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A bit of snuff and nonsense...

When cleaning you notice the little things - We are lucky enough to have a small, but beautiful, collection of snuff boxes to polish, as well as a fine illustration of one in a much-loved portrait of Alexander Burnett (4th of Kemnay) that hangs in the dining room, and also needs a regular delicate dust. After such close, careful inspection it seemed only right to learn more about the rather intriguing, yet very unhealthy, habit of snorting snuff and collecting boxes that was so enjoyed by previous inhabitants of Kemnay House.

Our valued Friend of Kemnay House, Jill, volunteered to research the subject further, finding the following fascinating facts for us to share with you:


· Snuff boxes are used to store tobacco powder for inhalation.

· The practice of snuffing began in the late 15th century after the discovery of the New World and its tobacco plants.

· In the mid-17th century, inhaling snuff was universally popular – even among women.

· By the early 18th century the nobility were favouring the use of snuff and needed something special to keep their snuff dry in.

· Boxes were made from silver and gold, ivory, horn or tortoise shell.

· Sometimes hand-painted, or set with fine jewels and engraved or enamelled, and some might be inset with shells and mother-of-pearl.

· Large size boxes were for communal use at social events, and the smaller size for personal use. These smaller, pocket-sized boxes held enough snuff for 1-2 day’s supply for personal use.

· The design of the Snuff Mull produced in Scotland was made of horn, hollowed out at the top and mounted with a silver clasp.

· The phrase ‘Snuff Mull’ is thought to derive from the hand mills in which snuff was ground.

· The European snuff box was found to be impractical for use in humid air in certain Asian countries, so alternative methods of storage were sought.

· It is thought that Chinese medicine bottles, used for storing drugs, was the model on which the earliest snuff bottles were based.

· Snuff was believed to cure many ailments from the common cold, headaches and many stomach illnesses.

· Snuff boxes were frequently given as gifts and seen as luxury and treasured tokens.

Some supporters of snuff taking:

  • Dolley Madison, the wife of President James Madison. It was said that in 1812, Dolley offered snuff along with ice cream to her guests at a White House dinner.

  • Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, devoted an entire room at Windsor Castle to her stock of snuff. Her son, George IV, changed his snuff according to the time of day and had a storage room in each of his palaces.

  • In her last will and testament in 1777, Mrs. Margaret Thomson, instructed that her deceased body be covered with the best Scotch snuff, her bearers to wear snuff-coloured beaver hats instead of black, and the pall-bearers to each carry a box of the best scotch snuff for refreshment as they went along.


Pope Urban VIII was not a fan and banned the use of snuff in church and threatened to excommunicate snuff takers, including priests.

Russian Tsar, Michael I, prohibited the sale of tobacco and introduced a punishment of slicing off a snuff taker’s nose – thought to be a sufficient deterrent!

*With thanks to Jill Standing for researching and collating the above information.

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