Snuff, powdered tobacco that is sniffed, was discovered by explorers who accompanied Christopher Columbus to the New World in the 15th century. During the 16th century the habit spread around Europe, although the British were late adopters, with the English aristocracy taking it up in the early 18th century. The habit soon spread downwards through the social classes and snuff-taking remained a popular pastime in Britain until the late 19th century.
As snuff-taking became fashionable, craftsmen started to make boxes specially designed for storing and carrying snuff, which often had various flavourings added. The first snuff boxes in Britain, aimed at aristocratic users in the first part of the 18th century, were made from silver and even gold.
These early snuff boxes were elaborately decorated and inlaid with materials like tortoiseshell, mother of pearl, ivory and, in the most expensive examples, precious stones. Many of the most lavish snuff boxes were made in France and the French had a special word for them, ‘tabatière’. French craftsmen often employed ornate enamelling and hand painting.
As snuff-taking ceased to be the reserve of the elite, so makers began to produce boxes made from cheaper materials such as papier mâché, laminated with varnish to imitate Japanese lacquer. These boxes were frequently decorated with hand-painted landscapes, classical designs, scenes from Greek mythology or miniature portraits.
Birmingham became a centre for the production of papier mâché boxes and by the beginning of the 19th century, many makers in the city were also producing silver snuff boxes. These were relatively inexpensive since electroplating techniques were by then well-developed.
The standard shape for a snuff container was a simple rectangular or circular box, but many novelty snuff boxes were also made. These came in a huge range of shapes and forms including shoes, shells and animal heads. Carved wooden boxes were imported from India during the 19th century and there was also a large trade in richly decorated snuff bottles from China.
The best examples of 18th-century snuff boxes made in precious metals and stones can fetch several thousand pounds. But collectors with more modest budgets can find interesting if less elaborate 19th century examples in good condition for less than £100.