Snuff - A Brief History

The practice of taking snuff became popular in England around the seventeenth century. It had become known a little earlier in France - and also Scotland, due to the countries’ contact with the French Court.

For many years, the sign used to denote a shop that sold snuff was a Scottish Highlander in full kilt, carved into wood. The logo was designed to be similar to the Indian cigar store signs seen in North America.

It is thought that the use of snuff originated in Central and South America before the advent of the Spaniards. It is likely that they were the nation who first brought the habit to Europe.

Louis XIII of France forbade the use of snuff except as prescribed by physicians. Back then, they believed, as many still do, that snuff keeps one free from colds and gives relief from catarrh and similar complaints.

Pope Urban XIII ordered that anyone found guilty of taking snuff in church should be excommunicated.

Tsar Michael I of Russia decreed that smokers should be whipped for the first offence and executed for the second, whilst snuff takers should be treated rather more leniently - they were merely to have their noses cut off!

SP snuff is arguably the world’s most widely-taken blend. It was given its name following a naval battle off the shore of the Spanish port of Vigo, in 1702. The French fleet there was protecting a rich Spanish convoy of galleons. This had sailed from the West Indies following an attack made by a combined English and Dutch fleet. This was under the command of Admiral Sir George Rooke.

One ship, the Torbay - under the command of Vice-Admiral Hobson - was becalmed and trapped in a compromising position. A contemporary chronicler writes:

"All this while Admiral Hobson was in extreme danger; for being clapt on board by a French Fireship, whereby his rigging was presently set on fire, he expected every moment to be burnt; but it very fortunately fell out that the French ship, which indeed was a Merchantman laden with snuff, and fitted up in haste for a Fireship, being blown up, the snuff, in some measure extinguished the fire, and preserved the English Man of War from being consumed."

This battle, for which Hobson received a knighthood and a pension of £500, was largely responsible for starting the popular fashion of snuff-taking in England. The booty from the captured Spanish galleons included a large quantity of snuff, which was subsequently sold in London.

Referred to as ‘Spanish’ by the clerks, they soon abbreviated this to ‘SP’, thereby naming the most popular blend of all.

By the eighteenth century, snuff-taking was widespread throughout the world. Snuff boxes, usually highly ornamented, were worn as jewellery and given as valuable gifts. The lids of these were often decorated with miniature subjects of the period, such as allegories, pastoral romantic scenes and flowers.

They are held in high regard as prized examples of the finest work of miniature painters, enamellers, jewellers and silversmiths.