Antiques Column: Sniff out snuff boxes of a quality Russian variety

Michael Dowse at the AE Dowse Auction house which will be closing doors at the premises on Scotland Street
Michael Dowse at the AE Dowse Auction house which will be closing doors at the premises on Scotland Street
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Snuff was pulverized tobacco which was sniffed up the nose. In 16th century France it was believed to be good for your health and was a popular past time taken up by both men and women. The custom of taking snuff was introduced into Britain a century later.

Snuff boxes were silver boxes produced to hold ready-rubbed snuff and were made in Britain from the beginning of the 18th century. A snuff box can be identified from other small silver boxes by the lip tucked under the lid on the inside; this helped to keep the snuff dry and prevented spillage.

The 18th century was a time of mechanical development and these new techniques ensured a plentiful supply of cheaply made snuff boxes from inexpensive sheet silver. Some snuff boxes were plain but many were lavishly decorated. Decoration could be scenes of battle or hunting, sometimes coat-of-arms or a more simple engine-turned design.

The decoration was usually embossed or enamelled. However, the Niello technique (using an amalgam of lead, copper, sulphur and silver to fill engraved decoration) was a popular technique in Russia at this time and good examples are sought after by collectors today.

Snuff boxes were also made in a larger variety. These ‘table snuff’ boxes would be used after dinner parties for a host to offer around to his guests. Taking snuff was in fashion in the 18th century but as with all fashions, it began to wane and by the mid-19th century its decline in popularity saw a similar decline in the production of snuff boxes.