ASCAS Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver
article # 168
by Bill Poynton
(click on photos to enlarge image)


What is a snuff box?

Let's call it a small, usually ornamented, box for holding snuff (a scented, powdered tobacco). The practice of sniffing or inhaling a pinch of snuff was common in England around the 17th century and in the early 18th century. It became widespread in other countries, when the demand for decorated snuffboxes, which were considered valuable gifts, increased. Some were small enough to fit in a waistcoat pocket, and others were larger. All gave 17th and 18th century craftsmen an opportunity to execute rich and elaborate designs.

Snuffboxes reflected the art and craft of the painter of miniatures, the enameller, the jeweller, the goldsmith and silversmith. Lids were often decorated with Chinoiserie (note 1) or other typical 18th-century, subject matter, such as allegories and flowers. Whilst more expensive items were made of Gold and Silver, less expensive items were made of horn, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl or wood.

I am particularly interested in snuff boxes where the design identifies a manufacture in this period. Very few of them carried hallmarks, and then it would probably have been a makerís mark only. So how do we go about dating them? The lack of full hallmarking may well suggest that, rather than being made in an established silversmith's workshop in a large town or city, these might have been made by Provincial or itinerant silversmiths for the local gentry. However, letís start with a description.....these pieces were usually silver-mounted with bases and lids made of tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl or, perhaps horn. Most of the box lids were decorated with silver or gold pique work (note 2) which occasionally extended to the side and base.

They were mainly oval in shape, sometimes rectangular, occasionally round, but the one thing they seemed to have in common in the late 17th century, say from 1680, was a "stand-away" hinge. By this, I mean a hinge by which the lid was secured to the body with studs, rivets or screws (see the photos below) but where the barrel of the hinge stands away from the body of the box. The "stand-away" hinge appears to have evolved over a period of around 20-30 years into one where the hinge becomes an integral part of the body of the box, being soldered to the side.

To summarise, it would appear that dating these boxes might seem haphazard, but it really comes down to a question of the design, the pattern of decoration and recognition of the style of hinge.

c. 1680

c. 1690

c. 1700

c. 1710

c. 1720


1. Chinoiserie, a French term, signifying "Chinese-esque" refers to a recurring theme in European artistic styles since the seventeenth century, which reflect Chinese artistic influences. It is characterized by the use of fanciful Chinese imagery. The popularity of Chinoiserie peaked around the middle of the 18th century, when it was easily assimilated into rococo, then coming into fashion. Chinoiserie, in a broader sense, refers to a mixture of Eastern and Western stylistic elements for both decoration and shape.

2. Silver and Gold Pique: A decorative technique, in which gold or silver (and occasionally other materials, like mother-of-pearl) are inlaid into an object to form a pattern; originated in the mid-1600s in Italy and further developed in England and France, it was first applied to boxes and other small objects.

Courtesy of Wikipedia et al

For further reading, I would strongly recommend Eric Delieb's "Silver Boxes", ISBN 1-85149-313-1
Bill Poynton
- 2013 -