Snuff, and the Bottles We Keep It In

Seeing how Virginia was once a mighty tobacco state it seems perfectly natural for the Sloane collection to house one of the most popular tobacco accessories of all time: the snuff bottle. The story of our snuff bottle collection (nearly 70 of them, in fact) begins with the introduction of tobacco to China. Let me paint you a word picture:

The tobacco crop’s dizzying rise to power occurred during the 17th century, after widespread cultivation in the American colonies.  As worldwide demand for tobacco grew, so did America’s bargaining power.  Once the crop made its way to Chinese shores (in the form of gifts from foreign diplomats), the Chinese penchant for tobacco grew at a considerable rate.  At first, Chinese elite reserved the right to use tobacco solely for themselves.  Importing the crop was far too expensive for the lower classes to afford, and as a result the habit was exclusively upper-class for many years.

The prevailing notion was that tobacco possessed superior medicinal qualities and nearly every minor ailment was supposedly cured by a quick pinch and huff up the nose.  Everything from headaches to fertility problems could be solved with snuff.  With this medical epiphany came the movement to make snuff accessible to all classes of people. Crops of tobacco flourished in Chinese soil, and widespread use quickly became a social norm.

Unlike the West’s large boxes and spoons, China had to adjust its packaging of snuff to meet the social standards of a culture without pockets or coffee tables.  Rounded and small in shape, the first snuff bottles were tucked discreetly away in sleeves, or dangled from belts and sashes.

An early example carved from smoky agate; a simple scene of three monkeys

The elaborately carved bottles one might associate with Chinese fine art came at a later date when there were more options for carrying the awkwardly sized pieces.  The Hermitage collection of snuff bottles spans the full spectrum of design, from the simplest tear drop shapes to intricately carved masterpieces.

An elaborately carved bottle in blue crystal, the scene depicting a fox chasing birds

The curious thing about snuff bottles is that — no matter the level of craftsmanship — a bottle signed by its maker is exponentially more valuable.  Signed bottles are extremely rare, and only the earliest snuff bottle artists continuously left a signature.  As mass production of the bottles began in the 19th century, the importance of a name became an afterthought.  This is not to say there aren’t signatures on later pieces, because there are – but the likelihood of finding one is quite slim.

Another exceptional bottle carved from a single piece of coral; the scene undercut with lotus stems and depicting a boy teasing a Fu lion.

Like many collectibles a snuff bottle’s importance comes down to the owner’s taste, which is why there is still such a large market for them today.  As we probably all know by now, Mrs. Sloane had eccentric – albeit enlightened – taste and her collection of snuff bottles is the perfect embodiment of her flair for the dramatic. Whether the motif is monkeys, cheerful fisherman or birds in flight there is always a wily character enlivening each bottle.  Mrs. Sloane’s exceptional collection perfectly encapsulates the attention to detail that echoes across Chinese fine art.

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