“Up to Snuff in the Eighteenth Century”


Snuff Box, c. 1730-1740, Chantilly, soft-paste porcelain with overglaze enamels, gilt-metal mounts – Gardiner Museum, Toronto


In the middle of the eighteenth century, the peculiar habit of taking snuff became commonplace; it lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century among fashionable elites with fine, aristocratic noses. Nicotine addicts had long smoked tobacco, a profitable commodity since the seventeenth century, but smoking it was a dirty affair altogether, particularly once it was discovered that one could take it up the nose in a fine grain form. The practice of taking snuff grew so popular that everyone who was anyone likely had a fashionable snuffbox. Its popularity in America led to a federal tax in 1794.

            Of course, not everyone believed that snuff was the thing to do. Dr. John Hill, a physician, published “Cautions against the Immoderate Use of Snuff” in 1761, warning about cancers of the nose. In 1791, he reports seeing several cases of nasal cancers. No one seems to have paid much attention, and some believed that snuff could offer medicinal benefits. In any case, tobacco was too profitable to go away.

          The practice of taking snuff created its own decorative arts trade—and you didn’t have to be wealthy to own one, either. The least expensive snuffboxes were made of potato pulp. Higher end snuff boxes could be enamel.  Jean-Louis Richter was a leader in the decorative art of painting lids, which made their way onto ladies’ dressing tables.

Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth-century virtuous heroine Clarissa isn’t immune to taking a bit of snuff when her libertine tormentor (and sometimes would-be lover) Lovelace rides her about London with the false Lady Betty, whose presence quite overcomes Clarissa, drugged by Lovelace. In “stupefied spirits,” she tells her friend, Anna Howe (Letter LXIX) that she takes “pinch after pinch” of snuff to revive herself, to little effect. Lovelace has drugged her with something stronger. The measure of its strength would have been considered potent indeed to Richardson’s readers if it could not overcome the power of snuff.


Clarissa, 1748, frontis piece

Being that Richardson’s novel, Clarissa, is the longest in the English language, readers may have needed snuff to make it through the novel.  Samuel Johnson thought that if you read it for the plot, you’d hang yourself. You must read it for the sentiment.

And maybe for the snuff.

1 Comment

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One response to ““Up to Snuff in the Eighteenth Century”

  1. Yep, adding this to my to-read list. :)

    I think snuffboxes (or any modern-day equivalent) are absolutely great for being repurposed; kind of like a more elegant Altoids box. I have one I use to keep some handwritten materials—sealing wax, lighter, etc. I’m sure there are dozens of uses others have thought up for them.

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