During the 18th century, gentlemen would often “take snuff” as a form of recreation. The definition of “snuffing” was given, in 1839, as “the custom or habit of nasally inhaling such powder, which, by agreeably titillating the olfactory nerves, excites, in the mind of the recipient a pleasing consciousness of existence.”
Snuff is a powdered form of tobacco, often flavoured, and a pinch of snuff would be held to the nose and inhaled. It became so popular, and costly, that exceedingly ornate snuff boxes were produced to house this expensive powder.
This fashion was largely practised by the higher classes, and was contrasted to the vulgar habit of the working class of smoking or chewing tobacco.
During the 19th century, the fashion shifted a little to the smoking of cigars for the upper classes of men.
One reader of The Gentleman’s Magazine, suitably concerned about this popular practice, wrote a request to the publication to seek out information concerning the dangers of taking snuff. The reader was particularly interested to learn:
Whether, though snuff is a present gratification, the habitual use of it is not materially injurious to health and longevity? Or more particularly,
Whether, by operating as a constant purge and drain to the head, it may not rack off too much of the animal juices required as a due provision for vigorous health; and tend to abate those natural propensities which tho’ they ought to be regulated by reason, ought not to be suppressed by violent means?
Whether, if it has any such tendency, it does not in result accelerate the decay, not only of the corporeal, but of the mental faculties, and precipitate the infirmities of old age?
These circumstances I think must obviously present themselves to diligent observers in the medical branch; they must, in the course of their practice, have opportunities to remark, whether snuff-takers in general have large or small families; whether their children are observably weaker or more sickly than others; and whether old persons who take souls afford any peculiar signs of infirmity, by a paralytic state of their nerves, or by the decay of their understanding.
The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 45, 1775
Obviously unknown to this individual, some years before a medical doctor had investigated some of the effects of snuff taking. In 1761, Dr. John Hill published “Cautions against the Immoderate Use of Snuff. Founded on the Known Qualities of the Tobacco Plant: and the effects it must produce when this way taken into the body: and enforced by instances of persons who have perished miserably of diseases, occasioned, or rendered incurable, by its use.” (One wonders when the term Title ends and the term Theses begins!) His paper contained reports of two cases where the use of snuff had led to growths inside the nose, which he believed to be cancer.
Almost 80 years later, Joseph Fume (a pseudonym of William Andrew Chatto) published a paper about the various types of tobacco, dismissing Dr. John Hill’s findings completely. The author believed that, “The Doctor’s tract is more creditable to his imagination than to his judgement”, stating that the Hill’s attribution of cause and effect was “exceedingly obscure”. It is important to note, however, that this paper was written to “outline the real pleasures and advantages of the custom” of tobacco, and for the “entertainment of smokers”, and not to outline any health warnings. In fact, Chatto takes advantage of the evidence to support tobacco use, noting the number of “diplomatists and cardinals” that are, despite consuming large quantities of snuff, uniformly healthy.
Interestingly, in the modern day snuff has become popular again, though it is often placed on the gums in the mouth rather than being inhaled. This new predilection for snuff is largely because of a lower perceived risk when compared to smoking tobacco, as well as the widespread bans on smoking in public places. However, modern sources suggest that snuff still leads to nicotine addiction, and cancers of the mouth, pharynx, and nose. As present day usage has been limited, there is not much information on the extent of the health dangers of taking snuff. History might have just repeated itself! I feel much like the reader of The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1775!
Whilst taking snuff is not really my cup of tea, I do love looking through old journals and reading about the things that interested people in the past. It’s as if you can almost hear their voice.
Sources and Relevant Links
A paper: – of tobacco; treating of the rise, progress, pleasures, and advantages of smoking. With anecdotes of distinguished smokers, mems. on pipes and tobacco-boxes, and a tritical essay on snuff, by William Chatto, 1839.
The Dangers of Snuff