Snuff (tobacco)

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'Snuff' is a type of smokeless tobacco. There are several types, used in different ways, but traditionally it means Dry/European nasal snuff.

A tin of British Nasal Tobacco


File:Angelica Kauffmann 002.jpg
The Monk of Calais (1780) by Angelica Kauffman, depicting Pastor Yorick exchanging snuffboxes with Father Lorenzo "..having a horn snuff box in his hand, he presented it open to me.--You shall taste mine--said I, pulling out my box and putting it into his hand." From Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey.


Dry snuff or European snuff is usually (but not always) scented or 'flavoured'. The flavours range from floral, mentholated (also called 'medicated'), fruit and spice among others, either singly or in blends. There is also a separate German variety called Schmalzler, which tends to be moist, and is milder than general dry snuff.

Apart from flavours, dry snuff also comes in a range of textures and moistness, from very fine to coarse, and from toast (very dry) to very moist. Often dryness correlates to fineness. Common flavours include:

Brands of dry snuff

United Kingdom
South Africa


A tin of Copenhagen American dipping tobacco.

American snuff, unlike European, is moist. It tends to be applied to the gums, rather than sniffed. Called dipping tobacco, it is similar to Snus, a Swedish tobacco product. American snuff comes in two varieties, 'sweet' and 'salty', but also has flavours include peach, mint, and liquorice. Dipping tobacco is not the same as chewing tobacco.

In India, Creamy snuff is a paste consisting of tobacco, clove oil, glycerin, spearmint, menthol, and camphor sold in a toothpaste tube. It is marketed mainly to women in India and is known by the brand names Ipco (made by Asha Industries), Denobac, Tona, Ganesh.

Snuff accessories

When snuff taking was fashionable, the manufacture of snuff accessories was a lucrative industry in several cultures. In Europe, snuff boxes were made in very basic materials, such as horn, and ranged to highly ornate designs featuring precious materials made using state of the art techniques. Large snuff containers, called mulls, were usually kept on the table. A famous silver communal snuff box at the British House of Commons was destroyed in World War II. In China, snuff bottles were used, usually available in two forms. Glass bottles are decorated on the inside to protect the design. Another type used layered multi-coloured glass, parts of the layers which were removed to create a picture.


Snufftaking by the Native Americans was first described by a monk named Ramon Pane in 1493, during Columbus' second journey to the Americas.

In 1561 Jean Nicot, the French ambassador in Lisbon, Portugal, sent snuff to Catherine de' Medici to treat her son's persistent migraines, after which she became a fan of snuff.

By the 1600s some started to object to snuff being taken. Pope Urban VIII threatened to excommunicate snufftakers, and in Russia in 1643, Tsar Michael set the punishment of removal of the nose for snuff use. However, there were still some fans; King Louis XIII of France was a devout snufftaker, and by 1638, snuff use had been reported to be spreading in China.

By the 1700s, Snuff had become the tobacco product of choice, with fans including Napoleon, George III's wife, and a new Pope, Benedict XIII. It is also during the 1700s that the first tobacco warnings were published, among these, John Hill, an English doctor warned of the overuse of snuff, causing vulnerability to nasal cancers. Snuff's image as an aristocratic luxury attracted the first U.S. federal tax on tobacco, created in 1794.


Throughout history the art of snuff taking has had many hidden rules of engagement and these have signified social status. Used widely amongst noblemen and the common man alike, the more elegantly snuff was taken, the higher the social status of the snuffer. A gentleman might be expected to keep to the following rules:

Rule 1 - Traditionally gentlemen do not take snuff when ladies are present. However if you are in a situation where modern interaction would usually allow both sexes to smoke, for example a public house, then it is acceptable. Formal etiquette dictates that women abstain from tobacco until at least fifty years of age. (Had Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, heeded this advice she might have avoided the nickname 'Snuffy Charlotte')

Rule 2 - Your snuffbox should be chosen for the occasion. For example a silver, ivory or mother-of-pearl snuffbox is appropriate for a formal event, and a brass or teak snuffbox is appropriate for watching rugger. A snuff-pouch is not considered a suitable container because the snuff will often become too moist. Pewter is a definite no-no as the metal is too soft. Napoleon was once given a fragile mother-of-pearl snuffbox by Empress Josephine. When it broke through overuse Napoleon was distraught until Josephine gave him another one.

Rule 3 - Take the snuffbox from your pocket and pass it into your left hand. Your inner left jacket pocket should be used to store all tobacco products.

Rule 4 - Tap the snuffbox with your middle and forefinger so that the powdered tobacco gathers at one side. This will also alert your acquaintances that snuff is about to be passed around.

Rule 5 - Open the snuffbox and inspect the contents. Check that the tobacco is not damp and that it is finely powdered. If it is unusable, or if there is insufficient snuff to provide for the group, there is no shame in returning the snuffbox at this point.

Rule 6 - Present the snuffbox to the surrounding company with a courteous bow. The snuffbox travels clockwise and should only be held in the left hand. This is reminiscent of the way port is passed.

Rule 7 - Receive the snuffbox back with the left hand. Gather the snuff by striking the side with the middle and forefinger.

Rule 8 - Take a pinch with the right hand, between thumb and forefinger.

Rule 9 - Hold the snuff for a second or two between the fingers before taking. Apart from allowing sufficient time to pass the snuffbox forward without keeping people waiting, this is also to display that you are not greedily hoarding the snuffbox.

Rule 10 - Carry the pinch to the nose. Never lean towards your hand. If anything, snuff should be taken with your head tilted slightly backwards. Snuff can also be taken from an indentation formed at the base of the thumb. If you place your hand flat on the table with your fingers spread. Then as you raise the thumb this will reveal what is known as 'The Anatomical Snuffbox 'or colloquially 'The Poorman's Snuffbox'. This method is not recommended because the valuable snuff is far more likely to spill.

Rule 11 - Snuff with precision by both nostrils and without grimaces or distortion of the features. This is a very important point of differentiation between British and European snuff-takers. On the continent it is acceptable to let out a large sneeze after taking, however in Britain that is considered quite rude. It is also very important that you sniff but do not snort. The snuff should not enter deeply into the sinuses. Contrary to this advice in 1820 the double barrelled snuff pistol was invented; it was capable of packing a day's worth of snuff into the nose using an explosive charge. This kind of behaviour would be considered vulgar by anyone's standards.

Rule 12 - Close snuffbox with a flourish. Return the snuffbox to your jacket pocket.

Rule 13 - Wipe nose and collar with a handkerchief. Specialist handkerchiefs are available, which are usually colourful, patterned and silken. They are made to be thrown away because they will rapidly become soiled dark brown whenever the nose runs.

Rule 14 - Never sneeze in public without a handkerchief as the resulting snot will be dark in color and you might look a right ass.

Legal issues

Oral snuff, in the form of dipping tobacco and snus are banned in most of the European Union (except in Scandinavia, where snus is most popular).

Snuff is readily available over the counter in most European tobacco shops. In Britain, snuff is much cheaper than cigarettes and other tobacco products as it is tax exempt, however for duty free reasons snuff still carries the same limitations as tobacco products.

See also

Further reading

  • Ursula Bourne, Snuff, Shire Publications, 1990.

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