Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Snuff, the habit of five centuries

By Deborah Swift

Collection of snuff boxes from 18th -20th century (Hanson's auctioneers)
Christopher Columbus was responsible for bringing snuff, or ground tobacco, back to Europe in 1496 when one of his party noticed the native people of Haiti using it. It quickly became fashionable among the French and Spanish, and the frenchman Nicot (from whom we get the term 'nicotine') imported larger quantities to France during his travels abroad in the mid 16th century. Initially unpopular with the french monarchy, its fortunes were revived when Catherine Di Medici was given snuff by Nicot as a treatment for migraine. The resulting 'cure' popularized snuff amongst the french aristocracy.

Snuff was expensive as it had to be imported and the grinding process was laborious. Originally the tobacco plug was dried in an oven and then ground by hand in a hand mill by your servant to your requirements. This meant it was mostly available only to the rich. A whole culture grew up around the habit in the following centuries with the manufacture of snuff boxes and bottles and elaborate 'mouchoirs' or handkerchiefs. In England, snuff was made even more fashionable in the 17th century when Charles II returned to England from his exile in France and brought with him his snuff habit. 

Sober man to take charge of Snuff Mills

Many different snuff mills grew up next to watercourses in London, Sheffield and Manchester to supply the habit. Retailers soon set up shops solely dealing in snuff and snuff accoutrements.

[Image: Machinery inside Kendal Brown House]
Kendal's snuff factory in the 19thC, click picture for history of snuff in Kendal

Photo:The water which supplied the energy for the snuff-grinding mill
Morden Hall snuff grinding mill
Tiny, decorative boxes were popular, because prolonged exposure to air causes snuff to dry out and lose its scent. Snuff boxes were so small because they were designed to hold only one day's worth of snuff.

Carved wooden snuff bottle with hare
courtesy of Wikipedia
Snuff was brought over to America when the colonies were formed and was an essential part of early American life. America produced it’s own unique snuff that had a more smoky aroma than it’s European counterparts and a sweeter taste. Snuff is usually scented or flavoured in unique blends, and a typical blend would be floral, mentholated or spicy. Ingredients used to scent the snuff would include things such as cinnamon, nutmeg, sandalwood or camphor. Nowadays you can even get Cola scented or Cherry scented snuff!

In the coffee houses of the 17th century people took tobacco in three forms - as nasal snuff, inhaled into the nose, as chewing tobacco, and by 'drinking' it, i.e. by smoking it through a pipe.

Advertisement from circa 1700

The use of snuff was at its height in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was recommended by doctors as a general cure-all, ironically as a treatment for coughs, colds or headaches.

Another interesting video on the history of snuff http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNFIYByVXCE

Professor A. Phillips Griffiths, of http://www.snuffbox.org.uk/ has been a regular snuff user since the 1940's. He  says the habit is catching on with a new generation since the ban on smoking here in the UK.  But if you are writing about a period any time between the 16th and the 20th century, chances are at least one of your characters would be familiar with the stuff.

My new novel, A Divided Inheritance, which will be out in October features a snuff factory, and I think it must have been wonderfully atmospheric with the ground particles of tobacco floating in the atmosphere and the scent of all the ingredients.


Next week I am one of the few Brits at the Historical Novel Society Conference where I will be talking about my publication journey, blogging, and my other books: The Lady's Slipper and The Gilded Lily. 
If you are there and see me looking lonely, please come over and say hi! Picture should help you find me!


  1. This was so interesting! I didn't realize that snuff was a form of tobacco. I wonder if there were cases of cancer that developed from its use in those days. Ironic that it was considered a cure for colds!

    1. I wondered the same about cancer. Surely nose and throat cancer must have been very prevalent because of the strength and purity of the snuff. Wonder also if their breath smelled from the tobacco (forget about the rotten teeth).

  2. I've been intrigued by snuff since reading Georgette Heyer books years ago. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I didn't realise that Columbus brought it here! Interesting snuff. I mean, stuff.

  4. I took up snuff as research for my novel and I enjoy it very much. I never knew the nose could be so pleasurable.

  5. Thanks for all your comments everyone. Snuff was one of the main industries in my nearest town. I haven't yet discovered if its use affected people's health for the worse, but common sense means that I expect it did!

  6. I have to state I might be bias but, in over 300 years there hasn't been any harm caused by snuff. My wife is a well published cancer research scientist and when we met I was a 40 a day smoker. She got me to stop with snuff. It literally saved my life.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.