Chinese Snuff Bottles From the End of an Era

Victoria & Albert Museum
Victoria & Albert Museum / Victoria & Albert Museum

Snuff, or powdered tobacco, became fashionable in Europe in the early 16th century. The habit of inhaling or “snuffing” tobacco through the nostrils was introduced from the Americas by Ramón Pané [PDF], a young friar who had accompanied Christopher Columbus on his 1494 voyage to the New World. Since pipe smoke was often considered vulgar among the European upper classes, particularly so for women, snuff was quickly adopted by the elite. Undoubtedly a more refined method of tobacco delivery, snuff-taking rapidly became a class indicator, distinguishing the well-bred from the lower classes.

As the practice of snuff spread across the European courts, it was hailed as a medical salve for a range of ailments and, as is the case with most luxury objects, snuff eventually worked its way to the middle classes. By the second half of the 17th century, the practice had become so common that merchants and missionaries visiting China introduced snuff to officials in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) court. The habit soon caught on in China as well. As in Europe, pipe smoking was considered a habit of the unrefined poor. In Chinese books like Tales of Romantic Heroes, pipe smokers are caricatured as lower-class and rough, a contrast to the refined gentleman depicted in the novel who insists that he "does not know how to smoke.”

In her book, Golden-Silk Smoke: A History of Tobacco in China, 1550–2010, the scholar Carol Benedict argues that the disagreeable association of smoking tobacco with the poor made snuff a welcome addition to the Qing court, and soon, the emperor himself was partaking. Unlike Europeans, however, China’s court had little use for snuff boxes. Instead it was customary to use snuff bottles, small corked containers that kept their pricey contents fresh and flavorful. Throughout the 18th century, snuff was an expensive habit; both snuff and snuff containers were almost solely associated with Qing patricians and royalty. Snuff bottles were a haute accessory, a status object that signified both the wealth and fashionability of its owner. Benedict notes that the association was so strong that, throughout the 18th century, snuff bottles were part of an elaborate system of gifting among the Chinese court.

Some of the earliest examples of snuff bottles are directly from the court itself and were produced during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722), the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty. The bottles, small and elaborate, demonstrated the international nature of snuff use, as their designs reflected European style and were made under the direction of European artists. But, as in Europe, snuff-taking soon trickled down to the lower classes and, by the 19th century, the practice was common among those of lower rank and status. The production of snuff bottles reflects that trickle-down to other economic classes in China, and these bottles, part of the Victoria & Albert’s sizable collection of snuff bottles, date from the late 19th to early 20th century, when snuff was more “democratic.”

These examples, painted by Lesan and manufactured at Pure Bamboo studios, are made of gray glass and feature a nature motif and colorful green and yellow stoppers. The production of Chinese snuff bottles ended with the Qing dynasty in 1911, and so the Victoria & Albert’s set dates from the end of a long and elaborate tradition.