It's not clear how snuff, what we know as powdered tobacco, first made it to China in the early to mid-1600s. It may have arrived via traders from Portugal or Russia, or it could have been brought by invading Manchus. What we do know is that once the members of Imperial Court caught a whiff, they were hooked.
While the Chinese found smoking tobacco distasteful, snuff, which mixed tobacco with herbs and spices, was believed to have medicinal properties. It was considered a cure for migraines, and as one high-ranking court scholar wrote, it was "said to be able to improve one's sight, especially to exorcise epidemic diseases." Because snuff was inhaled through the nose, it often caused one to sneeze, which was considered a means of purging illnesses and impurities.
The court, however, did not have access to substantial quantities of snuff until Jesuit missionaries, hoping to gain access to the "Forbidden Kingdom," presented Kangxi, the second emperor of the Qing Dynasty, with an elaborate snuff box in 1684. While the emperor was pleased by this gift, he realized that, thanks to China's humid climate, snuff would cake in a box, which could not be sealed very tightly. He found that traditional Chinese medicine bottles made better containers.
So Emperor Kangxi had beautiful snuff bottles made for himself and his whole family. Soon, delicately handcrafted and ornate snuff bottles were a wildly popular symbol of status in the imperial court—tobacco, imported from the New World, was prohibitively expensive for most commoners. For the upper crust of Chinese society, a snuff bottle was the equivalent of a Rolex watch. A man talking to his colleagues would pull out his bottle and offer snuff to share so that the others could admire the beauty of his bottle. For this reason, the bottles were also used in bribes.
Standing three inches tall or less, antique snuff bottles were made out of a wide variety of materials—jade, agate, porcelain, glass, metal, or precious stones like tourmaline, ruby matrix, and amethyst—many of which were used in the Chinese fine arts of the day. The carved, molded, or painted designs on snuff bottles included plant and animal totems intended to convey blessings. The bottles also came with spoons, traditionally made out of ivory but later made of bone, tortoise shell, and metal.
Their artisans had learned a process of enameling and painting metal or glass from the Jesuits, so most of the resulting bottles were painted with European-style Catholic iconography passed on by the missionaries. Authentic examples of these enameled bottles now go for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions.
The Jesuits also had a strong influence over the production of glass snuff bottles, thanks to a Bavarian priest named Kilian Stumpf, who shared Western glassmaking techniques at a glass house established by Emperor Kangxi in 1695. In fact, Bavarians made the first snuff bottles—theirs were five or six inches tall.
Unfortunately, during the bitter-cold Beijing winters, these glass snuff bottles would shatter, so the Chinese began to make winter snuff bottles out of stone like jade, agate, and limestone. Yongzheng and Qianlong were also partial to bottles made of glass or porcelain that were designed to look exactly like jade, agate, amethyst, coral, or turquoise. The emperors delighted in the artisans' skills at tricking people.
Sometimes snuff bottles were produced in other places, usually to be sold to the Chinese. The Japanese made bottles of ivory and lacquer, while metal bottles were made in Thailand and Nepal, some fashioned out of coins.
Once farmers started to grow tobacco in Asia and snuff became more financially accessible to the everyday person in China, mass-produced porcelain snuff bottles proliferated. These have little artistic value, and were often just thrown away.
In the 1920s, the Chinese stopped using snuff, but that didn't put an end the production of snuff bottles. Artisans continued to produce them for the collectors market, although most collectors are much more interested in bottles that were actually used to contain snuff. One exception to this general rule are what's known as inside-painted snuff bottles, made beginning in the late 1800s. While the earliest were used for snuff, eventually, they were just appreciated as uniquely collectible works of art, painted in watercolors with tiny right-angled brushes.
Those interested in starting a snuff-bottle collection have to be wary of dealers selling reproductions of 18th and 19th century snuff bottles and pawning them off as the real deal. Authentic antique snuff bottles go for thousands of dollars.
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