George Stimpson

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When was snuff first used?

Snuff made from the leaves of tobacco and other plants originated in the New World in pre-Columbian times. Members of the second Columbus expedition in 1493-1496 first noted its use by some of the natives in the West Indies and Central America. The Spaniards intro­duced[page 46] the snuff habit into Spain, whence it gradually spread to Portugal, France and the rest of the world. A pinch of snuff was supposed to be good for colds and to "clear the head" and its use was encouraged among Europeans because of the belief in its medicinal virtue. In England and her Colonies snuff taking, particularly among the upper classes, became widespread in the seventeenth century. Snuff containers made of the windpipes of cattle were called "weasands." During the later part of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth centuries snuff taking by both men and women was a mark of quality and gentility. Frederick the Great, Marie Antoinette, Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, Dolly Madison and Napoleon were habitual snuff users. It was fashionable for people of the upper classes to carry beautifully ornamented rectangular or circular snuffboxes. Kings, princes and other notables presented snuffboxes as marks of their favor. Often snuffboxes were made of delicately carved wood or ivory, inlaid with gold or silver, decorated with diamonds or other jewels and with cameos of relatives, friends or famous persons set in the lids. Tapping, opening and. offering a snuffbox developed into a ritual of etiquette. "The snuffbox," wrote George Borrow in The Bible in Spain (1848), "is the olive branch of the Portuguese, and he who wishes to be on good terms with them must never refuse to dip his finger and thumb into it when offered." Snuff taking lost its social standing as its use spread from the aristocracy to the common people. The change in the class of users resulted in the virtual disappearance of personal snuff-boxes and the introduction of moist snuff. Originally snuff was merely dry tobacco ground fine and was often referred to as "dust." The father of Gilbert Stuart, the portrait painter, was a snuff grinder by trade. Dry, powdered tobacco was called snuff because it was sniffed or snuffed up the nose. Moist snuff is not "pinched" from a special container but is "dipped" from the tin can in which it is distributed. Neither is it inhaled but put into the mouth and either chewed or lodged between the gums and the cheek. Modern snuff making is a complex process. Sometimes it is made from the scraps, waste pieces and residue of ordinary tobacco, but the best product is made from the thick, fleshy part and the midribs of the leaves of dark tobacco that has been fire-cured and seasoned for a considerable period. The tobacco is blended, moistened, salted, scented, flavored with licorice, tonka beans or other ingredients, fermented, dried and pulverized. Walter Garrett became a multimillionaire manufacturing snuff. Snuff has more "kick" in it than ordinary tobacco because of the free nicotine [page 47] and ammonia and the aromatic qualities generated by fermentation. The use of snuff is not dying out and snuff dipping is far from a lost art. In 1880 less than four million pounds of snuff was made in the United States; in 1943 the annual production was forty-three million pounds—nearly a third of a pound for every man, woman and child in the nation. The federal tax was 18 cents a pound and the revenue from this source amounted to about $7,740,000. The chief users in the the United States were Negroes and white laborers and farmers in the South, industrial workers in the Northeast and persons of Scandinavian extraction in the Northwest. Snuff taking, like tobacco chewing, increased during the Second World War because smoking was forbidden in many war plants and factories. "White snuff" which does not "stain the handkerchief," was put on the market in Britain during the war.