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) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/41607

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), https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/41352

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.

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 MDBG.net! 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!