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Up To Snuff – The World Revealed By Snuff Boxes In Our Collections

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Despite many years as a curator, the sheer variety of objects tucked away within our medical collections can still surprise me. Collections that are also so large that, despite a strong presence within the public displays at the Science Museum, only around 5% of our medical objects are on show at any one time. Inevitably, some categories of objects have a higher public profile than others.

Snuff boxes

Sniff the shoes!...wooden snuff boxes, 19th century (Science Museum)

For example, while the eagle-eyed visitor to the Science Museum’s galleries may spot a snuff box or two on display, they would probably be amazed to hear that there are several hundred more in our London store.

Made from a variety of materials and often beautifully crafted, snuff boxes could be conversation pieces as well as status symbols. Many of those in our collections are decorated with medically related themes.

Snuff box

Painted metal snuff box, late 18th-early 19th century (Science Museum)

Here a physician attends a wealthy bed-bound patient. Perhaps the box was given in grateful thanks for medical services received at a time of need.

Snuff boxes

Silver snuff boxes presented in 1832 and 1850 (Science Museum)

Certainly this is the case with these two engraved boxes, both presented to individuals for their sterling assistance during cholera epidemics in the 19th century.

Snuff boxes

Wooden snuff boxes, late 18th-early 19th centuries (Science Museum)

Elsewhere, box decorations are more irreverent. While I’m sure we all appreciate the benefits of sterile instruments and dental anaesthesia, these three boxes clearly show how all the fun has gone out of tooth extraction.   

However, intricate carving, worthy engravings and witty painting aside, when it comes to really ostentatious snuff taking nothing quite beats taking a ‘pinch’ from a decorated ram’s head. 

Snuff mull

Ram's head snuff mull, 1881 (Science Museum)

So that’s what happens to all those army mascots!

Written by Stewart Emmens

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  1. Peter Turvey

    If anyone wonders how Snuff is made, here’s a link to a video of a water-powered Snuff Mill, still running after over 200 years – http://youtu.be/mMN0kxUKX5c

  2. Steve Walkey

    Hello, my fellow men of Science! I have an interesting Snuff Box, of which I’d like a second opinion… It’s wooden, tin-lined, has a mirror set into the lid and is in the form of a Lion, with various /Biblical figures depicted about the underside. It looks to be 17th Century by the style, the faces and the subject but is this possible?! I’m no expert but I hope I can find one to confirm my thoughts.

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