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.


Qing Dynasty Silk Embroidered Panels

I’m a little late on updating this week because the history of Chinese silk embroidery dates back thousands of years with many different styles and schools. I wanted to take more time to do some further research to make sure I was describing the right timeframe and style of embroidery.

At the beginning of my research, I was told that these pieces were from the Qing Dynasty. But, based on what I found about the Sixi Wawa last week, there was a cultural bleed from the Ming Dynasty to Qing! So artistic interests and practice could easily have been passed down. That grey area could make it difficult to date these pieces. In other words, research brought more questions than answers. Once I have more time to do further research, I’ll post an update!

Anyway, worries aside, I took photos of two embroidered pieces.

What were they made of?

The panels and sleeves are typically made of silk threads sewn into silk fabric. The fabric can also be dyed a certain colour, but they are typically beige. Occasionally, gold thread would be used on its own or woven into the silk thread to give the piece some glimmer. Typical stitches that were used include the seed stitch, satin stitch, Pekinese stitch, and couching stitch. I don’t have a picture of the seed stitch. This article by Marla Mallett has some great information on the seed and Pekinese stitches!

Currently, these types of panels are priced based on the condition of the stitches (if they’re still intact), the colour vibrancy of the threads (they are not colourfast), the colours that were used (bright yellow, purple, and red were reserved for the royal family) and the condition of the silk fabric (presence of any stains, pulls, and pills). Some pieces were intended to be appliqué on clothing which could show some wear and tear. Also, the fact that these pieces are organic makes fixing stains and preserving colour very difficult. So you’re very fortunate if you own a brightly coloured piece!

What were they used for?

Historically, the royal family would employ hundreds of embroiderers to create pieces and clothing for them. For example, some of these requests included clothing for the royal family, palace decor, and costumes for the royal theatre troop.

As you can see, these panels and sleeves are very versatile. During the Qing Dynasty, they were used as wall hangings or the two reflected pieces were separated and sewn into clothing as decorative panels. This practice of decorating walls, pillars, and screens was also done throughout the past dynastic periods as well!

I also found a panel on the website for The Metropolitan Museum of Art called Fairy and Crane. This panel is dated to the 18th Century during the Qing Dynasty (although, the metadata states it’s from the Ming Dynasty as well… Remember what I said about overlapping cultures?) and is sewn in the same style as the ones we own. Based on the condition of the colours and the type of stitches that were used, I’d say I could safely date my grandpa’s panels to the early Qing Dynasty as well.

Note: This is just an estimated date. I’m not a professional!

Panel, first half of the 18th century China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644) Silk, pearls, coral; on silk; 25 3/4 x 14 3/4 in. (65.41 x 37.47 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1925 (25.59.1)

I encourage collectors to also check out The MET! The website has some great pieces! It’s also a great resource for collectors as all their pieces are dated in dynasty and century.

I’ll have to say goodbye for now and update with a part 2 later on. I’ve only skimmed the very surface of a very deep and interesting history. I’ll try to keep all my updates to Sunday morning but research-intensive topics like these might push me behind schedule. We’ll see what the future brings! See you next week!

Sixi Wawa (四喜娃娃) Four-Happiness Doll

This week, I decided to go really niche and showcase the Sixi Wawa. The origin of the Sixi Wawa dates to the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) and was believed to be created by scholar Xie Jin as a request by the Yongle Emperor. This antique figurine was typically made of stones (for example jade) or porcelain and is shaped as four baby boys conjoined together. The four babies form an optical illusion. From the front view, they look like they’re crawling and from the side view, they look like they’re sitting down. These figurines can be displayed at home or a string can be thread through the hole and worn as a good luck charm.

Top view of the Sixi Wawa
Top view of the Sixi Wawa. Image by Samantha Yeung.

Definition: Sixi Wawa (四喜娃娃):

  • Si (四), four
  • Xi (喜), pronounced like “she”, happiness
  • Wawa (娃娃), baby, doll

Surprisingly, it appears that the figure is more commonly known as Sixi Wawa rather than an Anglicized name in English-speaking communities. I’m guessing it’s a Chinese name that can be easily spoken by English-speakers. Alternative translations I’ve seen besides Four-Happiness Doll is Four-Happiness Baby, and a long string of words like “Four Baby Boys Sitting Upright”.

Note: If you’re looking for audio pronunciations of Chinese characters, you can copy and paste the characters into! It’s a great Chinese-English dictionary/translator that I’ve been using for years. I highly recommend it.

Baby's face on the Sixi Wawa
A close-up of the face. Image by Samantha Yeung.

The figurine that I have is sculpted in porcelain into a hollow square shape. The four boys are wearing different coloured children’s dudou (commonly translated as a bellyband, a piece of cloth that covers the chest and belly, tied around the body).

Why does it represent “Four Happiness”?

Beijing Tourism has a great summary about the Sixi Wawa! It is commonly theorized that the name is inspired by four things that scholar Xie Jin values. These are “one’s wedding night, to succeed in an imperial exam, to have a welcome rain after a long drought, and to come across an old friend in a distant land.” This quote was pulled from the Beijing Tourism website which I thought was beautifully written.

Although the figurine was created in the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), the Sixi Wawa was popular during the Qing Dynasty (1636 to 1911) as well. These figurines were dubbed by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty as the “God of Happiness” and was valued during weddings.

(A word of warning, Beijing Tourism cites another website as the source of this information. Do not go there because it contains malware!)

In recent times:

Sixi Wawa are still produced! But they’re usually molded out of metal rather than porcelain, jade, or petrified wood. The figure is not very well known in the Western world, but if you search 四喜娃娃 into a search engine, many listings of metal Sixi Wawa will appear for sale on Chinese websites. To be honest, I’d rather be gifted a metal Sixi Wawa than something delicate so I could take it with me for good luck! Maybe it would’ve helped me with exams during my undergrad. I would’ve had to put the charm in that giant anti-cheating ziploc bag under my desk but the placebo confidence boost might’ve helped me succeed!

Vintage Miniature Daisho Set

This week I wanted to showcase something cute. Compared to the previous weeks’ items, this one is more of a novelty toy. Decades ago, my grandpa went on a trip to Japan. During his trip, he picked up a miniature daisho letter opener set. These letter openers resemble a katana (the longer sword) and wakizashi (the shorter sword).

Some definitions:

  • daisho/daishō: (大小), literally big-little, refers to the pair of big and little swords.
  • katana: (刀 or かたな), a long, curved sword with a single-edged blade, commonly used by samurai.
  • wakizashi (脇差), worn with a katana, symbolizes the wearer is a samurai.
The miniature daisho set, complete with katana, wakizashi, and wooden stand. Image by Samantha Yeung.

Both swords can be used to open letters. The blades aren’t sharp enough to cut you, but they can smoothly run through the edge of an envelope.

These swords are commonly sold as toys or as a novelty office conversation starter. If you search phrases such as “katana letter opener”, “miniature katana”, “toy katana”, you’d see website listings for these swords. I’ve also read that these swords are a popular gift for Japan’s Children’s Day holiday!

These swords are commonly sold as a single sword, others (like this set) has both the katana and wakizashi on a stand. I’ve also seen a set of three swords!

So how do you display them properly?

According to Paul Chen Hanwei, from Paul Chen Hanwei Swords, typically in times of peace, a katana would be sheathed. The blade is also stored pointing up with the handle on the left. An interesting tidbit he mentioned is that the katana is typically held in the samurai’s right hand. In times of war, the handle would be displayed on the right side which makes it easier to grab. So, if a handle points right, it symbolizes hostility. When it points left, it symbolizes peace. The wakizashi would then be mounted underneath the katana in the same fashion.

So if you want a passive-aggressive way to subtly show your coworkers that you dislike them, point the handles to the right. Not this image though! I don’t hold any hostility toward you guys!

I placed the handles to the left. Let’s chat and be friends! Image by Samantha Yeung.

How you display your swords can symbolize different things, but many times, a sword could be displayed unsheathed for aesthetic purposes. The sheath would be stored underneath the blade, rather than a wakizashi. Also, other hobbyists prefer to display their larger swords underneath the smaller swords. According to Samurai University, the smaller sword (tanto) would be displayed on the top shelf because that is the sword that is removed first when they are placed on the stand. The larger sword (daito) is then placed on the bottom shelf.

So it appears that there is an agreement on handle symbolism, but displaying swords depend on how you were taught.

More definitions:

  • tanto/tantō (短刀), a type of short sword, worn with a katana or another longer sword.
  • daito/daitō (大刀), literally large/long sword, not to be confused with daisho.
  • shoto/shotō (小刀), literally small/short sword, describes short swords in general. Combining the words daito and shoto creates the word daisho (大小).

This is honestly such a cute letter opener. If you ever have the opportunity to buy one of these, I highly recommend it! You don’t have to display it in your office, it’ll look nice on a bookshelf, fireplace, display cabinet, by your TV… The list goes on! Just remember to dust it once in a while. It looks the best when the metal is shiny and polished!

Karl Griesbaum Singing Bird Cage

This bird cage was actually sitting in my grandma’s display cabinet for decades. When I was little, sometimes she would take this out and show us. However, this was a rare treat because this bird cage meant a lot to her and she would rather leave it untouched. Buuut, during those couple decades, it would literally be collecting dust! Before I went to take photographs, I had to dust off their feathers with a very tiny and very soft watercolour brush. It felt like delicate surgical work. I was so anxious about poking the head off or scraping off a feather. But the good thing is none of that happened and I managed to clean most of it off!

Last time, when I wrote about the Karl Griesbaum bird music box, I couldn’t demonstrate how it worked because it didn’t have a wind up key. Fortunately, this cage came with the key attached! I’m a little hesitant on winding it up. You’ll see restorers and collectors wind up their cages many times. The most I’m comfortable with is two. But anyway, I recorded a video of how it sounds!

Karl Griesbaum Singing Bird Cage uploaded by Samantha Yeung

The history of the Karl Griesbaum musical bird cages actually is more obscure compared to the music box. Possibly because logically, if you have a pet bird, you would put it in a cage. Even if it was free roaming in your house, it probably has a cage to sleep in. On the other hand, the idea of a tiny bird popping out of a silver box to sing to you is charming. Maybe that’s why the boxes were more popular. The other factor is that Bontems bird cages from France appear to be more common. The birds look more realistic and models can come in life-like sizes. They also behave and sound chirpier and twitchy (you know how small birds move in a twitchy manner?), basically more realistic overall compared to the Griesbaum models.

Antique Bontems giant singing bird cage uploaded by Singing bird boxes

The birds can appear very lifelike! Here is another model from Bontems. Very cute and fluffy.

Bontems Singing Bird Cage uploaded by Skevoukloges

The mechanisms for this bird cage is very similar to the bird music box that I covered last week. The sound is produced by whistles and bellows. All mechanical and no electricity required! In the video below, restorer, appraiser, and collector Troy Duncan explains how the mechanism works.

Antique singing bird cage (Bontems) mechanism explained uploaded by Singing bird boxes

I believe my grandpa acquired both the bird box and the bird cage at the same time. They were stored together in my grandma’s display cabinet for decades. The way the birds are put together and how they sound also seem to be pretty much the same.

Unfortunately there will be no history blurb because historical information is flooded by auction listings. But I hope the videos were interesting enough.

See you next week!