Regency Snuff Stuff

Last week I wrote about snuff, the luxury tobacco of Regency England. Like tobacco products today, there were a number of specialty articles created for the use of all those stylish snuff-takers. Snuff had to be transported and stored correctly in order to maintain its correct moisture level and flavor. The use of snuff required special personal articles to convey the powdered tobacco and tidy up after its use.

Elegant accoutrements were essential for the dashing dandy to maintain his fashionable image while offering snuff to his friends or taking it himself. Justin Alistair, Duke of Avon, certainly had a most graceful manner when offering or taking snuff, which was completely in keeping with the time in which These Old Shades was set. And, of course, his snuff box was an exquisite complement both to his wardrobe and to his elegant snuff-taking style. More than fifty years later, during the English Regency, little had changed. The snuff-box was still a crucial article of a gentleman’s attire.

Let us begin at the beginning, with the containers in which the prepared powdered tobacco was packed for transport. Snuff was shipped from its point of manufacture in air-tight casks, essentially small barrels which kept the powdered tobacco fresh in transit. However some of the very finest and most expensive snuff, like Martinique or Macouba, was shipped in glass bottles. These bottles were long-necked and looked rather like wine bottles. They were protected by an outer layer of basket-work during shipping. Special long-handled scoops or spoons were needed to extract this snuff from its bottles. These scoops were typically made of lingnum vitae a very strong, hard wood with a smooth grain.

Once the casks or bottles of snuff arrived at the tobacconists or snuff-purveyors, the snuff would be transferred to large canisters or pottery jars for storage on the many shelves in the back rooms of the shops. The canisters were made of lead, with very tight-fitting lids. The pottery jars were glazed both inside and out and also had tight fitting lids. Some snuff shops might also store their snuff supply in large glass jars, square in shape, again with tight-fitting lids. This air-tight storage was necessary to keep the snuff fresh and to preserve its perfumes or flavorings. Those who bought their snuff in bulk, like the Prince Regent or Lord Petersham used the same type of storage vessels to protect their large snuff supplies. Most gentlemen typically purchased enough snuff to last them a few weeks, in most cases a quarter to a half-pound. A smaller version of the lead canister or pottery jar was used to transport this purchase and to store their personal snuff supply at home. It was not uncommon for a gentleman’s valet to take his employer’s personal snuff jar or canister to the snuff shop for a refill.

I wrote about snuff rasps last week, as they are were initially such an intrinsic part of the snuff experience. Some rasps had a set of small tools attached to them by fine chains which were used for handling the newly made snuff. Those who had a rasp without these attached implements might then own a snuff chatelaine, a separate device to which all of these tools were attached by fine chains. The implements attached to a snuff chatelaine were typically a small pointed shaft to poke the snuff out of the holes in the rasp, a small mallet to tap against the rasp to dislodge any particles inside, a small spoon to transfer snuff to the snuff-box or the back of the hand, a diminutive rake to remove large bits from the fine powder and a hare’s foot, to dust the upper lip after snuffing. It should be noted here that 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. The use of a snuff spoon for consumption was considered foreign, feminine and extremely old-fashioned in Britain. No self-respecting Regency gentleman would be caught dead using a snuff spoon to take snuff.

Handkerchiefs were also a necessary snuff accessory. Initially, snuff-takers used regular, white handkerchiefs, but these tended to become stained by the snuff. By the mid- eighteenth century special snuff handkerchiefs were being made. These more practical handkerchiefs were typically larger than the standard handkerchiefs of the time. Most were between eighteen to twenty-four inches square, with a patterned design on a colored background. Landscapes, contemporary public events, fashionable scenes, club insignias and the lyrics to popular ballads were common designs. Background colors until the end of the eighteenth century were either black, brown, red or yellow as those were the only colors which were colorfast until about 1800. A few years later both blues and greens were permanent, expanding the available color range. Handkerchiefs which were printed with hearts and lovebirds or other amatory motifs were known as "flirting squares." Lace edging was seldom added to these specialty handkerchiefs. Most were made of linen, though by the Regency years they might also be made of cotton. In addition to their use for dusting the hand and upper lip after snuffing, these handkerchiefs could also used by an inexperienced person while snuffing to cover a neck-cloth and waistcoat or bodice to protect it from stray grains of tobacco.

Of course, the most diverse, charming and intriguing of the objects made for the use of the snuff-taker are snuff boxes. These objets de luxe were made of many materials, including gold, silver, precious and semi-precious stones, fine woods, shell, bone, horn, ivory, papier mâché, tortoiseshell, enamel, mother-of-pearl, porcelain, lacquer, nutshells and even potato skins. The might be square, round, rectangular, oval, or a plethora of fantasy shapes. They might have one compartment or two, with hinged lids or those that could be pulled off, they might be very small, or quite large. They might be heavily encrusted with diamonds and other gem stones, or they might have only very simple decoration. And almost as soon as they began to be made, they were collectors’ items and popular gifts.

As precious, valuable objects, snuff boxes quickly became the de rigueur gift for heads of state to present to diplomats, courtiers and others they wished to honor. They fit the purpose much better than a piece of furniture, a tapestry or a painting, which might suggest a man did not have the taste to furnish his own home and thus be an insult. Since virtually everyone took snuff, there was no need to inquire if this was a gift the recipient could use. A snuff box was beautiful, portable and a man could have more than one. And there was the added advantage that they could be easily sold if a man needed a quick infusion of cash. Horace Walpole wrote that when William Pitt resigned from office, it fairly rained snuff boxes upon him. The Duke of Wellington was presented with a snuff box by each of the allied heads of state after Waterloo. At the Congress of Vienna, the chief English delegate, Lord Castlereagh, received more than two dozen snuff boxes from those wishing to curry favor with the British. On the occasion of his coronation, George IV ordered snuff boxes worth more than £8,000 from Rundell & Bridge as gifts for the diplomats in attendance.

Essentially there are two sizes of snuff box, 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 gatherings, particularly of gentleman. 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 more often than not was made of a large curly ram’s horn with silver or gold fittings. One of the most stunning table snuff boxed I have seen, made for the officer’s mess of the 96th Regiment was a silver model of a field mess tent, complete with guards around the tent. The top of the tent was hinged to open and reveal the snuff inside. Another table snuff box for another officer’s mess was made of one of the hooves of the cavalry horse, Midnight. It had a silver engraved lid and silver mountings, hollowed out to hold the snuff.

Personal snuff boxes are those with which most of us are familiar, through the novels of Georgette Heyer and other Regency authors. These small, elegant 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 stitched into most gentlemen’s waistcoats specifically for their snuff box. It was important that the box be carried close to the body to keep it warm, thus releasing the bouquet of that particular blend. It was also important that regardless of how beautifully decorated these boxes might be, they must also be airtight, in order to maintain the freshness of the snuff within. There were even some gentlemen who had their snuff box fitted to the head of their cane, though this was not common.

Fantasies were snuff boxes made in realistic shapes. There were snuff boxes in the shapes of shoes or boots, sedan chairs, animals, books, fruits and vegetables, coaches, baskets, ships, heads of well-known figures and even Napoleon’s hat. There were souvenir boxes made of timbers from Victory’s deck, the table upon which Wellington wrote his Waterloo dispatch, a tree which stood in front of Shakespeare’s home, Mrs. Siddon’s desk, even from Casanova’s footstool. Both fantasy and souvenir boxes tended to be kept in snuff-box collections, they were not frequently used.

Another type of snuff box which was more likely to find a home in a collection than in a snuff-taker’s pocket were those which also contained a watch movement or musical mechanism. Often, these snuff boxes had two compartments, one for snuff and one for the mechanical device. Other snuff boxes included an automata, singing birds were among the most common. These were typically activated by pressing a tiny hidden spring, which would bring the bird to life. Most include a musical mechanism so that after the bird pops up and flaps its wings, it would then begin to chirp various bird’s song. It is known the Prince of Wales bought such a box, for which he paid £500.

Snuff boxes were sometimes made with secret compartments, usually under the main compartment which held the snuff. Some were opened by pressing a hidden catch, in others, the bottom of the box would pivot to one side to reveal the hidden compartment. These secret cavities were not large, but would have enough space for a small folded paper. It is speculated that many of these boxes were used to pass notes between lovers or for other clandestine communication.

Miniature portraits on porcelain or ivory were a common feature on the lids of many snuff boxes. If they had been a presentation box from a head of state they would bear that person’s portrait, often surrounded by diamonds or other gems. A gentleman might carry snuff box with the portrait of his mistress or even his wife. But some of these portrait boxes also hid a secret. The portrait panel might cover another, erotic image, perhaps of that same mistress in a state of deshabille, if not fully nude. In other cases, the hidden compartment of the box might hide the erotic image. When Nelson was evacuating the royal family from Naples, one member tossed his snuff box into the sea, as it hid an erotic portrait of his mistress. He thought God would look more kindly on him if he disposed of the box. Snuff boxes with hidden erotic images were very popular during the Regency.

Another, less common accoutrement for the taking of snuff was the curvaceous surface of a woman’s body. King Louis XVIII was rather corpulent by the time he attained the throne of France. He was an avid snuff-taker and it was recorded that he achieved the zenith of his sexual desire by sniffing up pinches of snuff from the more rounded portions of the anatomy of his mistress, Comtesse de Cayla. One can only wonder if the equally corpulent Prinny indulged in similar pastimes with his voluptuous mistress, Lady Conyngham.

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 favor. Fewer men took snuff and thus fewer carried snuff boxes. Once the height of the jewelers’ 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 jewelry for herself. And so, the Regency had been the last flowering of the art of the snuff box, just as it had been the end of the Golden Age of Snuff.

For further reading:

Libert, Lutz, Tobacco, Snuff Boxes and Pipes. London: Orbis, 1984

Hughes, G. Bernard, English Snuff Boxes. London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1971.

Le Corbeiller, Claire, European and American Snuff Boxes 1730 -1830. New York: The Viking Press, 1966.

Snowman, A. Kenneth, Eighteenth Century Gold Boxes of Europe. Boston: Boston Books and ARt Shop, 1966

Pinto, Edward H., Wooden Bygones of Smoking and Snuff Taking. London: Hutchinson & Company, Publishers, 1961.

Berry-Hill, Henry and Sidney, Antique Gold Boxes: Their Lore and Their Lure. New York: Abelard Press, 1953.

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.

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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