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: http://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/?s=shagreen 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.