Snuff and nonsense

I see Terry Pratchett is working on a book by the title of Snuff. He says this title will play on the fact that the word “snuff” has more than one meaning (I can think of three). I’m guessing the scenario will be something along the lines of “snuff becomes popular in Ankh-Morpork and there’s a murder, also some candles need putting out fast.”

Snuff, perhaps sadly (perhaps not, depending who you are) is a habit that’s virtually dead in this country. Despite the fact that smoking is becoming less and less legal, there’s no sign of any major resurgence, either. Snuff, if you aren’t familiar with it, is powdered tobacco taken nasally. It’s normally taken either in the form of a pinch between the forefinger and thumb, sniffed from there, or snorted off the back of the hand. Particularly enthusiastic snuffers may choose to snort a line of the length of their forearm. It commonly induces sneezing, but I’m informed this is more common among beginners.

Enthusiasts of the brown stuff point out that it’s probably safer than smoking, and the British Medical Journal notes that it doesn’t involve taking carbon monoxide and tar into your lungs – they note that there may possibly be a risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. I’m going to put in the fact that nicotine – the most addictive substance on the market – is still a thing with snuff. However, one thing both its enthusiasts and detractors have to admit is that the habit is so uncommon these days that it’s impossible to come to any definite conclusions about it. Still, speaking as a non-smoker, it’s a lot less annoying to the rest of us than smoking. Just don’t sneeze on me, yeah?

Snuff first appeared in the sixteenth century, but reached the height of its popularity in the eighteenth. The reason for this was largely availability. During the 1702 Battle of Cadiz, Sir George Rooke seized fifty tons of fine Cuban snuff, which was distributed among the sailors and sold on dirt-cheap at the English ports. With the habit firmly established, a kind of snuff culture began to grow up. Accessories such as the rather exciting snuff box above began to appear (and now fetch a pretty penny at antiques markets). Rules and etiquette were established for the offering of snuff – depending on the person, you could offer them the Pinch Careless, the Pinch Surly, the Pinch Politick, the Pinch Scornful, and presumably some nice ones as well. There were those who condemned the habit on health grounds, but also those who believed it could be beneficial (for instance, the Gentlewoman’s Magazine advised that it could cure sight problems).

There were many varieties of tobacco available, and more could be created by careful blending. Later in the century, artificially scented varieties became available. Ingredients used included prunes, port wine, ale and even strong cheese. Why you’d want prune-flavoured tobacco, I don’t know. Mind you, I also don’t know why you’d want to wear a periwig, but people still did it.

I think I can safely say that the most devoted snuff-taker in England is one described by H. W. Morton, one Mrs Margaret Thompson of Burlington Gardens. Such was her enthusiasm for the powder that when she died in 1776, she 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 also requested that the aforementioned Ms Stuart should walk in front of her bearers, scattering snuff in their path and on to the crowd. The said bearers should the six greatest snuff takers in St James, each of whom should carry a box of snuff from which they should feel free to take as much as they fancy. Instead of black, they were to wear brown.

I think if I were a smoker, I should demand similar arrangements as an up-yours to the healthcare profession.

What really killed snuff as a habit for all but a handful of devotees was the appearance of cigarettes in the middle of the nineteenth century, again as a result of war – British soldiers in the Crimea picked up the habit from their Turkish allies. Another contributing factor may have been a fashion for white handkerchiefs – without getting too detailed, it’s a little difficult to keep a clean handkerchief when you spend your day shoving brown powder up your hooter.

Will snuff ever make a return? I rather doubt it, unless cigarettes were banned outright. Still, it is worth noting that it’s not covered by the smoking ban, so you can get a snozzfull in the pub and no one can stop you. Try it some day.


Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Fashion and trends, History, London, Medicine, Notable Londoners, Regency, Stuart London, Westminster

2 responses to “Snuff and nonsense

  1. Walter Ackroyd

    I think part of it may be that snuff-takers display their habit less. Nobody will blink if you light up a cigarette, but take a pinch of snuff with friends and it’s not the last you’ll hear of it. I love the stuff (import Fribourg & Treyer and Toque snuffs online, thank goodness for the Internet) but keep the habit very private. And that’s extremely easy with snuff — a discreet pinch is a work of a moment, even at work, as you’re rounding some corner or get to a meeting early. And next to pipe tobacco, it’s the only actually enjoyable way to indulge in a bit of nicotine — cigars and cigarettes are an acquired taste (and the stuff people put in their mouths is just disgusting!)

  2. Pingback: Like Avatar, only without aliens | London Particulars

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