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.

18th-Century Tea Canister

Published by John Vincent De Toro

“Errors which are introduced by Luxury, suffer’d thro’ Ignorance, and supported by being fashionable. [The Statesman] would soon have condemned the exorbitant Use of Tea… But the present Age has other Considerations; Tea pays too great a Duty, and supports too many Coaches, not to be preferr’d to the Health of the Publick: Tea has too great Interest to be prohibited.”
James Lacy, “An Essay on the Nature, Use, and Abuse, of Tea, in a Letter to a Lady.”

The artifact presented here is a beautifully expressive Tea Canister from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, museum number 1448&A-1853, produced ca. 1768. This piece is made from soft-paste porcelain material with two transfer-printed in black enamel decorations, engraved by Robert Hancock for Royal Worcester. Initially reserved for the wealthy, these canisters, or caddies, were used to store tea and, as tea prices dropped in the eighteenth-century, became much more bulbous and spacious.

It is worth noting that, despite being a widely-proliferated complementary good vis-à-vis tea itself–evident in large collections held by museums alongside other tea-service works, written sources directly related to this artifact seldom appear which straightforwardly discuss its fashionable or material importance. However, the historical footprint left by the success of tea and the consumption culture framing that commodity underscore the history of the tea canister. It is thus in these wider contexts–socioeconomic, societal, cultural, and practical–that we can understand the socio-material significance of this piece.

Neil McKendrick, in his chapter, “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England,” explores the socioeconomic and political development of circumstances which formed the setting for the burgeoning mass consumption of the late 1700’s. McKendrick describes this consumer revolution as a period of great prosperity and rapid economic growth in which emulative spending, coupled with real increases in incomes for the middling classes, resulted in unprecedented conspicuous consumption (3-4). Often, this consumption consisted of luxury goods, such as tea and their complements. In fact, “Tea was ‘singled out [sic] as the apotheosis of luxury spending on needless extravagance by the poor'” (13). Statistics show that “the per capita consumption of tea increased fifteenfold,” and that “tea consumption increased by 97.7 per cent” (13). Luxury products such as this tea canister would thus come to indicate the pervasiveness of this consumer revolution.

Such a unprecedented change in consumption and social life did not go unnoticed. Many responded to such a revolution with alarmist sentiments. The eighteenth-century London moralist John Brown equated the ubiquity of porcelain-wares such as this to the kind of unmanly, tasteless effeminate art that threatened the integrity of the Empire. To Brown, the exoticism of this tea canister would remind him of the plethora of “Porcelain Trees and Birds, Porcelain Men and Beasts, cross-legged Mandarins and Bramins [in which] Every gaudy Chinese Crudity [sic] is adopted into fashionable use, and becomes the Standard of Taste and Elegance” (32). This tea canister would represent for Brown the very “vainluxurious, and selfish Effeminacy” that undermined the strength and character of English society (20). Because the engravings of this tea canister displays a command of detail in not only the dress and expressions of the figures, but also in illustrating the tea service, we can thus state that this is a luxury good.

Particularly notable to the socio-cultural significance of this tea canister is the presence of an African slave or servant on both portraits. Products associated with Africans likely expressed the fruits of the colonies or of foreign locales, evident in Figure 1 of a “Black Boy Shop Sign” which graced the facades of coffee shops. More importantly, representations of Africans often expressed the power and reach of the Empire. They either symbolize their supposed corrupting influence, as seen in William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (Figure 2) or, akin to this canister here, emphasized the elevated status of the depicted, as seen in Johan Zoffanny’s The Family of Sir William Young, Baronet (Figure 3). Such figures embodied the exotic other as well as the domestication of the Empire (Koscak).This exoticism thus imbued items such as this tea canister with an air of luxury, which would further drive emulative spending by social emulation (McKendrick 4). As tea became much more accessible, this canister would indicate the very class identity sought to be emulated by new consumers, because it depicts a fashionable lady preparing tea with her black servant. The fact that the figures are outside with a servant highlights the luxury status as well as the exotic implications of tea. That Hancock’s tea canister depicts a tea party suggests the relationship of this lifestyle to the wealthier classes, as pieces like these likely emphasized the luxury quality of tea drinking, making it a popular product for those who wanted to show their class or emulate such a lifestyle.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

The utilitarian dimension to this artifact is equally important as its symbolic one. One 1785 pamphlet, The Tea Purchaser’s Guide, presents insight into the material use of tea canisters. According to the chapter, “Best Method of Making Tea,” constant exposure to the air will result in diminished quality (39). In operational terms, a dry tea canister such as this served to keep its tea leaves fresh; it would especially prevent their deterioration during sea-transport (Twining 53, 94). This particular canister was made of soap-rock, thus making it more resistant to boiling water (V&A). This tea canister is also very capaciousness, and so it can hold more tea leaves (V&A). It can thus be surmised that the need to keep more tea fresher was one impetus for the proliferation of tea canisters. The Tea Purchaser’s Guide also commented on the constant dropping of price of tea (6). We can then posit that, in light of McKendrick, this reduction in tea prices, along with its practicality, demonstrates the the wide profusion of tea canisters. It can thus be proven to be true that this Royal Worcester canister embodies the kind of growing commodity consumption McKendrick observes, demonstrating a rapidly increasing, if not flourishing, tea habit.

This Hancock canister is not so different from his other tea caddies, pots, and saucers at time. This canister is in fact an alternate version of a another set with a tea party illustrated on a cup and saucer:

“The Tea Party” Cup and Saucer set

Both display similar scenes designed by Hancock and both were reproduced en masse in factories with high-quality decoration at very little cost using copper transfer-printing plates. And both were made with similar ingredients, such as soaprock, to enhance their material quality.

On the other hand, unlike prior canisters which were smaller and more square or octagonal with a wide cylindrical lip, the Royal Worcester is more bulbous and can hold more tea leaves:

With no models to imitate and seldom mass-produced, these early lightly adorned versions were small and lacked wavy edges and corners and thus did not hold much tea. Later in the century, the larger bulbous-shaped canisters copied by English porcelain factories such as the Worcester canister presented here imitated Chinese vase-like versions made solely for export (V&A). The capaciousness of the later Royal Worcesters attests to the falling price and wider availability of tea.


Brown, John. “Of the Ruling Manners of the Times.” An Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times. (1757-1758): 17-34. PDF.

Hancock, Robert. Tea Canister. Soft-paste porcelain, transfer-printed in black enamel. Royal Worcester. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum number: 1448&A-1853. Website.

Hancock, Robert. The Tea Party. Steatitic soft-paste porcelain, thrown and turned, and transfer-printed in black enamel. Royal Worcester. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum number: C.93&A-1948. Website.

Kearsley, G. The Tea Purchaser’s Guide; or, the Lady and Gentlemen’s Ten Table and Useful Companion, in the Knowledge and Choice of Teas. (1785): 1-46. PDF.

Koscak, Stephanie. “The British and French Caribbean: Consuming the Exotic.” University of California, Los Angeles. Haines Hall, A2. 4 March 2014. Lecture. Powerpoint.

Lacy, James. “An Essay on the Nature, Use, and Abuse, of Tea, in a Letter to a Lady; with an Account of its Mechanical Operation.” (1722): 1-62. PDF.

McKendrick, Neil. “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England.” The Birth of a Consumer Society. McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb. London: Europa Publications Limited, 1982. 9-33. Print. PDF.

Twining, Richard, the Elder. An Answer to the Second Report of the East India Directors, Respecting the Sale and Prices of Tea. (1785): 1-103. PDF.

Unknown (production). Tea Canister. Salt-glazed stoneware and moulded. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum number: 414:958-1885. Website.

Luxury versus Labor: Porcelain and the Theatricality of the Sans-Culotte – Sarah Ybarra

Allons à cette porcelaine,

Sa beauté m’invite, m’entraîne,

Elle vient du monde nouveau,

L’on ne peut rien voir de plus beau.

Qu’elle a d’attrait et qu’elle est fine!

Elle est native de la Chine.

Anon., 1716

Let us turn to porcelain,

Her beauty entices me, leads me away,

She comes from the new world,

One can see nothing more beautiful.

How attractive she is and how fine!

She is a native of China. (C. Jones, translation mine)

“Madelaine Glain, forty-two years old, a faisease de menage [cleaning woman]…testifies that, having been forced, as many women were, to follow the crowd that went to Versailles last Monday, 5 October, and having arrived at Sevrès near the porcelain manufactory, [and] a gentleman with a black decoration having asked them where they were going, they answered that they were going to ask for bread at Versailles”—1789-1790 (“Women Testify”).

Lawyer from the Italian Comedy ca. 1755–60 French (Mennecy) Soft-paste porcelain H. 8 3/8 in. (21.3 cm.) The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982 The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1982.60.268

Lawyer from the Italian Comedy
ca. 1755–60
French (Mennecy)
Soft-paste porcelain
H. 8 3/8 in. (21.3 cm.)
The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The above object, a porcelain figurine manufactured in Mennecy, France, depicts a character from the Italian comedy (commedia dell’arte). The commedia, a style of comedy theater imported from Italy and adapted to French tastes, was popular throughout the 1700s. The commedia’s masked characters, each representing a distinct social type, entertained noble and plebeian alike in the theaters and fairgrounds of Paris.

In the mid-eighteenth century, this porcelain figure stood at the crossroads of two competing notions of consumption. At one end of the pre-Revolutionary spectrum, an anonymous author rhapsodized about the exotic beauty of porcelain carrying him into another world. At the start of the French Revolution, a woman of the people cited the Sèvres porcelain manufactory as no more than a place name on the path to bread and liberty.

Throughout this period, porcelain was primarily a luxury commodity for the elite. The rhetoric of corrupting luxury also evoked rhetoric of inutile aristocrat versus industrious citizen of the Republic, symbolized by the sans-culotte. However, the shifting meanings of both luxury and sans-culotte dress revealed anxieties over identity and the classification of social types. Who really owned luxury? Could it be turned into a tool for revolution by the lower orders? Could aristocrats disguise themselves as sans-culottes, passing for true citizens of the Republic?

The Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a notorious opponent of luxury, believed falsity lay at the heart of luxury and frivolous adornment. In his speculation on the origins of inequality among men, he wrote that because the qualities:

“of the mind, beauty, strength or skill, and merit or talents…were the only ones which could attract respect, it was soon necessary to have them or to pretend to have them and, for one’s own advantage, to show oneself as different from what one, in fact, was. Being and appearing [italics mine] became two entirely different things, and from this distinction emerged impressive ostentation, deceitful cunning, and all the vices which come in their wake” (Rousseau).

Rousseau equated the ideas of pretending and appearing. For him, the idea that one could disguise their true nature beneath an appearance was a dangerous prospect. More importantly, one could label deceitful people as those who expressed “impressive ostentation.” Luxury, while disguising truth, became a way to uncover it.

Like the aristocrat, porcelain spread the seeds of corruption throughout society. In the poem, “Allons à cette porcelaine…” porcelain is the embodiment of artifice, and artifice is feminized. For Rousseau, a natural and truthful beauty was preferable to the deceit of artifice. He saw the commercialized and artificial fashions of his time as corrupting woman’s natural, domestic tendencies (J. Jones 944-945). Connected to Rousseau’s concerns that women remain in their natural place, were his “obsessive worries about the theater, display, commerce, and fashion” (J. Jones 940). Specifically, his writings on the theater advocated for authenticity and rejection of artifice. Just as the truth of woman could be disguised by fashion, aristocratic porcelain hid a realm of fantasy beneath a veneer of beauty.

An opposing view, written by George Marie Butel-Dumont, attempted to redeem luxury by claiming luxury could not corrupt because it was regulated by man’s rationality:

“However seductive one supposes the taste for frivolous things, one need not fear that it so takes possession of a whole people that it would strangely neglect the useful or the truly convenient, and prefer to devote its time, effort, and industry to procure trinkets. No one would deprive oneself of bread in order to have magots [exotic porcelain figures] on the mantelpiece, nor do without shoes in order to wear lace. Little trinkets are attractive only to those people who feel no need” (qtd. in Kwass 103).

Standing Chinese ca. 1740 French (Villeroy) Soft-paste porcelain H. 6 1/16 in. (15.4 cm.) The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982 The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1982.60.273

Standing Chinese
ca. 1740
French (Villeroy)
Soft-paste porcelain
H. 6 1/16 in. (15.4 cm.)
The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The magots of Dumont refer to Orientalizing figures, usually of porcelain, popularly collected during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The exoticism of Eastern porcelain, with its origins in China, is especially stressed in “Allons à cette porcelaine…” Taken from Chinese and other prototypes, magot-like figures were adapted to the French style. Closely related to the magot was the pagod, whose “appeal…was also clearly expressed by the appearance of musical entertainers and courtiers dressed as pagods at various festivities” (Kisluk-Grosheide 179). The perceived decadence of the Orient would have been considered the perfect setting for luxury.

Actor ca. 1755–65 French (Mennecy or Sceaux) (?) Soft-paste porcelain H. 7 5/16 in. (18.6 cm.) The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982 The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1982.60.258

ca. 1755–65
French (Mennecy or Sceaux) (?)
Soft-paste porcelain
H. 7 5/16 in. (18.6 cm.)
The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In his writing, Dumont actually revealed the same anxieties of Rousseau, but from the opposite perspective. Although Dumont argued that means, not status, would control luxury, this passage could also allay fears that workers would ever possess luxury. They would not adopt the porcelain of “those people who feel no need,” nor exchange practical shoes for superfluous lace. In other words, the elite need not have feared that the common people would ever disguise themselves as aristocrats.

During the first phase of the French Revolution, the term sans-culotte, signifying a person without breeches, carried little to no positive connotations. Instead, “the term sans culotte was primarily used in a mocking sense…as a way of satirizing people’s failed claims to respectability” (Wrigley 20). A person in sans culotte was literally a laughing matter, a figure of ridicule rather than political power. The meaning of the term changed around February of 1792. In June of that year, writer Antoine Gorsas contrasted vigorous workingmen with weak aristocrats. Laborers became:

“symbolic figures of virtue, who do not seek to disguise their colours, [who] command the respect of all these perfumed Achilles from the Palais Royal, whose complexions are as cold as their lemonade, and whose hearts are as soft as the fish soup which nourishes their feeble constitutions” (qtd. in Wrigley 26).

Although Gorsas praised these men as truthful because they eschewed disguising their condition as laborers, in most of his writings an air of satire reigned. The new public festivals in which sans-culottes participated provided opportunities for political display, which Gorsas characterized as having “French gaiety and piquant originality” (qtd. in Wrigley 28). He removed the menace of the revolutionary carrying a pike by satirizing the theatrical penchant for adornment. In fact, the cap of Janot, a popular theatrical character, was appropriated to mock the commonness of certain sans-culottes. (28-29)

By Spring of 1793, an anonymous advocate of the sans-culottes clearly understood this attempt to undermine the workingmen’s political potency. He mentioned “Gorsas’s filth” in one breath with the corruptive pastimes of the “powdered” and “perfumed” (“Definitions”). In contrast, the sans-culotte “has no millions…no châteaux, no valets to serve him…He is useful, because he knows how to work a field, how to forge, saw, file, roof, makes shoes…” This dichotomy of luxury and labor, use and uselessness, revealed that the sans-culotte could be identified by what he did and the aristocrat by what he did not. Conspicuously, the author ended with the greatest indignation of all: an aristocrat was he who did “not wear a cockade of three thumbs’ width; he who bought other than the national outfit, and, above all, he who does not glory in the title and the headgear of the sans-culottes.”

The preoccupation with appearances as an identifier of social/political type came to a head in 1794, after the sans-culotte had gained widespread use as a positive symbol of republican virtue. An anxious report of March 1794 stated, “Aristocrats have absolutely adopted republican costume. We are reliably informed that two thirds of the bonnets rouges and short jackets are the most avowed scoundrels who only seek to corrupt public morale and who, by their costume, intimidate true sans-culottes” (qtd. in Wrigley 33). Here, one can note the shift from sans culotte as costume to sans-culotte as a state of being. A “true sans-culotte” was distinguished from a naturally corrupt aristocrat. The aristocrat might “adopt” the costume, but would only seek to corrupt through this disguise.

As the costume itself became subject to suspicion as a disguise for aristocrats, it also reverted to caricature, albeit a more positive caricature than that of the pre-Revolutionary period. Even by 1793, the print Dansons la Carmagnole (Wrigley 38) theatricalized the figure, turning it into harmless satire and popular myth. This became the accepted ‘type’ of the sans-culotte following the revolution, not unlike the types of the theater.


Actor. 1755-65. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 9 Mar. 2014. <*&when=A.D.+1600-1800&where=France&what=Porcelain|Figures&pos=51>.

“Definitions of the Sans-Culotte, the Moderate, and the Aristocrat.” The French Revolution: A Document Collection. Ed. Laura Mason and Tracey Rizzo. Cengage, 2009. PDF file.

Jones, Christine A. Shapely Bodies: The Image of Porcelain in Eighteenth-Century France. University of Delaware Press, 2013. Print.

Jones, Jennifer M. “Repackaging Rousseau: Femininity and Fashion in Old Regime France.” French Historical Studies 18.4 (1994): 939-967. JSTOR. PDF file.

Kisluk-Grosheide, Daniëlle. “The Reign of Magots and Pagods.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 37 (2002): 11+177-197. JSTOR. PDF file.

Kwass, Michael. “Ordering the World of Goods: Consumer Revolution and the Classification of Objects in Eighteenth-Century France.” Representations 82.1(2003): 87-116. JSTOR. PDF file.

Lawyer from the Italian Comedy. 1755-60. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 9 Mar. 2014. <*&when=A.D.+1600-1800&where=France&what=Porcelain|Figures&pos=26>.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Men.” Trans. Ian Johnston. 2012. PDF file.

Standing Chinese. 1740. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 9 Mar. 2014. <*&when=A.D.+1600-1800&where=France&what=Porcelain|Figures&pos=21>.

“Women Testify Concerning Their Participation in the October Days (1789).” Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2014. <>.

Wrigley, Richard. “The Formation and Currency of a Vestimentary Stereotype: The Sans-culotte in Revolutionary France.” Fashioning the Body Politic:Dress, Gender, Citizenship. Ed. Wendy Parkins. 19-47. PDF file.

The Luxuriously Common Snuffbox by Kamarin Takahara

“Money, the cause of much mischief in the world, is the cause of most quarrels…the former commonly thinking, that they cannot give too little, and the latter, that they cannot have enough; both equally in the wrong.”[1] Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield wrote this in 1750 to his eighteen year old son, Philip Stanhope who was preparing to visit Paris, France. Philip Dormer Stanhope gave advice and rules on what young Philip should bring and how to behave in society. One of the items Philip Dormer Stanhope suggested his son carry a snuffbox in public. The snuffbox, along with other luxury items, was perceived as a representation of an individual’s identity and status.The type of snuff box Stanhope carried around possibly resembled the cartouche-shaped gold snuffbox with a miniature enamel cover under glass.

Snuffbox1740- Great Britain Snuffbox, Zincke (miniaturists)

Despite England and France’s economic turmoil, the wealthy sphere always maintained their sense of individuality through lavish objects. According to Neil McKendrick, “restless striving to clamber from one rank to the next, and where possessions and especially clothes, both symbolized and signaled each step in the social promotion, the economic potentialities of such social needs could… be immense.” [2] Having the ability to purchase lavish items determined your place in society. However, McKendrick argues that by the eighteenth century the barrier separating the social hierarchy became blurred. More of the population was able to enjoy the purchasing of consumer goods. Before, the wealthy were the only individuals to purchase snuffboxes, but after the consumer revolution snuffboxes became more accessible. In Neil McKendrick’s chapter, the late eighteenth century saw an increase in production which allowed different individuals from all social classes to purchase items of luxury and pleasure.

The wealthy community was becoming irrelevant in societies such as England and France. Their identity was closely linked to their personal objects. For example, Michael Kwass argues that “the wig had become big business in the eighteenth century—big enough to suggest that it was no longer an exclusive luxury article.”[3] In the illustration “Les Incoryables” two fashionably dressed men stands observing one another’s garments. The satirical image demonstrates the difficulty to differentiate a gentleman of wealth from a commoner. Since different types of fashion were becoming accessible to the public it became more difficult to determine an individual’s social status based on their appearance. The materialistic items men and women wore and carried in public gradually became insignificant.

Wig Les Incroyables

If items that were once extravagant become common they lose its value and therefore no longer helps distinguish between social classes. In order to keep the social classes and their ornate items unique, the wealthy spent additional money on their material objects. Regarding snuffboxes, the prosperous individuals who could afford it began to personalize their boxes. This particular snuffbox has two miniature enamel images of Sir Robert Furnese’s daughter’s. Along with the personalized miniature’s, the walls are chased with nymphs and dolphins among reeds, scrolls and shells. The snuffboxes also began to hold political meanings such as a painted portrait of a politician, diplomatic gift, or awarded to recognize official service. By continuing to make their snuffboxes unique and personalized, the wealthy were keeping the social hierarchy functioning. Another item the wealthy indulged in was elaborate furniture for their grand estates. For example, the “Bureau Cabinet,” was made from material rare in Great Britain and created using a technique formally practiced in France. For the upper class, the power of dress and ornate objects helped create their social identity, which they were desperately holding onto.

CabinetBureau cabinet

The snuffbox became an object of luxury regarded only for the affluent. Then snuffboxes became frequently used by individuals not part of the wealthy status. Elaborate items were an important part of society and the amount of meaning behind each object accumulated and increased a person’s worth and developed their identity. The upper class needed to improve small items like the snuffbox because if they began to lose a simple item to the masses then their social status would slowly merge into society and would begin to lose their identity.


Kwass, Michael. “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France.” American Historical Review. (2006): 631-59.

McKendrick, Neil. “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-century England.” In The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England. London: Europa Publications Limited, 1982.

Stanhope, Philip Dormer, 4th earl of Chesterfield. “Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th earl of Chesterfield to Philip Stanhope: Thursday, 19 November 1750 — [letter].” Letter stanphOU0010211_1key001cor of Electronic Enlightenment. Ed. Robert McNamee et al. Vers. 2.4. University of Oxford. 2013. Web. 8 Mar. 2014. <;.

Bureau Cabinet. The Victoria & Albert Museum. Museum item number: W.37:1 to 37-1953.

Les Incroyables. The British Museum. Museum item number: 1861, 1012.372.

Snuffbox. The Victoria & Albert Museum. Museum item number: LOAN: GILBERT. 388-2008.

[1] Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th earl of Chesterfield, “Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th earl of Chesterfield to Philip Stanhope: Thursday, 19 November 1750 — [letter],” In Electronic Enlightenment, edited by Robert McNamee et al. University of Oxford. <;.

[2] Neil McKendrick, “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-century England,” in The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England, (London: Europa Publications Limited, 1982), 20-21.

[3] Michael Kwass, “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth Century France, “American Historical Review (2006): 637.