Irish Silver Snuff Boxes
Snuff is a powder made from pulverised tobacco leaves. It originated in the Americas, and was in widespread use in Europe in the 17th century. Generally it is sniffed direct from the fingers.
Snuff was always particularly popular in court circles. Queen Anne so enjoyed snuff that all her ladies took up the habit. Queen Charlotte was known as ‘snuffy Charlotte’ because of her passion for it. In the 18th century there were over 400 snuff mills in London alone.
Until the 1900s, the volume of snuff produced was immense. Everyone took it – Alexander Pope, Charles Darwin, even the Duke of Wellington. Lord Nelson took large quantities to sea with him; Napoleon used over seven pounds of snuff a month. In the 20th century it lost popularity, though with smoking bans common in many countries, snuff is once again becoming popular.
As prolonged exposure to air causes the snuff to dry out, special boxes were made to hold the snuff. When snuff taking was fashionable, the boxes used to hold the snuff became more and more elaborate, to the point where they were fashion accessories in their own right. Initially plain, over time they were decorated and bejewelled; many silver and gold examples exist, some with enamelling and set with precious stones. Fine old examples can fetch eye-watering prices; an 18th century German box fetched 1.3 million dollars in an auction in 2003.
Above is an Irish silver snuff box, circa 1780, made by James Kennedy. It is oval in shape, with the initials of the owner on the lid. It is about two and three quarter inches in length.
In the next picture, you can see that it was gold-gilded on the inside, to help preserve the snuff. Even after 230 years, the box is still airtight, a testament to the skill of the box maker.
Kings and governments often used a decorative snuff box as a give to diplomats or dignitaries; in Ireland, when the Freedom of a city was being given, a commemorative snuff box was often awarded to the recipient.
The next example is a very early snuff box, with mother-of-pearl lid and base; there is a cameo of a lady with a basket, beautifully detailed. from her dress, it would seem to date from the 1730s.
As mentioned earlier, some examples were very elaborate; the next box is intricately chased, and inset with an oval section of hardstone; this box is heavy, and could well have been used on a table as a communal box, or “mull”. On the inside is a family motto.
The next example is very interesting – it is a hunting snuff box. It was made in a very slim shape, and with a loop, with which the owner would have attached it to his hunting belt. On the lid is an engraving of a gentleman on a horse. As was normal at the time, he is riding with the stirrips very long. The engraving is very detailed – you can made out his top-hat, high collar and even his sideburns!
The final example is a very rare piece- it is a box given with the Freedom of the city of Cork in 1825. On one side is the coat of arms of Cork, with its motto “Statio Bene Fida Carinis”. The one reverse is an inscription commorating the award of the Freedom, to Admiral Robert Plampin, who was the gaoler of Napoleon while he was on Saint Helena