Something to be Sniffed at

In this December / January issue, Nic Saintey muses on snuff and snuff boxes - an old habit that may come back into fashion.

A traditional Huron Indian myth recalls that in an ancient time, when they were starving upon a barren land, a great spirit sent a woman to save them. As she traversed their land, everywhere she touched the soil with one hand potatoes grew, and when she touched the ground with the other, corn broke the surface. Once she had made the land fertile she sat and rested. When she arose tobacco grew.

It is believed that Central and South American natives began experimenting with the recreational use of tobacco by smoking it, chewing it or taking it as a hallucinogenic enema some 2,000 years ago. So, by the time Columbus set foot in the Americas in 1492, tobacco use was well-established - not that he was initially aware of it. On the morning of 12 October, his party set foot in the New World for the first time, and the indigenous Arawak Indians, believing these new visitors were gods, provided them with gifts of weapons, precious objects, fruits and some dried aromatic leaves. Columbus and his men fully availed themselves of these special gifts, with the exception of the dried leaves, which they threw overboard. It was only on one of several return trips, in 1497, that the use of tobacco was reported, and the first example of snuff-taking was observed among Haitian Indians.

Just over half a century later, the French ambassador in Lisbon, Dr Jean Nicot (the botanical term Nicotiana tabacum was named after him), discovered the medicinal properties of dried, powdered tobacco in the form of snuff. The benefits of this new wonder drug spread through the French court and widely among the aristocracy and glitterati of Europe, though increasingly it was used less as a remedy and more as a fashionable recreation, hence the need for a specific object to contain it was born.

Much like a watch, a snuff box was a must-have accessory for any man, although the habit was certainly not restricted to men alone. High-status individuals might have an example made from precious materials decorated with jewels and emblazoned with their crest or initials; some even had several boxes to match the clothing they were wearing. Snuff boxes were often the presents of choice in diplomatic and military circles, and perhaps the latter spurred the creation of the larger table snuff boxes for ceremonial occasions.

While snuff-taking became a popular pastime, there were some who felt it had become too widespread. Whilst Louis XIII took a peck from time to time, he forbade its wider use except when prescribed by a physician. Pope Urban XIII went further, threatening excommunication to anyone found partaking in a church. Tsar Michael I of Russia went much further. He declared smokers should be whipped and those who were foolish enough to be repeat offenders should be executed. Snuff-takers who transgressed got off lightly by having their noses cut off!

Both the arrival of Jesuit missionaries and trading ships to China in the late 1500s saw snuff arrive on Oriental shores. Rather than use a box, the Chinese preferred a small bottle with an integral spoon set in the stopper. These new snuff bottles were made from equally precious materials such as gold, silver, porcelain, jade, rock crystal and lacquer as well as more modest materials such as ivory, bamboo and small gourds. The bottles were not only a status symbol, but were also practical as the humid Oriental climate rendered snuff damp and unusable.

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The peak of popularity for snuff-taking probably occurred during the 1700s and it was not until the first few years of the 18th century that the habit took off in Britain, when the nation acquired a ship laden with it. During 1702, a battle fleet off the coast of Spain, led by Vice-Admiral Hopson, was becalmed in a strategically difficult position and was attacked by a hastily converted French fire ship, which had been converted from a merchantman. Despite the Admiral being in a precarious position, and having his rigging scorched, the fire ship, laden with non-combustible snuff, was able to extinguish itself before major damage was caused. The Admiral emerged a hero and received a knighthood for his actions.

While the medicinal qualities of snuff have always been lauded as a cure for migraines, colds, toothache, throat infections, asthma and constipation, it seems it has largely been a recreational drug of the poor and respectable alike. Queen Charlotte, George III's wife, was referred to as 'Snuffy'. Various Popes were keen on it (outside of church and for health reasons only, of course), but the most voracious snuffer of them all was Napoleon who reportedly got through seven pounds of it a month!

Perhaps the end of snuff's popularity was in sight when, in 1794, the American government chose to tax it for the first time. Ironically, now that smoking is banned, snuff has seen something of a renaissance, partly as a lesser of two nicotine evils, because as it is not being ignited it has fewer side effects and partly because the taking of snuff in public places has not yet been banned and can be done discreetly. Who knows, perhaps the snuff box or bottle will see a revival in popularity?