I am writing a brief history of snuff for the toque website and could think of no better proof readers than the forum members.
Can you add anything to this summary?
Is there some gem of knowledge I have missed?
One of the most interesting finds was, that John Hill wasn’t a Doctor at all. It turns out he was a poet and writer of English farce, who only pretended to be a Doctor as he was annoyed with the size of his tobacco bill and wanted to get back at his tobacconist.
Any help, as always, gratefully received.
Pre 15th Century
The parent species of Nicotiana Rustica and Nicotiana Tabacum have been cultivated as far back as 8,000 years ago, and maybe the first cultivated plant of the Americas.
Historians guess that somewhere between 470 and 630 A.D. the Mayas, who are documented as being the first users of snuff and of smoking Nicotiana Rustica, which they may have called Petun, began to scatter, some moving as far as the Mississippi Valley. The Toltecs, who created the mighty Aztec Empire, borrowed the smoking custom from the Mayas and two types of smokers emerged. Those in the Court of Montezuma, who mingled the leaves of Nicotiana Rustica, with the resin of other leaves and smoked pipes with great ceremony after their evening meal; and the lesser Indians, who rolled the leaves together to form a crude cigar.
The Mayas who settled in the Mississippi Valley spread their custom to the neighboring tribes. The Ojibwa/Chippewa tribe adapted smoking to their own religion, believing that their god, the almighty Manitou, revealed himself in the rising smoke.
As in Southern America, a complex system of religious and political rites was developed around the burning and smoking of the leaves of these plants. No one really knows how long American Indians had been smoking, chewing and snuffing before the 15th century. A best guess puts it around 2000 years before Columbus.
There is little credence given to the idea that Vikings were the first Europeans to experience smoking however it is possible as there is evidence that they beat Columbus to America by many centuries.
Europeans first came in contact with Cohiba, Taino Indians name for the rolled leaves of the Nicotiana Tabacum, when they reached the island of Cuba. In October 1492 Christopher Columbus and his men stepped ashore and were greeted by the indigenous people who gave them many gifts among them some dried leaves which they conveyed to the Spanish explorers were enormously precious.
The monk Ramon Pane joined Columbus on his second journey to America in 1497 and at that time came in contact with Nicotiana Rustica and Nicotiana Tabacum. Pane witnessed the drinking of smoke through a “Y” shaped stick called a Tobacco, the natives called the stick a tobacco and Pane probably confused it with the smoke from the leaves hence his naming the leaves tobacco. Pane also saw Indian priests inhale ground leaves (snuff) through their nose using a hollow reed, according to historians this powder was hallucinogenic and consisted of tobacco ground with an unknown herb. Snuffing became the most popular method of tobacco usage when it was introduced in Europe.
The tobacco plant was brought to Europe through Spanish and Portuguese sailors. In Lisbon in the middle of the 16th century snuff was used as medicine by doctors who believed that the herb could cure both syphilis and cancer. They grew the tobacco in their own gardens and ground their own snuff.
Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Lisbon is recognized as the father of snuff usage. Carl von Linné even used Nicot’s name to give the tobacco plant the Latin name, Nicotiana tabacum.
Nicot was friendly with the scholar and botanist Damião de Goes, de Goes showed him a tobacco plant growing in his garden and told him of its marvellous healing properties. The application of the tobacco plant to a cancerous tumor allegedly worked wonders. Nicot tried treating an acquaintance's face wound for 10 days with the plant with excellent results. He became convinced of the healing powers of tobacco.
Nicot obtained cuttings which he planted in the garden of the French Embassy and in 1560 he wrote of tobacco's medicinal properties. He described tobacco as a panacea and in the same year sent tobacco plants to the French court and snuff to Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France, to treat her migraine headaches. Nicot had applied it to his nose and forehead and found it had relieved his headaches. Catherine de Medici used it to cure her migraines and was so impressed that she decreed that tobacco was henceforth to be called Herba Regina, the "queen's herb". With the Queens blessing it was not long before snuff became the fashion item of the French court.
Paris served as a model for all the European courts and it was not long before snuff had spread across mainland Europe and to Scotland through ‘The Auld Alliance’. Although some Scottish nobles visiting England were seen using snuff it remained relatively unknown and England had to wait nearly 100 years until in 1660 the court of Charles II returned to London from exile in Paris, bringing with them the French court’s snuffing practice. Snuff became the aristocratic form of tobacco use, replacing the common practice of “huffing” or taking the vapours.
Unfortunately for users, snuff underwent a period of prohibition across Europe in the late 17th and early 18th century. Tsar Michael I of Russia ordered that persons caught taking snuff should be whipped for the first offence, have their noses cut off for the second and be executed for the third (there are no records of anyone ever being executed, probably due to it being difficult to snuff without a nose). Around the same time the Florentine Pope Urban VIII ordered that anyone found guilty of taking snuff in church should be excommunicated because he believed it led to sneezing which too closely resembled sexual ecstasy.
Portuguese tradesmen and Jesuit missionaries, the same priests who would have been excommunicated for using snuff back home, first introduced Snuff to China in the 17th Century. Tobacco had been seen in China, in the form of pipe smoking at the beginning of the century and earlier. There is a strong possibility that Vasco de Gama had started trading Tobacco in 1560 with India, Persia and China. In 1612, the Wan-Li Emperor of China banned smoking but not snuff, due to its therapeutic significance. By the time of the Qing Dynasty in 1644 snuff had become very popular and to many it was regarded as a medicine. Which partly accounts for snuff being kept in Chinese medicine bottles, however a more likely reason lay in Chinas humid climate, snuff boxes were found impractical and this led to the adaption of Chinese medicine bottles for storing snuff.
The Chinese, following Jean Nicot’s example, claimed that snuff could be used to dispel colds, cure migraines, sinusitis, tooth pain, asthma, constipation and that it was beneficial for those with poor memories. (Today scientists are discovering that nicotine is helpful in the treatment of Alzheimer's, Dementia and Parkinson's disease).
Snuff became much more popular with ordinary Britain’s due to a battle that took place off the coast of Vigo in Spain in 1702. The French and Spanish fleet were harboured at Vigo and a detachment of fifteen English and ten Dutch men-of-war were ordered to enter and attempt the destruction of the enemy’s fleet. Vice-Admiral Hopson in the Torbay led the attack, his cannon fire was incredibly accurate and most of the enemy was destroyed. One of the Spanish ships, which was on fire, came perilously close and Hobson was on the point of blowing it out of the water when an English cabin boy captured by the Spanish and rescued by Hobson, alerted him to the cargo. This ship had been hastily prepared and was actually a merchant ship full of snuff, the fire was quickly extinguished and Hobson claimed the lot as booty. To top it all, Hobson was knighted and awarded a pension of £500 a year for his part in this battle and the bounty of snuff was sold in London, the profits of which bought him an estate fit for a Knighted Admiral. Hobson’s snuff was referred to as Spanish, which soon became abbreviated to ‘SP’ one of the best known and most popular of snuffs.
The French revolution led to the end of the French upper classes love of traditional snuff, no upper class, no snuff sales. Under Napoleon, who was a heavy snuffer, snuff sales temporarily increased but after his exile it became unfashionable and even a little politically risky to continue using snuff.
This century also saw the first warnings about the use of tobacco. John Hill, an 18th Century poet and writer of farces pretended to be a Doctor after an argument with his tobacconist about the size of his tobacco bill. He proclaimed that overusing snuff tobacco could lead to nasal cancers, now happily disproved by the Royal College of Physicians. The likely cause of the rise in nasal cancer at this time has been attributed to the period’s smokers blowing smoke through their noses in order to block the horrendous smells caused by the build up of rubbish in the streets of cities and towns all over Britain. Interestingly with better sewage systems smokers stopped blowing smoke through their noses and nasal cancer ceased to be.
In the 19th century snuff was still popular in many parts of society across Europe, although Victorian England became less tolerant of the habit and snuff started to be frowned upon in some quarters. Snuff was, however, popular amongst the professions where it wasn’t possible to smoke or to be seen to smoke such as Doctors, Lawyers, Judges, Clergymen and of course Miners.
During the nineteenth century, snuff was so popular in the Chinese community that millions of Chinese snuff bottles were made, which makes collecting them and snuff boxes in general an affordable hobby for the snuff enthusiast.
The First World War saw the virtual death knell for snuff, as cigarette companies literally flooded the trenches with free cigarettes and returning soldiers made smoking fashionable.
After the 1949 communist revolution in China Moa outlawed snuff as a decadent habit of the previous Qing dynasty.
Today snuff is undergoing some thing of a renaissance and Toque now sells snuff all over the world including China. Could the smoking bans of the twenty-first century result in the decline of cigarettes and make snuff once more fashionable. Today many smokers are switching to Toque snuff not only because of the bans but also because the medical fraternities are now informing smokers that snuff is a dramatically less harmful alternative to cigarettes.