Monday, December 5, 2016

Snuff - the medicinal cure-all and herbal panacea

by Deborah Swift

The Gawith Snuff Factory

I live close to Kendal in the Lake District in the North of England, and it is known as one of the foremost manufacturers of snuff; a brand known as 'Kendal Brown.' The reason snuff became established as an industry in Kendal can be traced back to two epidemics of Plague in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first epidemic in 1598 struck so badly that two thousand five hundred people died - an enormous number for a small town. The distress of the town was made worse by another epidemic in 1623, but this was not nearly so severe, and the reason was supposedly that people had begun to take snuff - then thought of as a remedy against all kinds of infection.

Outside of the factory with its distinctive sign showing a Turk
(tobacco was thought to be oriental) and his clay pipe
Kendal had easy access to the ports of Whitehaven and Lancaster, and so large quantities of tobacco were imported for the growing number of snuff mills in the town. Tobacco was grown in the British colonies of Maryland and Virginia. From Virigina alone, in 1629 one and a half million pounds of leaves were shipped to England from America. By 1700 Kendal was using its network of transport links, developed through the wool trade, to export snuff to London and the rest of the British Isles.

What is snuff?
Snuff is basically a blend of finely ground tobacco. It was discovered in the late 15th Century but its popularity grew in the 18th Century when it was used by everyone from Napoleon to Pope Benedict XIII. To produce snuff carefully selected, high grade tobacco leaves are sourced from all over the world and are aged for over 2 years. The leaves go through at least two fermentation processes before being ground to specific grades, such as Fine, Medium of Coarse. The Fine blend is the most intense, and the coarser less so, and suitable for beginners to snuff-taking. The snuff can also be moist, medium or dry, or flavoured with scents providing varying experiences for the user.

How snuff was made
the early method of making snuff was by hand, from the 'carrottes' or rolls of tobacco leaf - called carrottes from the French because of their resemblance to the shape of carrots. The carotte was gripped tightly at one end and then other end was ground against a 'rape', a rasp or grater.

A snuff box and grater
In aristocratic circles, the snuff grinding equipment was highly elaborate, and including several items strung on silver chains - a miniatire pick, grater, spoon and tiny rake for separating rough from smooth snuff. Some also included a silver-mounted hare's foot for brushing the snuff from the taker's upper lip. I long to include one of those in a novel!

This time-consuming method was soon superceded by water powered snuff mills in which the grinding process was automated. We tend to take this kind of thing for granted, but forget that heavy machinery of cogs and gears, and the heavy stone grindstones would have had to be transported by horse on carts and waggons, and often up and over hills or across bridges.The snuff itself was transported to the shops in barrels, boxes and bladders made of animal skin.

Snuff is one of the few forms of taking tobacco that has not succumbed to the modern world and the majority of English snuff blends are still made the traditional way. Samuel Gawith's 'Kendal Brown' uses heavy oak and stone pestles dating back to the 1700's to grind their snuff, while the rest of the work is done by hand.

The giant oak pestle still in use

Bottled precious and rare oils, such as Sandalwood and Rose Oil are stored in safes and are carefully blended in a secret room.When smoking was banned from the House of Commons in 1693 a silver communal snuff box was introduced with a supply of the famous 'English Rose' snuff, and surprisingly, is still used today.

'Insufflating' - a pinch of snuff
Traditionally you would take snuff from the back of the hand into both nostrils to take an even helping for each nostril. The portion taken would be half the size of a pea. Snuff was to remain in the front part of the nose, but sneezing was allowed. It was considered polite to use a kerchief or 'mouchoir' (French for handkerchief) to sneeze into, but loud sneezing was considered healthy and not rude.

Keeping snuff fresh
By the second half of the 17th century, ornate boxes were being produced to keep the precious powder dry. Snuff boxes or 'tabatières' are widely collected today, because they are often made from silver, engraved, chased, or enameled. Porcelain containers were also common, and sometimes snuff boxes were hand-painted with miniature landscapes or tiny portraits.

Snuff box with portrait of Marie Antoinette

Do read my previous post  on this blog(from 2013) for more on the fascinating art of snuff-taking.

As linked to pictures, also 'Kendal Brown' by J.W. Dunderdale (Helm Press). All pictures not linked are public domain


Deborah Swift is the author of several novels set in the 17th Century. The Lady's Slipper, about a rare wild orchid of that name, is set in and around Kendal, and features the new Quaker movement, and the aftermath of the English Civil War.

Follow her on Twitter @swiftsory
or on her website at


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