Snuff was a very popular recreational drug of the eighteenth century. Everyone was snuffing, from royalty down. Gay, Pope and the Scriblerans all took snuff, as did Horace Walpole, Fielding dabbled and Joshua Reynolds took such much when he was painting he had to brush it off the canvas afterwards. Goldsmith said of him,
“When they talked of their Raphaels, Corregios and stuff, He shifted his trumpet, and only took snuff.”
I imagine Goldsmith had a grand snuffbox that he used with an attempt of great ceremony, Samuel Johnson used to keep his loose in his jacket pockets and pinch out of there.
As someone with a passing interest in the eighteenth century, I thought it might be worth trying some to see what all these people were on about.
First I did a little research. Snuff is finely ground tobacco that has been cooked and milled and is often soaked in various perfumes and flavours. The standard stuff is called SP and it has larger grains than the posh sort called Irish Toast. There were huge ranges of snuff in the eighteenth century, with various mixes, especially floral. A rose flavoured snuff is still given out to MPs in parliament due to a smoking ban in the building in the seventeenth century. There is also mentholated snuff but my paltry research has not been able find out when they were first created.
So, in the mood of practical research I bought some snuff and tried it.
Disclaimer: Snuff is a tobacco product and The Grub Street Lodger promotes all responsible behaviour even if he finds it hard to do. (I explained to a friend what I was trying and she said that if I wanted to try eighteenth century experiences so much, I ought to catch syphilis also).
I picked a variety of flavours from a company called ‘Wilson’s of Sharrow’ because they are a business that have been in the same family since 1737 and that they use a watermill. I also got one tin from a subsidiary company because it was called ‘Doctor Johnson’ and another from Fribourg and Treyer as they were a blender formed in 1720 with a fantastic label boasting of selling to ‘The Kings of Hanover and Belgium and their royal highnesses, The Dukes of Sussex, Cambridge and the Duchess of Kent.’
One thing that delighted me about snuff is how cheap it is due to the fact that the UK government do not tax it and I’ve got to try quite a few flavours for a tidy tenner.
How to take snuff:
There are two main methods. The first is to pinch a bit and sniff it up each nostril. The second is to put a small pile on the back of the hand and sniff. The pinch was the easiest method for me.
I must warn that my nasal acuity is only slight and someone with a better nose may have different opinions. That said, here are my reviews.
This was the standard type of snuff and the first I tried. It is a light powder of a similar consistency as flour, brown and very pleasant smelling, almost like fresh tea. For someone who is not used to tobacco I found it quite astringent at first, but when I had another try I began to warm. It gives a slight tingling and warmth in the nose, a pleasant head rush. There is a slight fresh feeling that lingers in the nose afterwards.
I had trouble opening the little tin at first, having to bash it with a hammer to loosen it. It smells wonderful when you open it, of a similar consistency as the SP. On sniffing it is rather sickly, a little like shoving an old lady’s perfume up your schnozz. However, the smell lingers in a really pleasant way for almost fifteen minutes. Some people have rose-tinted lenses but I had rose-tinted nostrils, it was quite wonderful and worth the overpowering quality of the actual sniff.
Irish DH Toast, No 20:
This one was much finer and drier than the previous ones. It has a sort of loose tea aroma and when I sniffed reminded me of the SP. The main difference was where SP was like a nice loose black tea, Irish toast had a slight lapsang souchong element. It is delicate and very slight and the smell goes quickly, leaving a fresh feeling.
Even finer ground and drier than the previous toast, I spilt it everywhere on first opening as the little pots are rather tricky with my clumsy hands. The smell really comes out of it strongly and again the smell reminds me of tea (though this might be because I have had much more experience of tea, having worked at a loose leaf tea shop). However, the feeling and ‘taste’ of lemon toast was almost exactly the same as a really good peaty single malt whisky, like a Laphroig or Llagavullin. More than the others, it even tasted in my mouth and felt wonderfully luxurious.
This one is the moistest, largest grained and driest of the snuffs so far. There was no whiff of chocolate or orange when I opened the pot, but there was a lovely deep smell. On sniffing I was disappointed at the lack of chocolate or orangeyness. However, I did find it quite pleasant as it was less astringent than any of the previous snuffs and the lingering smell, although not chocolate, was a very nice one.
Dean Swift’s Dr Johnson:
I picked this for the name and was very surprised at it being mentholated. Fine but moist, it is almost completely like inhaling one of them Vicks-up-your-nose things but a little sweeter. It certainly cleared the system and woke me up. I can’t imagine my Sammy J inhaling it though. Maybe he might now he’s living at my house.
Fribourg and Treyer, Bordeaux:
The darkest, moistest and largest grained snuff I tried, the smell was extremely strong and reminded me of a Jamaican rum cake. It had the same sort of sweetness but not a light sweetness, a rich one. On sniffing, it was certainly the least astringent, it was warm and homey and the experience was so very much the same sort of comforting experience that you get with a well made fruit cake. It was my most favourite.
Well, I certainly found my foray into snuff to be more enjoyable than syphilis. It allowed my nose to give me much greater pleasure than it usually does and all the different smells and textures really excite my curiosity and urge to try things as well as making my world smell nicer for a while. I also enjoyed the buzz it gives, though would have wished for snuff not to be tobacco based.
I can see why the eighteenth century thought it to be beneficial to health. In terms of experience, it does feel like a jolt of something good and fresh and certainly less noxious than a cigarette. That said, there is a huge down side to snuff, that it makes your nose run a little more and worst of all that it gives you brown bogies. Brown bogies are bad.
With that lovely image I leave you to go and shave off my reviled ‘tash.