Snuff: A Passionate Georgian Habit
Unlike dip or chew, those moist tobacco products that are ingested orally, or the dried leaves which are smoked, snuff is made from tobacco leaves that have been dried (sometimes via baking in an oven) and then ground into a fine powder. It is insufflated or “snuffed” into the nasal cavity, delivering a swift hit of nicotine and a lasting flavored scent. Snuff is usually flavored in unique blends: floral, mentholated, or spicy using ingredients such as cinnamon, nutmeg, sandalwood, or camphor.
Christopher Columbus first noticed American Indians snuffing an unknown powder on his 1494 voyage of discovery. The substance was tobacco, the preparation very close to what we now call snuff. Columbus brought the powder back to Europe, where it quickly became fashionable among the French and Spanish. The late medieval and renaissance times saw many new plants and products gain popularity in the West, often via the royal courts of Europe as a result of their patronage of voyages of discovery. Catherine De Medici (1519-1589) is said to be the first European snuff taker after she received a gift of some dried tobacco and instructions on how to use it by John Nicot, the French ambassador in Portugal. His gift started the snuff craze amongst European nobility and long after fading from memory as a historical person, his name lives on in the word nicotine.
Tobacco reached England in the Tudor period, introduced by several travelers and traders over time, and smoking became the first and most popular way of using tobacco. As with most social phenomena, the adoption of tobacco in its various forms was a process, not a single event. When Charles II (1630-1685) returned to England from exile in France, his foreign acquired snuff habit soon caught on over the Channel as well. By the early years of the 18th century snuff became widely available in England, and was the tobacco product of choice among the aristocracy and followers of fashion. It was seen as a far more refined habit than smoking. Royalty, aristocracy, and the gentry (male and female) attended to their snuff habits with a passion, carried specialized snuff accoutrements, and even built dedicated rooms for storing their snuff.
Gradually the common man came to know the pleasures of snuff too. Snuff mills were established across England in cities such as London, Sheffield, and Manchester to supply the growing demand. Retailers set up shops solely dealing in snuff and snuff paraphernalia. Doctors prescribed snuff as a general cure-all, noting its particular efficacy in the treatment of coughs, cold, and headaches. Snuff production far outstripped smoking tobacco, and chewing tobacco tended to be an American habit not popularly done in England. The focus remained on snuff well into the 20th century.
Not surprisingly, as a habit initially of the upper classes, the practical and necessary snuff accoutrements became a fashion statement and expression of one’s personality and wealth. Below are a few examples. For more images visit my Pinterest Board for Regency Gentlemen’s Accessories.
Snuff Boxes — Containers for holding the powdered snuff. These came in miniature sizes to slip into a pocket or reticule, on up to large dimensions for tabletop storage. Shapes varied but the common feature was a wide hinged or screw-off lid. Created from every possible material, snuff boxes were frequently ornate and of costly construction. Those in the latter category are prized collectibles worth considerable value. Europeans preferred these “box” snuff containers as opposed to the bottle-style snuff containers that were a centuries-old art design in the Orient. The examples below are all of the “box” design common in Europe, but I strong urge a Google or Pinterest search for “snuff bottles” for comparison.
Snuff Rasp — Until later in the 1700s when snuff manufacturing boomed in Britain, users had to prepare their own tobacco powder from the same tobacco used by smokers. Tobacco spinners tightly twisted tobacco leaves into a strand resembling a rope about the thickness of a human thumb, which were then allowed to dry. These ropes were dubbed carottes by the French due to the shape being similar to that of the orange vegetable. Purchased by the snuff-taker, he or she would then rub the end of the carottes against a snuff rasp. It was a process rather labor-intensive and time-consuming.
Snuff rasps over eight inches were used at home to grind larger quantities, whereas pocket snuff rasps were four to seven inches. Few rasps were made in England, as most of the aristocratic snuff-takers preferred the more elegantly ornamented Continental rasps made of precious metals, carved ivory, bone, and fine woods. A practical tool, nevertheless, most had artistic merit in their decoration and embellishment. 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. Ofttimes the rasp included a cavity deep enough to store the carotte.
What a fun read. I’ve often seen snuff mention in 18th and 19th century novels and now it’s nice to learn about the stuff.