A basic guide to Collecting Snuff Boxes

Snuff boxes come in all shapes and sizes and are made from an array of different materials. Inhaling snuff was witnessed in Europe as far back as the 15th century. Until then little was known about the weed we know today as tobacco. By the second half of the 17th century the consumption of tobacco in a powder form (snuff) had become widespread leading to a demand for small boxes to keep the precious powder dry.

In the early 1800's French Jewellers began making fine, ornate snuff boxes from gold embellished with jewels and semi-precious stones. By the 1740's artisans had taken over the production of these ornate tabatieres which they  chased, engraved and enamelled. A close cousin of the tabatiere was the tabatiere a cage whose sides, tops and bottoms featured gold or metal frames holding panels of decorated ivory, agate, tortoiseshell, or porcelain.

The shapes of these snuff boxes was not limited to rectangles; trunk shapes, ovals and shell forms were also produced. Similarly whilst in most cases the material from which the box was fashioned was sufficient for decoration, some of these ornate holders were painted with landscapes or portraits.

The production of silver snuff boxes came to the fore in England, particularly Sheffield, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries when manufacturing techniques were improved and silver plating techniques perfected. Birmingham blossomed as a centre for the production of silver snuff boxes in the 19th century where silversmiths such as William Pemberton, Nathanial Mills, and Edward Smith produced oblong containers with pictures of castles and abbeys on their tops and sides.

Birmingham was also a centre for the production of papier mache snuff boxes which were hardened by the application of layers of enamelling. These boxes were often painted with decorative scenes or portraits.

As the growth in tobacco use spread and became more affordable, so the range of these small snuff boxes grew: from bejewelled boxes made from precious metals to simple holders made from base metals, wood, and paper.

Some collectors buy early pieces made from the highest quality materials but there are many more accessible collecting areas. Treen pieces turned into novelty shapes such as shoes are  popular. Novelty containers or puzzle boxes are widely collected. Some snuff boxes have combination turning wheels to gain entry - combining novelty with a recognition of the value of the material when the boxes were produced. Papier Mache snuffs come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes decorated with miniature painted scenes. The rectangular containers crafted by  fine silversmiths such as Nathanial Mills or William Pemberton are in high demand. Contrast these with collectable snuff boxes used by coal miners made from brass (so as not to produce sparks when underground)  and often engraved with their name and colliery, and you can begin to appreciate the range of collecting opportunities in this area.

Whist snuff taking itself is no longer fashionable, the demand for snuff boxes remains strong. These diminutive containers, whether beautiful and precious, curious, novel or tactile, or evocative of high society or subterranean industry, offer an intriguing insight into our past.

I have a particular interest in snuff containers made by sailors or prisoners of war (sometimes crudely or naively) from whatever naterials were available to them : mutton bone, nuts or shell, tooth, or wood. I also collect the beautifully tactile Scottish snuff Mulls made from ram's horn. I personally find these folk art/folklore items as "valuable"  in terms of historical importance as their fine art contemporaries and try to include such items in my stock here at Green Parrot Antiques & Collectables. Please see the Photo Gallery for current or recent examples.