Hiram College

Students who participated in a one-hour course called Art and Medicine, taught by Art Professor Lisa Safford, devoted their time looking at and contextualizing the salient medical data from works of art through all of Western history in a thematic survey.  Students explored a wealth of imagery – devoted to anatomy, illness, disability, addiction, hospitals, physicians, nursing, healing, birth and death – as it evolved over the span of Western history from the age of the Egyptians some five millennia ago to the era of modern germ pathology and antisepsis in the late 19th century, and Freudian psychoanalysis of the early 20th. This particular paper prompt was to write about a medical-related feature found in a work of art from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Snuff Box

By:  Anthony Casey ‘17

In times of great industrial and technological advancement in Europe, inevitable social change occurred. Naturally, the newly rich and affluent looked to take part in high-class social activities. Since new and exciting discoveries were frequently being made in these times, those who could afford it were keen to own pieces of the latest fashion and trends. One popular centerpiece of social activity lasted for centuries: snuff.

Snuff is a type of finely ground smokeless tobacco that is insufflated into the nasal cavity, and produces an instant nicotine rush while leaving a lasting scent of the tobacco, often flavored (Harrison). Apart from just the snuff, the container it was carried in was used by owners as a tool to impress others while keeping their product fresh. The craftsman of the specific snuff box in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Pierre-Andre Montauban, used tortoiseshell. (CMA). Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, the snuff box was perhaps the major personal possession of the upper class. While snuff boxes are personal items, the true value of these containers lies in the ability to reflect the owner’s status and taste in social situations.

Ground tobacco as snuff was first used by the indigenous people of Brazil, who had no plan or motive to popularize the product. They simply desired to produce the snuff by their own means for local use. Using wooden tools, these indigenous people would mash and grind tobacco leaves until the final product of snuff was formed. Snuff is traditionally taken by placing a pinch on the back of one’s hand, and gently sniffing the finely crushed tobacco leaves. The most popular method of insufflation, though, is taking a pinch of snuff and inhaling directly from between one’s pointer finger and thumb.

Snuff made its way to Europe in the late 15th century, following the return of Columbus’ second voyage from the Greater and Lesser Antilles in 1493. The use of snuff quickly became popular in Spain, as the people realized its trade value. In the early 16th century, manufacturing industries of snuff had been developed. At first, independent production mills dispersed throughout Spain were the main sources of snuff. Due to instant and prolonged success in selling and trading snuff, a large industrial building called the Royal Tobacco Factory was built. This marked Europe’s first industrial tobacco factory and Spain’s second largest building at the time.

By 1650, snuff use had spread throughout Europe. England, Scotland, and Ireland became familiarized after France and the Netherlands. Snuff use in England has been traced back to the return of King Charles II from exile in France, who brought snuff back with him. The popularization of snuff in England, around the time of the Great Plague of London, was due to its reputation as a powerful prophylactic. Shortly after, virtually all of Europe had been introduced to snuff, as well as Japan, China and Africa. At the time, users of snuff were entirely unaware of the risks associated with snuff use. Users fully welcomed the fact that they were not at risk of dangers from smoking, and many believed snuff had key antiseptic and relieving properties.

Despite prevention efforts, snuff had become the favored tobacco product among the elite by the 18th century. This is partially due to the desire of being seen as separate from or above the common populace, which generally smoked tobacco as snuff was quite costly. Many considered snuff to be more refined than smoking as well. Some notable former snuff users include Pope Benedict XIII, who repealed Pope Urban VIII’s smoking ban, Marie Antoinette, Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, who devoted an entire room at Windsor Castle to her snuff stock, and Napoleon Bonaparte, who is documented to have sniffed an average of seven pounds of snuff per month!

At the height of snuff’s use among the elite of Europe, it was practically mandatory for wealthy people to indulge in the various accessories that accompany snuff use. This was a particularly important accessory in the eyes of the wealthy. Having a container for one’s snuff was more than just a fashion statement, though, as prolonged exposure to air causes snuff to dry out and lose its quality. Obtaining the most elegant of snuff boxes was a goal that was feasible for many members of royalty, and peers would try and outdo each other when purchasing their snuff boxes. Snuff boxes are always handmade. The materials used to make snuff boxes varied from basic materials such as horn, to boxes made from precious metals with intricate designs or mosaics, much like the piece by Pierre-Andre Montauban in the Cleveland Museum. Snuff boxes were not only purchased, but often given as gifts. Gifted snuff boxes were usually ornamented with stones as precious as diamonds and emeralds.

The snuff box from France in the Cleveland Museum of Art, crafted by Pierre-Andre Montauban, is dated circa 1810-1820. He used gold-mounted tortoiseshell, agate and enamel while crafting this box, which actually ended up being a gift. France is known for producing the most intricately designed snuff boxes. Its dimensions tell us that this was a pocket snuff box. Although there are very many snuff boxes still in existence today, it does not take away from the rarity. Each box is unique, from the materials used, construction technique, and the mosaic or message.

The use of snuff is considered one of the longest lasting cultural trends in history. Eventually, strong advertisement on behalf of the convenience of filter cigarettes influenced the slow diminishing use of snuff. However, the magnitude of what the snuff taking populace once was shows that snuff, at its peak of attractiveness, took many entire countries by storm without heavy pushing of the product. Many snuff boxes are still around today, preserved in museums because of how carefully crafted these pieces are. I think this provides us with an understanding of how truly massive snuff use once was.

Works Cited

Antique Snuff Boxes (2013). Retrieved from http://regnas.com/snuff/antique-snuff-boxes/

CMA, Snuff Box, c. 1810-1820. (2013). Retrieved from www.clevelandart.org/art/2009.66?collection_search_query=snuff

Harrison, D.F.N. (1964). Snuff: Its Use and Abuse. The British Medical Journal, Vol.2, No. 5425, pp. 1649-1651

The History of Snuff  (2013). Retrieved from http://regnas.com/snuff/history/

Sapundzhiev, N., Werner, J.A. (2003). Nasal snuff: historical review and health related aspects. The Journal of Laryngology & Otology.Vol. 117, pp. 686-691

Snuffbox. (2013). Retrieved from http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O156587/snuffbox-montauban-pierre-andre/