We are coming to the close of the third week of the field school! Only two weeks remaining.
Everyone worked really hard and completed their assessment units (motivated perhaps by James who suggested that if they were all completed the students could have Friday off!).
Now on to today’s artifact of the day!
Marit found it in the midden, and we believe it to be a snuff bottle. Certainly the handful of tobacco tags and the spittoon suggest use of chewing tobacco at this site. The dozens of fragments of white kaolin pipes, and several Bakelite pipe mouthpieces tell us also that some people were smoking tobacco on the site.
Today’s find suggests yet another use of tobacco, this time consumed through the nose! Snuff is finely ground tobacco that was “snuffed” through the nose. Snuff-taking by the Taino and Carib Indigenous peoples in the Lesser Antilles was first observed in the 15th century by a Franciscan monk travelling on Columbus’s second voyage. He brought snuff back to Spain and the practice soon spread throughout Europe, in particular by the French ambassador Jean Nicot (where we get the name nicotine from!).
Snuff was often flavoured with fruit, spices, floral oils, or menthol.
The name snuff comes from the Dutch, who called it snuif and were using it by about 1560. It quickly became an important luxury commodity. It didn’t really catch on to colonial use in the Americas, although American aristocracy took up the habit, modelled after the English style of snuff use. The use of snuff in England gradually became more common during the next 150 years. Unlike Spain, at that time there were few mills in the country to grind the tobacco leaf into powder, and users therefore made up their own daily supply – so as to keep it fresh.
British royalty were big fans of snuff—King George III’s wife was known as “Snuffy Charlotte” and had an entire room at Windsor Castle devoted to her snuff stock. In 1843, Queen Victoria once gave a golden snuffbox to a French butcher who served her “particularly fine beef” on a visit to King Louis Philippe of France.
Snuff grew in popularity after the Great Plague of London, as it was believed to have valuable medicinal properties. Despite its popularity, the practice was not accepted everywhere. Writings by Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century ban the use of snuff in churches and threaten excommunication for snuff-takers.
By the 1700s, the use of snuff peaked in England during the reign of Queen Anne. At this time, domestic production of ready-made snuff blends was well underway in England, although home-blending was still quite common. A Mrs Margaret Thompson of Burlington Gardens, who died in 1776 stipulated in her will:
I desire that all my handkerchiefs that I may have unwashed at the time of my decease, after they have been got together by my old and trusty servant, Sarah Stuart, be put by her, and by her alone, at the bottom of my coffin, which I desire may be made large enough for that purpose, together with a quantity of the best Scotch snuff (in which she knoweth I had the greatest delight) as will cover my deceased body; and this I desire more especially as it is usual to put flowers into the coffins of departed friends, and nothing can be so precious and fragrant to me than that precious powder.
She went on to request that Ms Stuart walk in front of her pallbearers, scattering snuff into the crowd and on their path. The pallbearers were to be the “six greatest snuff-takers in St James”, and were asked to dress in brown instead of black, and take snuff freely as they liked.
Snuff was seen as less common than smoking tobacco, and thus was the tobacco product of choice among the elite. By Victorian times, snuff was often used in snake oil claims, such as published in a London Weekly journal called The Gentlewoman, which claimed taking a particular kind of Portugese snuff would cure poor vision and allow one to read without spectacles!
By the mid-1850s, snuff boxes and associated formality had been somewhat rejected in the North American colonies. Instead, new traditions such as dipping a twig into the ground tobacco and depositing an amount in the cheek (a precursor to dipping tobacco, which is essentially moist snuff) were popular. The mid-nineteenth century invention of cigarettes though was the main death knell to snuff.
Our artifact is a small metal bottle with an embossed design. Snuff became stale very quickly, so it was common for a snuff box or bottle to only have enough for a day or two’s use.
It appears to have been made by stamping out each side and crimping them together at the seam. It looks like it was plated in some kind of shiny metal, which has mostly worn off.
A small neck was inserted into the bottle, and presumably there was a stopper of some kind, which is missing. The bottle does have what looks like ground vegetative matter still inside! It’s interesting that we found this artifact on site, I have some thoughts about what it could mean:
- it could have belonged to someone who practiced snuff-taking past the mid-nineteenth century decline
- it could have been someone who was following the more aristocratic idea of snuff compared to smoking to set themselves apart
- or, it is just a family momento that was curated past the popularity of snuff
- or, this could suggest the person was recently from Europe, where snuff-taking was still popular for longer
We’ll never know for certain, but certainly an interesting find!