The Snuff Box

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Jewelled Snuffbox, Berlin (Germany), c.1765, Robert Lehman Collection (1975.1.1536), Metropolitan Museum of Art

The museum display case is a big limitation in the celebration of the handheld qualities of snuffboxes.

            “Your modern beaus to richest shrines intrust
            Their worthless stores of fashionable dust.”

The use of snuff, a form of powered tobacco, was not particularly glamorous. The use of a snuffbox, however, was. These small, handheld boxes, often made of gold or enamelling, were an element of costume, changing appearance in tandem with fashions and shown off frequently. Numerous sources, literary and otherwise, speak of these lavish boxes as clear indicators of the owners’ elevated social class.

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“Maria Luisa of Parma (1751-1819), Later Queen of Spain” by Laurent Pécheux, c.1765

Boxes came in many shapes and sizes, though they were usually rectangular, oblong, circular, or oval. The Duchess of Orleans famously owned a gondola-shaped one, and Madame de Pompadour had one in the form of a cat.

Rotational videos serve to counteract the static museum setting.

            “The polish’d silver, or the burnish’d gold; 
            The agate landscape, drawn by nature’s hand,
            Or finer pebble from the Arabian strand,
            The shining beds where pearls imperfect lie,
            Smooth to the touch when roughest to the eye;
            While distant climes their various arts employ
            To adorn and to complete the modish toy.
            Hinges with close-wrought joints from Paris come;
            Pictures dear-bought from Venice and from Rome;
            While some with home-made lids their fancies please,
           
And bear enshrined their own dear images:”

As Samuel Wesley discusses in his Satire Against Snuff quoted above, these visually and tactically pleasing accessories served a simpler purpose: keeping the precious tobacco powder brought over from the New World, or “the stores of fashionable dust”, dry.

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