Snuffing Out Rumors: Snuff Box Use During The Commercial Revolution In Eighteenth Century England By Joshua Bornstein

“John Greycroft and Elizabeth Greycroft , of the Parish of St. Andrew Holbourn , were indicted for stealing a Tortoise-shell Snuff Box, with a Gold Hinge and Rim, and 17 Diamonds on the Lid, value 20 l. two Silvers Spoons, a Salt, and divers other Goods, out of the House of Adrian Metcalf , Esq ; on the 14th of April last…it was found that he carried the Snuff-Box to a Friend to sell for him”

In our present day, we find it a common occurrence that many people run their lives based on the material possessions they seek to gain.  It is harder to remind ourselves how far back this process existed and when it truly started to take form.  The growing of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century also paved the way for the Consumer Revolution.  One place that really embraced this consumer revolution was England and its surrounding European areas.  More people were able to buy consumer goods and more consumer goods were available.  Snorting tobacco was considered a upper class thing to do and snuff boxes were fashionable ways to keep this tobacco with you at all times.

Figure 1 Below: Fruit and Vegetable Snuff Box

snuff box

The consumer revolution was very prominent for both men and women, but women especially had much to show in public.  They were extremely reliant on showing off their upper class nature and snuff boxes were just the way to do it.  In an article titled THE DUCHESS OF DEVONSHIRE, it is shown how just one extremely upper class women can influence the fashion of an entire country.  The Duchess was seen as bringing any new fashion statement into existence.  She “occupied an eminence that which attracted the common gaze of the public”(Duchess).   In Figure 1, we see an elaborately decorated snuff box that has fruits and vegetables on it.  There are many things that this snuff box tells us about the way society was handled during the consumer revolution.  Firstly, we can allude to a theory that fruits and vegetables would have signified a symbol of tobacco snorting being common occurrence with whoever owned this snuff box.  They clearly wanted people to see that this upper class habit of using snuff was just as common to them as eating their meals.  We can also see that this snuff box has a hinge that opens up on one specific side.  The way this object could be used is important because it shows how a woman could hold it with one hand and indulge in her snuff with the other.  Being able to use it by herself would be powerful in expressing her worth to other people without having the need for someone else to help her do that.

Figure 2 Below: Gold Snuff Box

snuff box 2

Looking at Figure 2 and 3, we see that snuff boxes came in many different types and forms.  Figure 2 is very clear in its message with the gold all around.  Gold signified importance and luxury, meaning that this snuff box at parties would have drawn much attention.  In Figure 3, we see a more humble looking snuff box that a more middle class woman or man may have owned.  Both women and men used snuff boxes regularly.  The quote at the top of this post is from criminal records in the eighteenth century.  As we can see, someone tried to steal a very expensive snuff box to sell for money.  From this document, we see just how expensive snuff boxes could be made as well as how badly people wanted to get their hands on them.  In The Birth of a Consumer Society, it is talked about how this consumer revolution is both good and bad for society.  On one end, it drives an obsessive need to be just like your richer neighbor.  This greed and envy can cause things like robberies that we see happened in the primary document talked about above.  However, it is also pointed out in this document through a poem called Fable of the Bees that this hunger can be an invisible hand for progress.  This is similar to Adam Smith’s invisible hand theory, that everyone going after what they desire is good for the economy.  In the end, there was not doubt that people were using objects like snuff boxes to make their presence known in the world.

Figure 3: Flower Snuff Box

snuff box 3


McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and J.H. Plumb.  The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England. London: Europe Publications Limited, 1982.


One thought on “Snuffing Out Rumors: Snuff Box Use During The Commercial Revolution In Eighteenth Century England By Joshua Bornstein

  1. Although, the significance of snuff boxes may be easily overlooked today, with all the other gadgets that are far superior in function and demand, they tell a lot about the history of consumerism. From the pictures, it is easy to see that the snuff boxes are beautifully crafted and handled; while they look like an effortless accessory, they were sure to make a bold statement about the person beholding it. This form of showing off was an indication that the possessor belonged to the upper class. It’s no wonder the thieves tried to make off with it!

    Snuff boxes became popular because snorting tobacco was the trend of the upper class society during the 18th century. And due to the conflux of the consumer revolution, and increased spending power of most people, those said people were in a position to try to emulate their social betters. Snuff boxes, as a key piece to any “truly” upper class person’s ensemble, thus, became progressively more popular on the market. In this post, there are a large variety of designs of snuff boxes. This is a reflection the differing and expensive tastes of the people as well as giving insight to their materialistic culture. Not only were the consumers in competition to purchase the best product, the producers/creators were also in competition to create the best item. Now that there was the demand for the product, there were plenty of snuff boxes readily created and designed. But the producers also had to compete to create the best item to attract the consumer to their beautifully crafted product before other more unique designs stole them away. As the pictures show, there are many different and beautiful designs. They attract a wide range of audiences and match a wide variety of styles. This “hunger [is indeed]…an invisible hand for progress.” Also, the snuff boxes are a great example of where gender distinctions were blurred to give way to the larger picture. Men and women owned snuff boxes and in both hands, regardless, they still showed a remarkable distinction of power.

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