, it was seen that those who smoked, took snuff or worked in the tobacco industry were less likely to contract the disease. This had the effect of adding to the popular perception that tobacco was a "health product." Smoking remained the most popular form of tobacco consumption in Great Britain, even when
William and Mary came to the English throne in 1689. Both were fond of snuff and the habit spread rapidly through the aristocracy. Yet through the end of the century, snuff-taking remained primarily popular among the nobility. This was because snuff was not widely available in England, it had to be prepared by hand and it was still very expensive.
But in 1702, during the reign of Queen Anne, that all changed. In that year, during the War of the Spanish Succession, the allied fleet, under the command of Admiral Sir George Rooke, which was unsuccessful in its expedition against Cadiz, decided to attack the Spanish fleet in the Port of St. Mary. Part of the booty they took from those ships were thousands of casks of Spanish snuff. Some days later they struck Vigo Bay, where a number of heavily-laden Spanish ships had just arrived from Havana. Again, part of Rooke’s plunder included at least 50,000 pounds of premium snuff. When they returned home, this high-quality prepared snuff was sold at very reasonable prices in several English seaports. The proceeds were part of the prize money which was divided among the officers and sailors of the fleet.
This so-called Vigo Snuff or Vigo Prize Snuff was the first time that prepared snuff had been available in England in large quantities. Prior to this time, most English snuff-takers had to prepare their own tobacco powder, which was a rather labor-intensive and time-consuming process. Snuff-takers would purchase the same tobacco as that used by smokers. Tobacco spinners produced strands of tobacco leaves tightly twisted into a strand resembling a rope about the thickness of a human thumb that were then allowed to dry. These carottes, called so using the French term due to their shape being similar to that of the orange vegetable, were purchased by the snuff-taker. He, or she, would then rub the end of one of these carottes against a snuff rasp, which resembled a nutmeg grater. A photo of a snuff rasp can be seen at the ASCAS page for nutmeg graters.
Snuff rasps in lengths of over eight inches were typically used at home to grind the day’s snuff supply before venturing forth. Pocket rasps tended to be between four to seven inches long and one and a half to two inches wide. In most cases, one side of the rasp was flat and roughened with small holes in it for the grated tobacco to fall through. Below this the other side of the rasp was solid and concave. It was in this space that the snuff was collected. Some rasps had two apertures, one at each end of the cavity which collected the snuff. There was a small one at one of the long ends into which just a pinch of freshly grated snuff could pass. At the other end was a wider aperture which could be used to fill a snuff-box with the powdered tobacco. (More about snuff-boxes next week). There were very few rasps made in England, as most of the aristocratic snuff-takers preferred the more elegantly ornamented Continental rasps. Some of these rasps were made of precious metals, others are known in carved ivory, bone and fine woods. All had great artistic merit in their decoration and embellishment. The cavity in the rasp might be deep enough to store the carotte when it was not in use. The finer rasps might have special appendages attached by gold or silver chains, which typically included a small pin for releasing snuff caught in the grater, a tiny rake used to separate the rough snuff from the smoother powder, a small spoon for filling the snuff-box if the rasp did not have an aperture for the purpose, and in some cases a hare’s foot was attached for brushing snuff from the taker’s hand or upper lip.
Beau Nash, after he became Master of Ceremonies in Bath in 1705, did even more than the arrival of the Vigo Prize haul to ensure the popularity of snuff. Nash banned smoking in the all the public rooms of the city. The residents of Bath bowed to this dictum, as did London society, which had come to look to Bath in fashionable matters. For the nobility, the gentry, and those who aspired to their ranks, snuff became the tobacco of choice. Smoking was once again relegated to the lower classes and the lesser sort of coffee houses and inns.
The elegant age of snuff had arrived in all its splendour in England and to take snuff became an essential part of gallantry. It was said that a gentleman who did not take snuff was a contradiction in terms. It was an indispensible element of etiquette for a gentleman to offer his snuff to any of his acquaintance he might encounter, and a man was judged by the condition and quality of the snuff he offered. And great ritual and ceremony surrounded this exchange of snuff. In fact, there were teachers who specialized in the etiquette of the correct use of the snuff-box and the precise dictates for offering snuff to a stranger, a friend or a mistress, based on their degree of familiarity. A number of books were published on this subject. An anonymous pamphlet published in France, circa 1750, outlined the correct steps of the ritual for offering snuff in company:
- Take the snuff-box with the left hand
- Grasp the snuff-box in the left hand
- Tap the snuff-box
- Open the snuff-box
- Offer the opened snuff-box to the company
- Retrieve the snuff-box
- Keep the snuff-box open
- Consolidate the snuff by tapping on the side of the box
- Deftly gather a pinch of snuff with the right hand
- Hold the snuff a moment between the thumb and finger before advancing to the nose
- Bring the snuff to the nose
- Inhale the snuff with both nostrils without grimacing
- One may then sneeze, cough and spit
- Close the snuff-box
Every gentleman worthy of the name was a connoisseur of the various mixtures of snuff. Famous snuff-takers in the years prior to and during the Regency included Queen Charlotte, William Pitt, Beau Brummell, Viscount Petersham, the Duke of Wellington, Admiral Lord Nelson, the Duke of York, Princess Caroline and Napoleon Bonaparte. Perhaps the most inveterate snuff-taker of the Regency was the "First Gentleman of Europe," the Prince Regent himself. An enthusiastic snuffer, one blend of snuff was not enough for him, he had blends for the morning, the afternoon and the evening. A room was dedicated in each of his palaces to the storage of his snuff jars, each with an attendant page whose sole responsibility was the care of the snuff supply. One of his favorite snuff blends was rappee, a dark, coarse snuff, flavored with Attar of Roses. That blend was given the name the "Prince’s Mixture" during the Regency, and is still sold under that name to this day. The Prince bought his snuff from the same suppliers as did Beau Brummell and the Duke of Wellington, Fribourg and Treyer, who maintained premises at the upper end of Haymarket, until it was closed in the early 1980s. Imperial Tobacco, which had purchased the shop a few years previous, chose not to renew the lease after more than 250 years in the same location and closed the shop completely. Their snuff recipes were sold to another snuff maker, much to the relief of modern-day English snuff-takers.
Snuffs were blended of various types of tobaccos and essential oils to create a wide range of mixtures. The blending of snuff was part science, part art, and was a very complicated and intricate process. Many gentleman preferred to participate personally in the blending of their particular mixture to ensure it met their requirements, since their reputations were in part judged by the quality of their blend. These special blends were called "sorts" and usually carried the name of the man, or woman, who perfected them. For example, one might order "Brummell’s sort" from Fribourg and Treyer, if one liked the Beau’s blend. Various rich wines or essential oils which could be used to perfume or flavor snuff included brandy, bourbon and bordeaux, orange, bergamot, lemon, rose, jasmine, lily of the valley, violet, musk, civet, and cedar. After the tobacco carottes were soaked in water treated with various salts, they were steeped in the oils or wines for a few days to a few weeks depending on the desired level of flavor. They were allowed to dry and were then ground into a coarse or fine powder, depending on the type of snuff wanted. These variously flavored and perfumed snuff powders could then be blended to create the literally hundreds of distinctive snuff blends favored by Regency gentlemen and some ladies. To peruse a near-contemporary list of the various mixtures of snuff which were available during the years just after the Regency, take a look at pages 27 through 29 of Ten Minutes Advice in Choosing Cigars. Published in London in 1833, this book also contains a section on snuff in the years just after the death of George IV. These snuffs would have been available from snuff sellers during the decade of the Regency. This entire book had been digitized and can be read online at Google Books.
By the time of the Regency, rasps were essentially a thing of the past and most snuff was ground in large grinding mills, some powered by horse, some by water or even steam power. A few very old-fashioned gentlemen might still carry a pocket rasp to grate their own snuff. Some did so to ensure the purity of their snuff. The more unscrupulous merchants might add other, cheaper ingredients to stretch their snuff. A number of tobacconists kept an oversized rasp in their shops, primarily as a gesture to tradition. These rasps had a wood frame with an iron grater surface and were typically at least a foot long, usually tapering in width from six to four inches. Though these large old-fashioned rasps were seldom used for the actual preparation of snuff by the decade of the Regency, some snuff shops did keep a small hand-powered mill, which looked a bit like a coffee mill, to grind or re-grind small amounts for special customers. Typically, most customers purchased snuff frequently, in small amounts, to ensure their supply was fresh. It is estimated that most gentlemen would consume, on average, slightly less than a half ounce of snuff per day. Fribourg and Treyer’s records show that Beau Brummell used considerably less, while the Prince Regent used considerably more.
Despite the instruction to sneeze after taking snuff in the French pamphlet of 1750, quoted above, by the time of the Regency, only a very gauche snuff-taker would sneeze when taking snuff. This was usually caused by an inexperienced snuffer fully inhaling the powdered tobacco too deeply and pulling it in to their nasal passages. An experienced snuffer would inhale lightly, drawing the aroma of the tobacco and any flavoring into their nostrils, not the snuff powder itself. However, regardless of the snuff-taker’s level of expertise, a handkerchief was de rigueur. Special snuff handkerchiefs were sold by the larger tobacconists. It is recorded that the snuff purveyors Fribourg and Treyer sold snuff handkerchiefs at 28 shillings per dozen in 1798. In one record it was noted that these handkerchiefs might be used to protect the neck-cloth prior to snuffing in addition to being used to dust the hand, fingers and upper lip after taking snuff.
For most of the eighteenth century and through the years of the Regency, the taking and sharing of snuff was an integral part of the life of a dandy, as well as many gentlemen and some ladies of the beau monde. Yet by the end of the Regency, both dandyism and the rituals of snuff-taking were bordering on the ridiculous and ridicule can be deadly. An example of this kind of ridicule can be found in a brief item from The London Journal, c. 1830:
A provincial paper says, that a gentleman in Devonshire has invented what he calls a snuff-pistol; it has two barrels, and being applied to the nose, upon touching a spring under them with the fore-finger, both nostrils are instantly filled, and a sufficient quantity driven up the head to last the whole day.
Thus, snuff’s once fashionable cachet was slowly snuffed out and its once stylish rituals became a practice relegated to the aged and the antiquated. Snuff continued to be used by those in some trades, such as wood-workers, where smoking would have been dangerous. But no self-respecting Victorian gentleman of fashion would ever be seen taking snuff.
Another factor in the demise of snuff-taking was the rise of the cigar and the advent of cigar divans. Cigar divans were rather like the smoking bars of today. They were elegantly appointed, comfortable places where men could go to smoke, drink coffee, a beverage believed to enhance the flavor of a cigar and socialize. As I noted in my article on matches during the Regency, the safety match did not yet exist, so smoking was not conveniently portable as there was no easy way to ignite smoking materials on the move. The cigar divans kept a ready supply of Chinese Jostics, which were considered the very best way to light a cigar. The divans also had the proper facilities to store cigars so that they were in optimal condition when smoked. The first cigar divan was established in London in 1825. (By contrast, White’s was the first gentlemen’s club to allow smoking, but not until 1845). Women, who typically found cigar smoke distasteful, were perfectly happy to have their husbands take themselves off to the cigar divan and keep their smoke out of the family home. Bachelors with spartan living conditions found the accommodations of the divans an inexpensive means by which to enjoy more up-scale domestic comforts.
By the time Princess Victoria had become queen, snuff taking had fallen out of favor among the aristocracy and gentry of England. There were still a small minority who refused to give up their snuff, but the years of the Regency marked the end of England’s Golden Age of Snuff.
Next week I will write about the various forms of snuff containers and accoutrements, including those intriguingly intricate wonders of the jewellers’ and carvers’ art, snuff boxes.
For more reading on the history of snuff:
Bourne, Ursula, Snuff. Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications, Ltd., 1990.
Libert, Lutz, Tobacco, Snuff Boxes and Pipes. London: Orbis, 1984
Shepherd, C. W., Snuff: Yesterday and Today. London: G. Smith & Sons, 1963.
Pinto, Edward H., Wooden Bygones of Smoking and Snuff Taking. London: Hutchinson & Company, Publishers, 1961.
McCausland, Hugh, Snuff and Snuff-Boxes. London: The Batchworth Press, 1951.
Curtis, Mattoon M., The Story of Snuff and Snuff Boxes. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1935.