Snuff: High Society’s Choice

Snuff, high society’s choice of tobacco inhalation, first appeared in England in the middle of the Sixteenth Century, along with tobacco imports from America.  Sir Walter Raleigh is usually supposed to have been the first to bring it home to the court of Queen Elizabeth 1, but Leonard Bolingbroke, of the Norwich Science Gossip Club, reckons that  it was more probably Ralph Lane (a lesser- known English explorer of the same period) in 1586.

The Norfolk Record Office (NRO) has the typed lecture notes which Mr Bolingbroke, solicitor and Registrar of the Diocese of Norwich, used for a talk to the Club in the late Nineteenth Century (NRO online catalogue entry: BOL 1/90, 739×2). He talks about Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America in the Fifteenth Century, when ‘the natives not only smoked tobacco, but they inhaled the powder of it through a cane half a cubit long into their nostrils.’ (A cubit is about 18 inches or 45.72 centimetres.)

bol 1.90

Typescript of talk entitled ‘Tobacco and Snuff in the Olden Time in England.’ Bolingbroke ends his talk with the above rhyme. NRO online catalogue entry: BOL 1/90, 739X2

Snuff was, at first, not as popular as tobacco. ‘Early snuff takers had to grind his [sic] own snuff in a grater or grinder’, Mr Bolingbroke continued.  ‘These were made of metal, wood, ivory or bone and beautifully carved or engraved. These days they are very rare.  They are not to be confused with a nutmeg grater.’

By the middle of the Eighteenth Century, snuff was being produced commercially and its use increased hugely.  A great variety of types of snuff became available, for example Masulipatam, Grimston’s Eye and Maccaboy.  This last was produced in Martinique and the word became an expletive used on the floor of the Stock Exchange in London.

Snuff boxes became collectors’ items, and could be made of silver, steel, pressed horn, wood and ivory.  They varied in price from two pence (in pre-decimal currency) to £2,000.  A large collection is held at Strangers’ Hall in Norwich.  Some are of papier maché, painted with great artistic skill. Others were like miniature books and even a coffin! Richard Bullard, of the Norwich brewing family, had a snuff box with the London hallmark for 1850, presented to him on his retirement from Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre in London (NRO online catalogue entry: BR 138/3).

Letter dated 20th January 1956 from E.C Bullard to 'Baker' regarding the inscription on a snuff box.

Letter dated 20th January 1956 from E.C Bullard to ‘Baker’ regarding the inscription on a snuff box. NRO online catalogue entry: BR 138/3

The energy for the commercial process to make snuff out of tobacco leaves was often a windmill.  A snuff mill was once situated on Carrow Hill, in or near the Norwich Black Tower.  According to the Records of the Norfolk Windmills Trust (NRO online catalogue entry: C/WT/1/19/115) ‘one of the towers of the old city walls is called the snuff tower, since it was surrounded by a windmill grinding this commodity’. The mill, later used for spinning cotton, had its machinery removed in 1833 and in the same year the Black Tower was struck by lightening and destroyed.

Mr Bolingbroke notes that even in the Nineteenth Century there was ‘an enormous amount of tobacco smoking literature, both for and against it on health grounds.’

If you would like to view these documents, drop by anytime during our opening hours. 

This entry was posted in Snapshots from the Archive and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s