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S’nuff to be going on with!

snuffI confess that as a dandified adolescent half a century ago, I used to sniff a little snuff. Sniff – not snort, mind you. Snorting is for other substances….not snuff, which is made from ground tobacco leaves. Taking snuff is not supposed to make you sneeze. Inhale it gently, softly, until the full aroma permeates your olfactory senses! And never, ever, use a white handkerchief afterwards….

In the Eighteenth Century snuff-taking was considered positively refined – much more so than smoking a pipe. Even Queen Charlotte took snuff, as did the Prince Regent, in copious amounts. (The Queen was apparently given the nick-name ‘Snuffy Charlotte’ though not, perhaps to her face!). It was also favoured by the likes of Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Beau Brummel and Princess Caroline. Three strands brought it to fashion prominence – the accession of Charles II (bringing habits learned in French salons to these shores); a curious naval victory (by Admiral Rooke over the Spanish fleet in 1702); and an edict by Beau Nash (as Master of Ceremonies at Bath, banning smoking on the premises). All led to a veritable explosion of snuff!

Snuff had been brought to the attention of the courts of Europe by Jean Nicot (hence ‘nicotine’) during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He recommended it as a cure for the migraines suffered by the French King Francis II, and taking snuff quickly became popular and was frequently used for its “medicinal properties.” For the next 150 years the use of snuff in England slowly became more common. At that time there were few mills in the country to grind the tobacco leaf into powder, and users therefore made up their own daily supply – so as to keep it fresh. Hence they would have a small container like a tinderbox, designed to hold the tightly bound rolls of tobacco leaf, known as a carotte, so that they could be ground up, using a rasp or file attached to the box. The grater  or rasp gave its name to the most common type of snuff, called rapé. Each carotte was like a strand of rope, as thick as a man’s thumb. The powder generated by the rasp was then allowed to fall through to another compartment, from where it could be removed a few grains at a time.

A man buying snuff, by Thomas Rowlandson

A man buying snuff, by Thomas Rowlandson

The naval encounter of 1702, during the War of the Spanish Succession, involved the capture of a number of ships near Cadiz. They included vessels carrying a somewhat unexpected cargo – powdered snuff. A few days later Admiral Sir George Rooke pounced on several ships off Vigo Bay – and again found himself the proud owner of a vast quantity of premium snuff, on account of the seizure of some 50,000 lbs of the stuff just arrived from Havana. He sailed home and off-loaded his booty in various English ports, where it became known as Vigo Premium Snuff. Suddenly, the ready-powdered snuff was all the rage.

A pinch of cephalic' by George Cruikshank, c National Portrait Gallery

A pinch of cephalic’ by George Cruikshank (but based on an earlier sketch by James Gillray) –  National Portrait Gallery

But as snuff connoisseurs emerged, they wanted their own mix of tobacco, not just ready- milled snuff. The Prince Regent even had different mixtures for different times of the day. Mind you, he got Fribourg and Treyer to mix it for him, none of this DIY nonsense! People wanted their snuff to be freshly ground, which meant making a small quantity at the start of each day, and keeping it in a suitable dispenser. Enter the pocket snuff rasp…

snuff rasp 1 Snuff rasp 3




Here is a lovely example of this small, everyday item, which I found on the excellent Fisher London site.

They describe it as “of tactile boat-shape, features two hinged compartments – one for the retention of the plug of tobacco, the other to catch the snuff when rubbed on the integral metal grater. An unusual item of social history which displays evidence of re-soldering to the lids, but otherwise remains in excellent condition. Circa 1760.”

I love it: often the paraphernalia associated with snuff are of the rather opulent, decorative variety (such as the diamond encrusted gold snuff boxes collected by Frederick the Great) but here is something intended to be used every day – as evidenced by the fact that the lid has been re-soldered. At seven inches long it would have slipped readily into a gentleman’s pocket. You can just imagine the user grinding a small plug of tobacco to create a pile of snuff, which would be stored in the container, before a pinch was gripped between the fingers and sniffed whenever it was required. Portable, fresh, sniffable – an ideal product!

(My thanks to Neil Barclay, and to Hilary of Fisher London for allowing me to use the image of the rasp).


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