They were carried in the pockets of every fop, macaroni, Brummel and dandy of the mid to late 1700's. Only a few inches long, they shone with enamel and gleamed with the melodious colors of nature: Gold, silver, agate, mother-of-pearl, lapis lazuli. They were pierced with precious gems: Diamonds, pearls, rubies, amethysts. Some were so heavily encrusted with jewels that they must have left tiny dents in the delicate hands that held them.
Some were decorated with mosaics – the pieces of colored glass no larger than the eye of a needle. Some held portraits of great personages, some held secret portraits – their identities known only to the owner. Some included watches. Some were 'automatons', fueled by impossibly small and perfect wheels and springs, portraying moving figures: a tightrope walker dancing on a gilded pole, a revolving menagerie of painted birds.
Some featured reproductions of paintings – by Watteau, Boucher, Grueze, Lorrain – so that countrysides, beautifiul dancing peasants, operas and fireworks were seen in detail on an enameled cover less than four inches long.
They were gifts: to friends, lovers, soldiers, philosophers and kings. They were adorable toys which circulated throughout the aristocracy like the scent of perfume throughout an empty room.
They were divinely, deliciously useless. They glittered in their owners' hands and suffered the languid taps of plump, powdered fingers.
They were snuffboxes. And never did the gap between style and substance span so wide and varied. Snuffboxes were the fascinating, petite receptacles for that powdered tobacco which ranged from fine to coarse, from dry to moist. Snuff was available in various flavors; so as a pinch was sniffed – never snorted – one could detect the scent of spearmint, cinnamon, raspberry, orange, rose, menthol…even whiskey and bourbon.
Before 'taking a pinch' became chic, snufftakers ran the risk of excommunication in some of the more nervous Italian city-states; in Russia, they would have their decadence punished by the very unceremonious removal of their nose. But when men of power – Napoleon, George II, Louis XV, Louis XVI – began to carry and present this boxes of shimmer and light, courtiers and aristocrats fell in line. Like jewelry, like women, like many things in the 18th century, they were always on display, but never truly looked at: it was enough that they were possessions.
But this century still captivated and glittered like no other century: with shoes embroidered with pearls, with jackets marbled with threads of silver and gold, with dresses and 'sacques' of satins and intricate brocades, with jewels worn in the hair, dangling from ears, embracing necks white with lead paint…and with boxes decorated with all the wealth mined from the earth and refined by man: and fitting easily within the palm of his hand.