Miniature Wood Snuff Bottle

So. Snuff bottles. Small bottles that were used to carry snuff (a.k.a. powdered tobacco). This week, I decided to take a break from embroidery and focus on these handheld bottles.

A miniature wood snuff bottle with a green jade stopper. Size comparison with a Canadian quarter. Image by Samantha Yeung.

What is snuff?

In a nutshell, snuff is finely ground tobacco. The powder is inhaled through the nose and delivers a nicotine kick. It is also harmful and addictive and is associated with nasal and oral cancers, esophageal cancer, and pancreatic cancer. Treatment of snuff addiction includes nicotine alternatives, medication, and a very close emotional support system. Basically, it is very, very harmful but people in the Qing Dynasty believed it was good for the health and used it to treat headaches and colds.

What are snuff bottles and who used them?

According to the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, inhaling snuff was a common alternative to smoking in Europe during the 17th century. This powder was imported to Europe from the New World and was stored in small metal boxes. These boxes would have hinged lids to preserve the tobacco powder. I was surprised to read this because during my research on the Karl Griesbaum bird box, I also read that bird boxes were initially based off of snuff boxes!

When snuff was imported to China in the late 16th century, snuff boxes could not compete against the more humid climate of East Asia. The hinges would eventually rust and fall apart and the powder would spoil. The boxes were also not every portable. Eventually snuff bottles were created as an effective alternative! Christie’s described that the bottles are typically 1.5 inches to 3 inches tall and fits comfortably in your hand. The material, colour, opacity, and size of the opening was determined by the type of snuff it would store.

Carving of a lion on the side of the snuff bottle. Image by Samantha Yeung.

Initially, snuff and snuff bottles were used by the elite in the 17th century but became commonplace amongst commoners in the 19th century. This also affected the quality and craftsmanship of the bottles. Bottles that were created for the Emperor would be crafted with the best care and attention with intricate details. Bottles that were mass produced by workshops were more generic and imagery would be printed on, rather than painted or carved.

The Snuff Bottle Society also stated that the end of the Qing Dynasty brought the end of the snuff bottle. Essentially, the fall of the Qing Dynasty marked the end of imperial rule in China. The royal family was overthrown during the Chinese Revolution between 1911 to 1912.

What are snuff bottles made of?

As stated before, the materials used were determined by the type of snuff it would store. When inhaling snuff became more commonplace, the design would also vary depending if it was commissioned by the elite or created for the masses. The use of snuff bottles were considered a status symbol. So depending on who commissioned them, the details, combination of materials, and the carvings of the bottle would vary in quality. As a result, some bottles are true works of art!

Carved Lacquer Snuff Bottle at the MET
Snuff bottle with children at play, 18th century China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911) Carved red lacquer; H. 2 1/2 in. (6.4 cm); H. incl. stand 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm); W. 2 3/8 in. (6 cm); D. 1 in. (2.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Edmund C. Converse, 1921 (21.175.359a, b)

Snuff bottles were typically made of jade or glass. The jade bottles were carved and clear glass bottles were painted with a brush from the inside! Stone, agate, and wood lacquer (as shown above) were also used. These materials would typically be carved. Other materials such as porcelain were painted with a cobalt blue underglaze (as shown below). The stopper could be made of the same material as the bottle or a small precious stone could be adhered. Occasionally, a bamboo or metal scoop would be attached to the stopper.

Snuff bottle with boys at play, 19th century
China, Porcelain painted with cobalt blue under a transparent glaze (Jingdezhen ware), H. 2 5/8 in. (6.7 cm),

I also found an awesome video of an artist painting various scenes into a glass bottle to give you an idea on how glass bottles would be painted!

The art inside a snuff bottle! Uploaded by SupChina.

One last thing to mention was that the intricacies of the carvings and paintings typically reflected the culture at the time. Some contained traditional auspicious Chinese symbols, folklore characters, or the bottles showed their interest in Western culture and technology.

If inhaling snuff was still a common practice today, I definitely would not doubt that internet memes and Marvel characters would be printed onto glass bottles. The Gangnam style craze from a few years ago? Sure. Doraemon and Pokemon? Absolutely. Eventually a couple hundred years into the future, people would start auctioning an Iron Man carved bottle. That would certainly be… interesting.