SNUFF BOTTLES AND BOXES
In Georgian and Regency times, snuff was a craze, a habit and a drug, and its containers today are very fashionable and attractive.
Snuff is powdered tobacco, which, in times gone by, was inhaled genteelly from a knuckle or thumbnail. Ready-ground snuff came in two main varieties: light, which had been matured in a hot sauce; and dark, to which medicinal or sweet-smelling flowers,
salt and potash had been added.
A range of additives, used singly or in combination, produces interesting flavours. Ammonia, almonds, soda, sandalwood, vanilla and violet roots, for example, were just some of the substances that were added to ground tobacco as it matured. Different flavours appealed to different tastes; a sauce of aromatic oils of cedar, lavender and bergamot was a concoction particularly liked by women.
An important part of the social ritual was the box or bottle in which the snuff was contained. Plain wooden snuff boxes, made in large numbers, were used by many people. Fine snuff boxes, in attractive or precious materials, were the prized personal possessions of the rich and privileged. Adults of wealthy families often had several.
In Georgian society, a fine silver snuff box could be taken as the mark of a lady or gentleman of wealth and distinction. Colourful enamel snuff boxes were also something of a status symbol. Less expensive snuff boxes were made of ivory, tortoiseshell or papier mache' with mother-of-pearl decoration. Superior wooden snuff boxes had silver or ivory inlay or decorative ink tracery; others took amusing shapes, from animals to shoes.
Chinese snuff bottles were brought back by traders from the Far East as souvenirs or gifts. Many were used for taking snuff but often they were displayed as exotic curios in a gentleman's library. Porcelain bottles were made in the largest quantities in China.
Snuffboxes, as objects of high fashion for both men and women, were frequently made in precious materials, ranging from gold and silver to enamel and porcelain. They were often highly ornate with painted scenes and gilding.
They are wonderful things. If you like them, buy them. They can be pricey but are
good looking if well-kept. Some still make excellent little containers. Others are purely decorative and make fine conversation pieces.
So many were produced that they can still be readily found in antiques shops and markets. Rare types appear at fine art auctions and can be bought from specialist dealers. Virtually no china or porcelain boxes were made in England; they came almost exclusively from the Continent. Enamelled snuff boxes were produced in England at Battersea, Birmingham and also
Bilston. Some were made as souvenir boxes, while others were in the shape of birds, rabbits or other animals these last are likely to be expensive.
The best boxes were in silver or gold, but base metals, such as pewter, lead, brass and pinchbeck, were also used. Tortoiseshell was used from the 17th century onwards - it was light and easy to carry. Pressed horn was often used instead, while carved bone was used in place of ivory.
Papier mache' was widely used for table boxes. Wooden snuff boxes were carved into shoes, skulls, bellows, frogs and even coffins.
CLUES TO THE DATE
Dating snuff boxes is difficult unless the box is in hallmarked silver or gold. Experience is obviously the key, so take every opportunity to familiarize yourself with the subject. You will be able to date many examples by comparison with specimens in museums.
Collectors of old and valuable Chinese snuff bottles should be on their guard against modern imitations of Chinese inside-painted bottles and plain glass ones incised, carved or moulded in imitation of materials such as jade, coral or agate.
Check that what you are buying is in good condition. Bottles should be complete with their stoppers. Always check any hinges. Look out for cracks in wood, splits in silver, cracks in horn, bone and tortoiseshell, and cracks or chips in stone or glass Chinese snuff bottles.