Snuff Box, sheet copper

Snuff Box, sheet copper

Snuff Box

Sheet copper, raised, tinned inside and engraved
England, dated 1792
Owner's initials 'IAR, 1792'
Croft Lyons bequest

Tobacco was introduced into Europe from South America in the 1560s. Over the next 100 years smoking became popular, particularly in Britain and the Netherlands, although taking snuff (powdered tobacco) was considered more gentlemanly. Snuff-taking required proper etiquette. One inhaled a pinch in each nostril from the base of the thumb, used a handkerchief to dab one's nose and brush one's collar, and at all times resisted sneezing.

A large consignment of tobacco commandeered by English ships at Vigo Bay was sold on the London market in 1703, increasing its popularity. Snuff boxes became essential accessories for the man about town and provided lucrative business for manufacturers. By 1750 snuff boxes were mass produced in brass.

Snuff boxes needed to be light and comfortable if they were to be carried in one's pocket. Coffin-shaped snuff boxes reminded snuff-takers that life's pleasures would pass. This one reinforces the message with an engraved hourglass on the lid. They were sufficiently popular to be noticed by Charles Dickens. "'You'll make your fortune, Mr. Sowerberry,' said the beadle, as he thrust his thumb and forefinger into the proffered snuff-box of the undertaker: which was an ingenious little model of a patent coffin." (Oliver Twist, 1839)