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Antique snuff boxes, collection not to be sniffed at

By Christopher Proudlove ©

Fox

by Christopher Proudlove©

Tzar Michael of Russia was not impressed with the fashion. In 1634, he issued a degree to the effect that anyone caught engaging in the habit of taking snuff would get a strict warning to desist. Anyone caught a second time would have his nose cut off!

The French King Louis XIV was less drastic. When the problem began to get out of hand, he ordered his physician to deliver a public address to members of the Royal Court detailing the evils of the habit. It might have had the desired effect had it not been for the fact that the absent-minded doctor punctuated his lecture … by taking periodic pinches of snuff.

Fact is, so popular did the idea become among the beau monde of the mid 18th century that the practice developed its own ritualistic etiquette running to many stages. It began by removing the snuff box with suitable flourish. After tapping its lid (to ensure none of its contents was lost prior to the next stage) the box was opened and offered first to one’s companions. Then, and only then, and with an elaborate series of gestures and finger movements, the owner of the box would take his pinch.

The last bit was less elegant. Having either stuck thumb and finger tip into each nostril before sniffing, or alternatively inhaling the snuff from the back of one’s hand, etiquette specified éternuez, toussez, crachez – sneeze, cough, spit!

In 1823, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) observed sniffily that taking snuff was “perhaps the final cause of the human nose”. In his day he was probably right.

The practice of inhaling powdered tobacco became common in Europe in the 17th century and universally among both sexes throughout the 18th. It continued in the 19th century and there are, no doubt, still many adherents. The result is a plethora of snuff boxes to suit pockets of all depths available for collectors like us to search out and hoard.

And for snuff takers who like to dispense the largesse following a good meal, there’s the snuff mull, the name given to the large snuff boxes like the ones illustrated here which were intended to sit on a table or sideboard for use by the assembled dinner guests.

Estimates for snuff boxes range from £50-£1,000. At the other extreme, rare porcelain snuff boxes from such factories as Meissen can fetch £150,000-200,000. They come from an elegant age when the skills of some of the finest miniature painters, enamellers, jewellers and gold and silversmiths were bestowed on the objects.

Fashion conscious connoisseurs of the 18th century were more concerned with the harmonious colouring and graceful proportions of their snuff boxes than they were about their suitability for the job. The result was more and more elaborate containers, made often at the expense of serviceability.

Dozens of different blends of snuff were available in the 18th century, some of them variously scented for different times of the year and even the time of day. The rich would have a different container for each. The Prince Regent, for example (whose mother was called Snuffy Charlotte) had 12 different potions for each day.

His friend Lord Patersham boasted a different box for each day of the year and Count von Bruhl, the Prime Minister of Saxony and director of the Meissen factory, had 300 outfits, each with a matching cane and snuff box. Frederick the Great, meanwhile, is supposed to have owned a collection of 1,500.

There were special boxes for different seasons of the year – miniature paintings of snow scenes for winter, flowers for the summer – while a general, musician or huntsman could have his favourite pursuit depicted on his boxes. Others were made to accompany the latest brocade patterns, silk or velvet and others were fitted with watches and even tiny musical movements in the lid.

Despite Louis XIV’s objection to the habit, some of the finest of all snuff boxes originate from France. Interestingly, though, not all were produced in precious metals. A society which places emphasis on craftsmanship is often less concerned with the value of materials used, with the result that some fine French boxes are found in wood, steel, papier-mache (final e acute), horn, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl and even stone.

Louis XV (1723-74) gold boxes have a flamboyant covering of rococo design with elaborate enamelled scrolls and arabesques, while Louis XVI (1774-93) had differing designs in panels independent from each other. Sober simplicity followed the French Revolution, although Napoleon was a snuff taker and examples of boxes exist decorated with his miniature portrait surrounded by diamonds.

Russian snuff boxes are similarly elaborate and fine, mainly because many French craftsmen were encouraged to settle in that country by Catherine the Great, a lavish patron of the arts. The great Russian goldsmith Peter Carl Faberge (final e acute) was descended from a Huguenot family from Picardy whose work remains unsurpassed. Come the Russian Revolution, though, and he fled to Switzerland, where he died in exile.

Huguenot families


The finest French and Russian snuff boxes are today found mainly in museums, not provincial auctions. English examples in silver and gold, at least until the end of the reign of George I (1727) were restrained by comparison and decorated only with a coat of arms or monogram. Huguenot families who settled in this country brought with them many ideas of their own and by the time George III was on the throne, snuff boxes were decorated with gold panels, raised carved floral borders, enamels and miniature portraits.

With the 19th century came industrialisation and a decline in quality and taste. Most silver and gold snuff boxes were decorated with engine-turned designs and coarse carving. Examples are not difficult to find today, with prices generally under £500. Particularly worth searching out are those Birmingham silversmith Nathaniel Mills who was surely one of the finest English makers.

My favourites, though, are the cheaper examples, probably homemade or by country craftsmen. They can be found fashioned from conch and cowrie shells, tortoiseshell, and even the shell of a terrapin. They are usually fitted with a silver cover, the hallmarks of which give the date of manufacture. Cheaper still are those made from papier maché, horn and turned wood.

The snuff mull is a particular favourite among collectors of Scottish folk art and some are without comparison. From a Scottish dialect word for mill, where the snuff would have been ground to a powder, mulls came in a variety of shapes, the most common being fashioned from a ram’s horn, usually mounted in silver and often embellished with cairngorms – a semi-precious stone which takes its name from its source.

Others are found in plain silver or even wood, but the grandest snuff mulls – and the choice of a regimental mess – were those somewhat gruesome examples made from en entire ram’s head, sometimes mounted on wheels so that it could be passed around a large dining table with ease.

Something else to seek out are early 18th century snuff graters, now rarities but always carried by early snuff takers in order to turn small sticks of the preparation into powder. The graters were strips of ivory, bone or brass, with a rough surface and sometimes carved with interesting and amusing inscriptions, dates and portraits, although they can be mistaken for nutmeg graters.

Pictures show, top: A William IV fox mask snuff box by Joseph Wilmore, Birmingham 1835. It’s estimated at £1,500-2,000

Below, left to right: A George II Scottish upright snuff box, the base inscribed “John Ferguson Tobacconist Montrose”. It dates from 1750-1760 and is estimated at £300-400

A small collection of snuff mulls including an imposing example made from a ram’s horn. It’s worth £300-400

A late 19th/early 20th century German snuff box the hinged cover modelled with a trumpeting elephant. It dates from about 1900 and is estimated at £150-200

ScottishMullElephant

© 2007 All Rights Reserved.

Tags: Smoking Antiques · Snuff Boxes

19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daryle Lambert Blog: » Antique Snuff Boxes: Small & Valuable Treasures Worth Sniffing Around For // Sep 26, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    […] on snuff boxes, you might start by reading Christopher Proudlove’s Blog on Snuff Boxes at WriteAntiques.com and Tobacco.org has a very informative timeline of tobacco that’s quite […]

  • 2 Antique Snuff Boxes: Small and Valuable Treasures Worth Sniffing Around For « Learn & Invest in Antiques, Art & Collectibles // Sep 26, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    […] on snuff boxes, you might start by reading Christopher Proudlove’s Blog on Snuff Boxes at WriteAntiques.com and Tobacco.org has a very informative timeline of tobacco that’s quite […]

  • 3 David English // Nov 17, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    Dear sir, I have two silver pieces a snuff box??? from liberty and company and another rather odd collapsable silver cup dated 1897 by KNOX, would love to upload you pictures of these two items so that I can find out more about them? please email me at MYPICS247@yahoo.com a link so that I can upload jpegs…Thank You, David English 714-561-9200

  • 4 Rita Macdonald // Jan 29, 2010 at 2:04 am

    Dear sir, I have a nice little snuff box in the shape of a dutch shoe (at least I think that is what it is – it has a letter tucked inside saying it is a snuff box). It has 930 or 980 sterling ingraved on back. Its reposse scene is of hunting dogs in a forest on the one side, the other side depicts a squirrel and pheasant in the forest. Its hinged lid shuts tight. There is a dent on the bottom, but doesn’t look as though it has gone through.

    I would like to send you some pictures of it.

    Sincerely,

    Rita Macdonald

  • 5 Christopher Proudlove // Feb 9, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Rita
    I’ve looked back through UK auction records and found a larger but very similar box sold in 2005 for £140. I think yours would be offered at auction today with an estimate of £100-150,

  • 6 Rodney Bennett // Feb 26, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Have you ever encountered or heard of a Snuff Box claiming to have been made from the timbers of HMS Bounty of 1779 mutiny fame?

    In a memoir my great-great-grandfather says that when he visited Pitcairn Island in 1825 he took some of the timber from the wreck of the ship which was later used for snuff boxes. I wonder if any survive.

  • 7 Christopher Proudlove // Feb 26, 2010 at 11:04 am

    Thank you for contacting WriteAntiques. A great many objects are found purporting to be made from the timbers of some famous ship or other – indeed entire houses were built using wood from broken up vessels. There is rarely any supporting provenance or evidence, other than perhaps a plaque or inscription, but these could have been added later.
    However, it is unlikely your grandfather would have made up the story, although valuing such a piece could only rely on “family repute”. I will do some further research.

  • 8 Christopher Proudlove // Mar 1, 2010 at 11:23 am

    I spoke to Lionel Willis, maritime specialist at Bonhams in London.
    He said: “It is known that the inhabitants of Pitcairn had a thriving ‘cottage industry’ of artefacts made from the remains of the wreck, which they sold to the rare passing ship, although as it burnt to the waterline before it sank any timber must to have been raised from the sea bed. We’ve not seen a snuff box, but it’s a likely enough item to be made as a potential souvenir.”

    I hope this helps.

  • 9 Jeff Wood // Mar 9, 2010 at 2:16 am

    Hello,

    I recently aquired a round, turned wood snuff box. There is a note attached to the lid dating 1840 and states the wood used to make this is part of the HMS Royal George wreckage. My limited online research has revealed almost identical boxes that have sold at a 2007 Bonham auction and another at a Cowan auction. I would like offer this at auction as well, but don’t quite know where to start. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  • 10 Christopher Proudlove // Mar 9, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Jeff, I have responded in a personal email to you. For others interested, the first-rate ship HMS Royal George was laid down as the Royal Anne but renamed in honor of the reigning monarch George II before her launch in 1756. The first warship to exceed 2,000 tons burden, Royal George was commissioned at the start of the Seven Years’ War with France and joined the Western Squadron in blockading the port of Brest and Quiberon Bay. On 29 August 1782 whilst undergoing minor repair work at Spithead, the Royal George began to take on water. She capsized and sank very quickly with the loss of about 900 lives. The dead included Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt and as many as 300 women and 60 children who were visiting the ship at the time. The exact cause of the disaster is not known although it has been suggested that she was heeled too far and the water entered the lower tier of gun ports. However, a subsequent court martial acquitted the ship’s officers and crew (most of whom were dead) of any wrongdoing, and blamed the accident on the ‘general state of decay of her timbers’. In 1834, the pioneering diver Charles Deane recovered thirty guns before his work was interrupted. The remains of Royal George were eventually blown up by Royal Engineers in the early 1840s.

  • 11 Lord Denovan // Mar 26, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    I enjoy collecting snuff boxes but I am somewhat surprised that there is not a Snuff Box Collectors Society, although in a related way The Chinese Snuff Bottle Collectors Society seems to be the only organisation running.

    I know there are many collectors in UK, let alone the rest of the World, so perhaps it is time to start a Society/Group!

  • 12 Kevin Kerrigan // Jul 31, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    I recently came into possession of a small rectangular treen (I think) snuff box. It has a hinged lid and a goldy brown /tan picture of a reclining dog outside his kennel on the lid. The base is black. Any thoughts on age or valuation?

  • 13 Diana Kenchington // Sep 24, 2010 at 5:24 am

    I have a Chinese mother of pearl snuff box dating back to around 1800. The lid has come off and I would like it repaired. Do you know where I could get it this done professionally and reliably?

  • 14 Richard Broad // Oct 18, 2010 at 7:58 am

    I hav a shell snuff box with silver mounts. It is 60mm long x 45mm wide. It has a stamp inside the lid “EO” or “EC”
    The inscription on the lid reads
    Mary Symons
    Ex Dono John Ware
    Taken at the Havannah
    August 13
    1762
    I am totaly puzzled by this, any ideas?
    I do have some photos of the item
    Regards
    RB

  • 15 margaret // Jan 18, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    have a copper and brass box, loose lid shaped as a reclining china man with rats. approx 4 inches across, one and a half inches deep, lined with removable copper lining around sides. Hole near china mans hand which may have held a handle of some kind. Have had for over 40 years. Any ideas what it may have been used for ?

  • 16 Mrs R. Hoffenberg // Aug 29, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I need a Restorer for a collection of antique snuff boxes — Please can you advise??

    Rae Hoffenberg

  • 17 Kendall // Aug 4, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Hello, I have a 17th century carved wood slide lid snuff bottle holder, I was just wondering how much these antiques can go for?
    Thanks,
    Kendall

  • 18 Christopher Proudlove // Aug 6, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Kendall
    Not sure what you mean by “wood slide lid snuff bottle holder”. Send me images and I’ll see if I can help.

  • 19 dusko vernacki // Dec 7, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    I own an original Faberge snuff box made at the beginning of 19th century (approx. 1910).
    The snuff box is made of gold and weights 66 grams. It has 4 rubys and 66 diamonds.
    It is 7,15 cm long.
    The width measures are 4,8 cm to the opener i.e. 5 cm to the brace (I do not know is it the right word, maybe chock/bracket/buttress/shore/rest) and 5,7 cm to the main opener.
    It is 0,9 cm high.
    The depth of the lower drawer is 0,65 cm and the higher drawer is 0,25-0,3 cm deep.
    The snuff box is for sale.
    Photograps are available upon request.

    Regards!

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