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):
- Round tortoiseshell box with Leda and the Swan on the visible cover and a hidden image of a couple of women
- Round papier-mache box with a man and woman in a field on the cover and a intimate scene between them on the hidden image
- Multiple erotic snuff boxes (scroll down the page)
- Enamel snuff box with hidden second lid
- Erotic Chinese snuff box
- Chinese snuff box with two erotic images
- German erotic snuff box
- Erotic Chinese snuff bottle
- Set of French papier-mache erotic snuff boxes
- Enamel table snuff box
- English snuff box with hidden image of Adam and Eve in the Garden
- Lot of Napoleonic era snuff boxes
- Selection of Snuff Boxes (scroll down the page)
- Musical French Snuff Box with a copy of a Titian painting
- German erotic snuff box
- Catherine the Great’s snuff box (scroll down the page)
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?