Sniffing snuff was an original method of taking tobacco, first used by American Indians and Europeans. They became interested in the practice when Christopher Columbus reputedly first noticed Chinese people sniffing a mysterious powder during his second voyage of discovery (1494-6).
He brought the substance back to Europe.
Early records suggest both the church and the state favoured the use of snuff, i.e. tobacco ground to a fine powder with herbs and spices added to enhance the aroma and increase the flavour over smoking tobacco. Especially after early experiments at prohibiting its import failed.
The Portuguese arrived by sea on the coastline of China first in 1514. Within a decade establishing trade agreements with officials through the port of Macao and bringing tobacco into Europe.
The English and Dutch followed, and by the mid 1600’s trade with Cathay for many of its goods was brisk.
Mariners and merchants relentlessly plied their trade, in an ever-expanding western commercial world.
By increasing the use of snuff, the necessity and demand for petite containers with a secure stopper that were both easily portable and airtight to preserve the snuff’s freshness and flavor, grew. This provided a very special medium and challenge for artists to surmount.
By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were being produced in large numbers, and in an astonishing array of media.
The exquisite miniature masterpieces made during the reign of the Emperors Yongzheng (1723–35), Qianlong (1736–95) and Jiaqing (1796–1820) were particularly prized for their technical virtuosity and artistic sophistication.
For a long time the high cost meant that snuff was only taken by the wealthy and elite socially in Europe.
They sniffed it in the salons in which the polite conversation of these cultivated gatherings were constantly punctuated by the sound of sneezing.
Gradually the self-induced sneeze became a new ‘affect’ the aristocracy could use to distinguish themselves from everyone else.
To sneeze haphazardly was not sufficient: the sneeze had to make an impact and in a setting that the protagonist would be noticed.
Sneezing became an essential aspect of a connoisseur’s conversation. It was a communication of a kind described as a bored man’s punctuation.
It was indulged in whenever one desired to show disapproval or a lack of interest in a subject under discussion.
As a result, anything ‘not to be sneezed at’ indicated that the conversation was perversely worthwhile.
Within a few decades tobacco was cultivated in many parts of the continent and tobacco shops specializing in different types of tobacco began to emerge.
Authorities turned their attention to collecting tariffs on the sale and import of tobacco, rather than trying to regulate its use, which they knew would fail.
There is considerable contradiction among the many and varied testaments regarding the introduction of snuff to China. Some records depict tobacco being presented to a Ming Chinese Emperor as a gift from a Jesuit missionary.
Some historians have pointed to evidence that tobacco was introduced to China by way of Japan, who, in turn, was thought to have been introduced to tobacco by the Portuguese trading community at Macao or the Spaniards in Manila, with a dating of the late 1500s.
What is clear, however, is that by 1638 tobacco used for smoking was prevalent enough in China for the Ming Emperor, Ch’ung-cheng to issue a ban on its use or import at the risk of losing one’s head. Court records indicate the ban was ineffective, in spite of the dire penalty.
They also suggest the Emperor lamented to his court in 1641 he was unable to enforce the ban as “many princes and high officials were guilty of ignoring the ban, smoking in private”.
Tobacco usage in China began to bloom shortly after the Ming dynasty gave way to the Qing dynasty of the Manchus in 1644. They endeavoured unsuccessfully to establish a code of no smoking at court.
However the prestige associated with the use of snuff recounted by early European visitors indicate that it became the tobacco of choice under the Ching dynasty – a preserve of the wealthy and powerful.
It was the same in Europe where by the late seventeenth snuff became the rage and vogue, especially among the Spanish and French. At first it gained only limited acceptance in England until Charles II was restored to the English throne.
He brought the habit back from his years of exile in France where one can imagine he was involved in many long and boring conversations.
His Restoration in 1660 would ensure that it would become fashionable at court and thereafter the province of every European aristocrat and man of fashion.
It wasn’t only men who became involved. Reputedly Queen Anne (1702 – 1714) enjoyed snuff and some of her ladies took up the habit too.
Later Queen Charlotte, Consort of George III would acquire the name ‘snuffy Charlotte’ because of her passion for it. Her son, later George IV, is also believed to have changed his snuff according to the time of day keeping it in a storage room purposely set aside in each of his places of abode.
The European practice of using snuffboxes was not suitable in China, owing to the high humidity in East Asia. Snuff tended to cake and lose its subtle properties when exposed to moisture.
The Chinese had, for centuries, used small bottles to house medicament’s and cosmetics and it is probable the early adaptations of these by the addition of a cork with an attached spoon, accounts for the earliest known snuff bottles. The dating of snuff bottles is a matter of some controversy.
The earliest recorded are a series of basic bronze examples signed and dated by the artist Cheng Rongzhang between 1644-1653 at the beginning of the Qing dynasty.
The habit of snuff taking gained enormous impetus when it was adopted by the Emperor Kangxi (r. 1662-1723) in the early 1680s.
Once Imperial patronage was directed towards the manufacture of snuff bottles there was an extraordinary leap in quality.
Generally small enough to fit in the palm of the hand a wide variety of media was used in crafting them.
This included ivory, wood, tortoise shell, amber, coral, ink stone and seashells and even leather work as well as glass. (analysis of glass produced in the Ming and Qing periods have helped identify certain basic chemical substances that make up old glass.
However the information is not sufficient for modern glass workshops to produce glass to match the quality of the different types and colours of old glass from this period)
The Emperor Kangxi during his fifty-five year reign, which began when he was only eight years old, is acknowledged for the restoration of order during the transition from the Ming Dynasty to the Ching Dynasty.
Exerting an all-embracing control of the production of all desirable objects for court use he allowed workshops to be set up within the Palace precincts in Beijing and in certain designated cities such as Suzhou and Guangzhou so he could monitor them. Each decorative discipline had its own workshop. The Enamelling Workshop, the Glass Factory The Painting Workshop, The Ivory Workshop, The Gilding Workshop and so forth and out of these came an amazing array of bottles to hold snuff.
The Imperial glass works was established by the Emperor Kangxi in 1696 under the supervision of a Jesuit priest, Kilian Stumpff. A skilled glass maker the glass for these works originated in Shantung, although the cutting itself was done in Beijing.
The finest craftsmen in the land were drafted to work in these ateliers often for the duration of their lifetimes. Snuff bottles were high on the list of items ordered and with their great aesthetic beauty they gradually became much sought after treasures among the court and literati classes.
Snuff bottles were ideal as gifts given by the Emperors on special feast days and on their various travels around the kingdom. It is not likely the earliest workshops produced large quantities of snuff bottles, as the use of snuff had not quite flourished even though records suggest Kangxi may have been a snuff user.
There are records that indicate Kangxi bestowed gifts of snuff bottles on favoured subjects and courtiers.
The Emperor became entranced by European enamels as early as 1710 and when his craftsmen had difficulties controlling the firing he ordered Jesuit artist Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining), who was resident at his court, to supervise the enamelling workshops.
With help from his colleagues Attiret and Gravereau, Castiglione brought the art of enamelling on copper and glass bodies to its peak.
Castiglione is a rare event in the history of China. He was an Italian priest who managed through his attitude of respect and admiration for its artisans and scholars to find favour with the Emperor.
He influenced Chinese artisans introducing European techniques of light, shadowing and perspective into painting enabling them to enhance there already admired skills in landscape and flower painting.
The reign of Emperor Qianlong 1736–95 is what scholars, dealers and collectors of snuff bottles regard as the golden era of this art form.
The quality of the bottles manufactured at that time by the Imperial workshops was extremely high, the variety limited and the materials used, precious.
Nephrite, or Jade as we more commonly call it was in use in China for more than 5,000 years. Jade was defined as beautiful stones by Xu Zhen (about 58-147) in Shuo Wen Jie Zi, the first Chinese dictionary.
It is generally classified into soft jade (nephrite) and hard jade (jadeite).
China only had the soft jade, nephrite until jadeite was imported from Burma (1271-1368). The term Jade traditionally refers to soft jade and it is also often called traditional jade.
Under supervision in the Palace workshops large numbers of bottles were made of nephrite, often in matched sets of five or ten and presented in fitted boxes, many of which survive to this day, carefully stored and preserved by generations of a family as precious possessions.
Emperor Qianlong (1736-1796) very much admired the virtues of jade and many examples bears his mark. It was kept in the Palace of Eternal Longevity. Under the patronage of Qianlong the Imperial workshops produced faultless art works of extreme beauty and skill.
Notable for their vivid colouring, variety, stunning decoration, technical bravado and brilliance they were praised by late Qing connoisseurs.
Glass remained a favoured medium as it fascinated a succession of Emperors from Kangxi to Qianlong over a period of more than one hundred years.
The Chinese treated glass much differently during this period than it is today. The Chinese cut and polished glass like a precious stone.
The glass workshop was one of the glories of the Qing dynasty producing an infinite variety of snuff bottles in all hues through the skillful use of metallic oxides.
The art of carved overlay on glass was also developed to a high degree with snuff bottles providing the finest examples of the medium.
The tradition of paying tribute to the Emperor meant many local officials were involved in the production of snuff bottles utilising local materials and the craftsmen for which a particular region was well known.
The best bottles had fitted boxes made for them and were kept in qian qing gong or, the Palace of Heavenly Purity and yang xin dian, the Hall of Mental Cultivation.
No longer intended for use they became instead precious objects to please the Emperor who would spend hours examining them all.
During this period refining the snuff used in the bottles became another concern.
An art of blending ensued as different tobacco’s were mixed with fragrant spices adjusted to the requirements of the local market and differing from the flavours of imported snuffs.
Artisans began to create beautiful miniature snuff bottles incorporating Chinese legends as a prestigious form of welcome gift, official bribe or as a sign of favour to dignitaries and officials at court.
This more than likely led to an early acceptance of snuff bottles as items highly worthy to collect.
According to records, the Emperor Quinlong’s corrupt prime minister Heshen had more then three thousand snuff bottles in his personal collection at the time of his execution in 1799.
The final great contribution of the snuff bottle to the arts of the Qing dynasty was the technique of painting their inner surface from the inside out through a technique that first painted the interior with iron oxydal mixed with water.
This created a milky white surface suitable to take the paints, which were applied subsequently.
This art form first invented in the early 19th century by scholar-artists reached its height of skill, execution and popularity in Beijing between 1880 to 1910.
Snuff bottles of this genre include landscapes, flower pieces and other works.
Tremendous artistic endeavours were lavished on these petite bottles, and exquisite detail in miniature, mirrored larger objects of similar material and design.
The best examples of these will show even under magnification little or no loss of detail; such was the meticulous nature and skill of the Chinese artisans who made them. Created in a day or less of painstakingly intricate brushwork they truly are works of art.
It is not unusual to find snuff bottles made of Yixing clay a highly favoured material also used for the manufacture of tea pots.
Likewise snuff bottles were carved from duan ink cake which was normally used by Mandarin scholars to mix with water to make ink.
Exotic materials include sharkskin more often used as the leather for a knife or sword sheaths.
Not only were the materials from other art forms employed, but so also were decorative techniques and motifs.
Numerous examples of snuff bottles made of ‘rustic’ and natural materials include ivory, amber, lacquer, coconut and gourd for the literati class and the court who prided themselves on their empathy with nature.
Snuff bottles of hard stones, such as chalcedony, were also made in large numbers some superbly carved using natural colour variations to enhance the detail. Snuff bottles decorated with the finest miniature calligraphy, perhaps recounting a poem from classical Chinese literature were highly desirable.
Until the early 1900s the volume of snuff produced in China far exceeded that of tobacco for smoking or chewing.
Everyone took it – from the poet Alexander Pope to naturalist Charles Darwin, actress Sarah Siddons and the Duke of Wellington. Lord Nelson took large quantities to sea with him, while Napoleon sniffed over seven pounds a month.
Physicians made great claims for it, prescribing snuff for headaches, insomnia, toothache, coughs and colds and recommending it as a measure against contagion.
Today snuff containers remain eminently collectible.
The enormous variety in materials, the subject matter, the colour and shape provides a fascinating trail for the dedicated collector.
Their rise in value has inevitably made snuff bottles well worth copying, and the potential collector must tread with extreme care.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010-2014-2019