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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Snuffboxes and the materials that made them

Many thanks to Daniel Bexfield of Daniel Bexfield Antiques who has given me permission to use his photographs of snuff boxes; do go look at his wonderful antiques.  Apart from the Japanning picture all the photos are his.

Gold and enamelled snuff box, 18th century

Much has been written about snuffboxes and their history on other sites; what I wanted to share was the wide variety of shapes and more particularly the variety of materials from which they were made.
My researches at the Old Bailey Online prompted this when I found myself marvelling over the wide gulf between those of tin or paper [papier-mâché one assumes] valued at a penny and the gold snuffbox set with two rows of diamonds valued at £400.  Or in real terms, five times the yearly salary of a clerk.  This was in 1800 and 1801.  The very great variation does however bring home that snuff taking was a universal pleasure/vice and was enjoyed by the poor man too.  Such ephemera rarely survive the rough and tumble of time, unlike the works of art that were used by the wealthy, so alas I have no pictures to offer of them; however here’s a rather fancy gold piece. 

Four colour gold , French, 18th century c 1780

Though paper snuff boxes may have come as cheap penny or tuppence boxes is not to say that papier-mâché snuffboxes might not also be moderately costly if skilfully made and painted; I found a ‘paper machee’ snuffbox of 1790 valued at £10.  I wonder what decoration it had that made it so valuable.  A painting by a well known portrait painter of the owner’s wife perhaps?  Or maybe, the time being what it was, a saucy and salacious scene.  Another papier-mâché snuffbox was mounted with gold so was plainly an object of vertu to be so mounted.
Paintings could be added to other materials

George II tortoiseshell and silver with handpainted miniature

These are the materials I found; I was truly astounded by the variety.  

China   a wide variety painted with scenes and portraits; the one described at the Old Bailey in 1775 was an ‘oval Saxon China snuffbox set in gold, with the figure of a dog in the top, with two brilliant diamonds for the eyes, value £20’. The one valued at 6d in 1784 was likely plain however….

China enamelled  I am not entirely sure what was meant by this; but I doubt there was anything like cloisonné enamelling as the one thus described was valued in 1775 at four bob, not worthy of any serious craftsmanship.

Gold  Which like silver may be chased, plain, inset with stones, enamelled and otherwise decorated or left to stand on its own merits; or make use of the different colours of gold like the French snuff box further up this post. .

Horn A useful organic material, and freely available when cattle were slaughtered.  Horn can be steamed flat and may be shaped to some extent.  It can be fine enough to let the light through – after all the windows in lanterns were made often of horn.  One horn snuff box was set with gold so not a material to be despised apparently for its availability.

Iron I shouldn’t much like to think of the flavour of snuff kept in iron unless it was lined.  Possibly the product of the local blacksmith: it was valued at a penny in 1779.

Ivory The tusks of the elephant form this much sort after and beautiful material, which carves finely and is beautiful in its own right.  It is more beautiful on the elephant but it is hard not to be impressed by a fine piece of ivory.  Any tusk will make ivory but elephant ivory is most sought after. One of the snuffboxes mentioned in the Old Bailey records was ivory let in with diamonds, valued in 1796 at £50.  Another in 1784 is described ‘ivory mounted with gold set with two pictures on the lid £8 one of a lady in orange’

Elephant Ivory and silver lined with tortoiseshell c 1820

Japanned  Japanning was generally on tin, and involved a heavy resinous varnish, usually black, to imitate Japanese lacquer work.  Wolverhampton and Bilston were the centres of Japanning in the era [at Bilston from 1719]. Typically gold and other coloured designs were laid on the black background.
The picture below gives some idea of Japanning though may not be a snuff box.

More information about the book can be found at:

Leather  Would have to be a fairly heavy leather; and might or might not be tooled, ie patterned by the use of a patterned die into the leather when wet, that would dry with the pattern set. 

Leather covered with skin I’m guessing here that the skin would be the same as the chicken skin that was painted to make fans.

Mocoa  The one instance I found of this was set with gold; I believe it is an exotic wood, but could be moss agate which was known at the time as Mocha stone having been brought, like coffee, from Mocha on the Red Sea.

Papier-mâché/paper Papier-mâché was used for many applications, mostly small in this era, it being the Victorians who took it to the extent of making furniture.  It dried as hard as wood and could be decorated in a wide variety of ways.

Semi-precious stone  The inventories included snuff boxes of amber, agate, lapis lazuli and bloodstone; some were doubtless hollowed out from a whole piece like the modern small soapstone boxes that are popular tourist pieces from places like India; but I’m guessing some would have been made from slices of stone joined. 

Silver and agate, George II

Gold and agate c 1820

Shagreen [for an excellent article on shagreen see Kathryn Kane’s Regency Redingote here:  Basically it’s a nubbly leather made of rawhide  of the wild ass or from ray skin.  I’m more familiar with it as a covering for sword hilts and telescopes for a decorative finish with a good grip for Naval officers.


Though I did not find any cowrie mentioned on the Old Bailey records, from the collection of Daniel Bexfield I found some very novel cowrie shell ones, and one incorporating shell: The two cowrie ones are George III, the shell an earlier one George II and perhaps a little early but I could not resist it…..

Silver and shell George II

George III 1814 made by John Parkes of Birmingham, an ingenious combination.

George III c 1790

Silver  which may be plain, chased, set with stones

1808 made by Matthew Linwood: the inscription is Recordanza or ‘remembrance’

Dutch silver snuffbox

George III silver

Tin base metal, probably stamped by the Regency period.

Tortoiseshell  Tortoiseshell is not actually tortoise shell but from the hawkbilled turtle. It is a beautiful material that can be easily shaped and bent and like Ivory is beautiful enough to endanger the unfortunate creature who has been killed to make objects of beauty.  In the Georgian era they were at least probably eating the turtle as well so at least it was a by product.  As well as the picture below see above for a more mottled tortoiseshell. 

George II Silver and tortoiseshell

Varnished  This intrigues me; is this varnished treen or laquer work? Wooden snuff boxes may not be mentioned but one may speculate that if lined or even varnished within treen would be an acceptable small box.

 Other ingenious additions might be made to the snuffbox; one of those mentioned at the Old Bailey was musical, valued at £50 in 1813.  The workings must have been meticulously small. 
From the collection of Daniel Bexfield I have also come across some other most ingenious designs: below is a four-hinged snuff box which opens towards you whichever way you are holding it:

Georgian 4-hinge snuff box

And then the William IV squeeze action one, which opens by squeezing it between forefinger and thumb as shown in the photo.  Out of the Georgian/Regency era but I could not resist this.  A handy piece of kit for those gents who could not manage the insouciant flip with one hand to open their snuff box. This too is perhaps a safer way for a Naval officer to open his snuffbox where a flip disrupted by a sudden wave might precipitate all his snuff into the briny: and perhaps appropriate that this is from the reign of the sailor king.

William IV squeeze action snuff box.

I have to say I learned a lot in poking around this subject and enjoyed looking at some very beautiful pieces of bijouterie.


  1. Don't laugh, but as I was reading this, I couldn't help thinking of...RELIQUARIES!! The design is occasionally similar, even if the scale is at a much smaller standard, and obviously many elements are different, including the secular purpose. But it occurred to me that the production of these boxes could have absorbed the expertise from an earlier craftsmanship of relic cases, and it makes me wonder about the origins of craftsmen who designed and executed these boxes.....


  2. I guess goldsmiths and silversmiths adapt to the requirements of their day.... of the same era as this there are etui aka etwee boxes for keeping sundry bits and pieces in which I'm still researching. Nowadays one can get similar boxes and they are sold as pill boxes.
    And scale wise, I have seen an exquisite and tiny reliquary for the finger bone of a saint somewhere on the web though offhand I can't recall if it was the same finger that Hugh of Lincoln bit off a French saint to have a relic for his own cathedral.
    And then HE was subsequently canonised.... o tempora o mores.

  3. Is that what you call cutting your teeth on saintly behavior??

    Never mind...

    Reliquaries could, occasionally take quite original forms, like the foot of Saint Andrew where the silver reliquary was shaped like a foot...but I think your point about craftsmanship tilting to meet the prevailing enthusiasm is a well-taken one...and thanks for your additional point (in correspondence) about cigarellos in Spain...

    I guess you've shown tht snuff boxes are art; nothing to be sneezed at!!!


  4. How big were they

  5. Hi Nan, just a few inches max, exquisite little things! There were bigger ones but generally they were tabletop ones, most personal ones are 2-3 inches, the Eighteenth century was a period that adored miniature things. Think of the sort of onyx-topped pill boxes made of base metal you can get in 'gifte shoppes'. The fingers in the William IV one give you some idea.

  6. We have just acquired a Cowrie shell snuff box in our inventory, it is rather fabulous. thought you may enjoy a --

  7. What a beautiful item, thank you for sharing it! much obliged.