It’s not easy to buy snuff nowadays.
I wandered into a well-stocked newsagents in South Kensington tube station on Saturday afternoon and enquired if the man behind the counter had 25g of snuff. He gave me a fierce look beneath his dark eyebrows and told me that he was a Tobacconist. He’d no idea what I was talking about, nor did he seem to want to know. I left quickly and decided to continue my search online. It seems that the once popular and refined pastime of inhaling finely ground tobacco through a nostril is now an alternative fringe activity. I found a couple of biker websites where the chat turned to where in London good snuff could be bought and imagined groups of men in sunglasses and leather scouring the city, fringed jackets swinging and boots clicking on pavements.
Yesterday, I went to Covent Garden Market to find one of the last bastions of traditional tobacco in central London. The market was already heaving by the late morning with early Christmas shoppers, a string quartet playing Beethoven, market stalls of objects made of coloured glass or wood and tourists drinking mulled wine. No one I asked knew where the Seger and Snuff Parlour was and, having walked around twice, I nearly gave up. I began to assume that my new biker friends were joking. Until I saw it nestled in a corner: a tiny Purveyor of Tobacco more like a large, cluttered cupboard that couldn’t fit more than three people inside. Beneath the sign outside, there was a figure of a Highland soldier, once grasping bagpipes, standing to attention and blackboards leant against the wood panelling advertising various imported cigars. The window displayed an enormous array of wooden pipes, cigar cutters, lighters and tins. Everything had a brown and red hue.
The shop itself was stuffed with tobacco products in boxes and drawers and had that bitter, woody smell of cigars. Weary of my inclination to buy a pipe like the one my grandfather smoked and sit by a fire with it smouldering in my hand, I turned to the young woman behind the chest that served as a counter and asked about their snuff. They had four blends for sale, two flavoured and two natural, all made by the owners of the shop. I could’ve chosen menthol or a sweeter more vanillary flavour. In the 18th century, Pinchors took pride in their personal blends, they would pass them around for the discerning pallet; all part of the refined mystique. However, I decided to try a straight blend and went for the Particular because I liked the name. It came in a small, round tin that sits in the palm of my hand with Mullins & Westley Ltd on the lid and the 21st century warning: “This Tobacco product damages your health and is addictive”. I asked as I was leaving why so few shops sell it now and the sales assistant thought it was to do with legislation about labelling.
Snuff came to Europe from the New World and was believed to have medicinal qualities. By the early 1700s it was considered a luxury product and a mark of refinement. Snuff boxes, now collectors’ items, were a possession to be displayed and admired amongst the elite in the 18th century, as was the personal blend and perhaps the dexterity with which it could be inhaled. Snuffboxes were often personalised and extremely valuable; encrusted with gems and often made of gold. The lids told a story. They might be embedded miniatures painted on thin ivory, depicting the green sweep of the English countryside or a mythic scene from Antiquity; they might be a heraldic symbol in carved stone or a pattern of polished jewels; they might honour a mistress or a husband. The valuable ones were mostly larger than you might imagine, perhaps 10cm by 5cm, and I’m not entirely sure what sort of pocket they’d fit into. But then, nothing about these intricate boxes is very practical.
The newly opened Gilbert Galleries at the V&A house my favourite snuffbox. Snuffbox with Bacchus has a carved cameo made of chalcedony embedded in the lid, the stone is green and brown and cream depending on the light. A bearded man with a sack over his shoulder collects grapes in the background while the couple in the chariot loll back, semi-naked. It’s suggested that the couple represent Ariadne and Bacchus but they look quite androgynous to me. There are two ubiquitous plump babies, one driving the leopard that pulls the chariot and the other hiding close to the ground. The Cameo was crafted in Rome between 1750 and 1800 and it’s chipped on two corners. John Northam, who worked for the firm of Royal Goldsmiths Rundell Bridge and Rundell in London, filled the upper corners with chased leaves. The whole box is covered in an intricate pattern of tiny shimmering gold leaves and stylised foliage. It’s beautiful and I can’t help feeling that there is a story behind it. Northam made the box in 1815-16. Was the cameo bought on a Grand Tour and then saved to be made into a box at a later date? Why go to so much trouble over a chipped image?
This morning, in the fine company of long dead men and women in silk and cravats, peering down their noses at me, and large bearded bikers in leather, swigging beer from the bottle, I sat in my chilly writing shed at the end of the garden and tried the Particular. Once open, the tin burst with fine pale brown powder like flour. I took a pinch with thumb and forefinger and snorted it into my right nostril. It’s felt like I’d lit a fire in my nose that curled up into my brain. I jumped up, sneezed twice and felt tears pouring down my right cheek. It’s left me with a dull, throbbing sensation and a slow drip from within my nostril, not to mention the dusting of brown powder around my face.
I won’t be joining “Snuffy Charlotte”, George III’s wife, or anyone else in this particular vice. Unless, of course, I find a nice gold box to put it in.