It's not clear how snuff, what we know as powdered tobacco, first made it to China in the early to mid-1600s. It may have arrived via traders from Portugal or Russia, or it could have been brought by invading Manchus. What we do know is that once the members of Imperial Court caught a whiff, they were hooked.

While the Chinese found smoking tobacco distasteful, snuff, which mixed tobacco with herbs and spices, was believed to have medicinal properties. It was considered a cure for migraines, and as one high-ranking court scholar wrote, it was "said to be able to improve one's sight, especially to exorcise epidemic diseases." Because snuff was inhaled through the nose, it often caused one to sneeze, which was considered a means of purging illnesses and impurities.

The court, however, did not have access to substantial quantities of snuff until Jesuit missionaries, hoping to gain access to the "Forbidden Kingdom," presented Kangxi, the second emperor of the Qing Dynasty, with an elaborate snuff box in 1684. While the emperor was pleased by this gift, he realized that, thanks to China's humid climate, snuff would cake in a box, which could not be sealed very tightly. He found that traditional Chinese medicine bottles made better containers.

So Emperor Kangxi had beautiful snuff bottles made for himself and his whole family. Soon, delicately handcrafted and ornate snuff bottles were a wildly popular symbol of status in the imperial court—tobacco, imported from the New World, was prohibitively expensive for most commoners. For the upper crust of Chinese society, a snuff bottle was the equivalent of a Rolex watch. A man talking to his colleagues would pull out his bottle and offer snuff to share so that the others could admire the beauty of his bottle. For this reason, the bottles were also used in bribes.

Standing three inches tall or less, antique snuff bottles were made out of a wide variety of materials—jade, agate, porcelain, glass, metal, or precious stones like tourmaline, ruby matrix, and amethyst—many of which were used in the Chinese fine arts of the day. The carved, molded, or painted designs on snuff bottles included plant and animal totems intended to convey blessings. The bottles also came with spoons, traditionally made out of ivory but later made of bone, tortoise shell, and metal.

The most treasured Chinese snuff bottles for contemporary collectors come from the courts of Yongzheng and Qianlong. Their artisans had learned a process of enameling and painting metal or glass from the Jesuits, so most of the resulting bottles were painted with European-style Catholic iconography passed on by the missionaries. Authentic examples of these enameled bottles now go for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions.

The Jesuits also had a strong influence over the production of glass snuff bottles, thanks to a Bavarian priest named Kilian Stumpf, who shared Western glassmaking techniques at a glass house established by Emperor Kangxi in 1695. In fact, Bavarians made the first snuff bottles—theirs were five or six inches tall...

Unfortunately, during the bitter-cold Beijing winters, these glass snuff bottles would shatter, so the Chinese began to make winter snuff bottles out of stone like jade, agate, and limestone. Yongzheng and Qianlong were also partial to bottles made of glass or porcelain that were designed to look exactly like jade, agate, amethyst, coral, or turquoise. The emperors delighted in the artisans' skills at tricking people.

Sometimes snuff bottles were produced in other places, usually to be sold to the Chinese. The Japanese made bottles of ivory and lacquer, while metal bottles were made in Thailand and Nepal, some fashioned out of coins.

Once farmers started to grow tobacco in Asia and snuff became more financially accessible to the everyday person in China, mass-produced porcelain snuff bottles proliferated. These have little artistic value, and were often just thrown away.

In the 1920s, the Chinese stopped using snuff, but that didn't put an end the production of snuff bottles. Artisans continued to produce them for the collectors market, although most collectors are much more interested in bottles that were actually used to contain snuff. One exception to this general rule are what's known as inside-painted snuff bottles, made beginning in the late 1800s. While the earliest were used for snuff, eventually, they were just appreciated as uniquely collectible works of art, painted in watercolors with tiny right-angled brushes.

Those interested in starting a snuff-bottle collection have to be wary of dealers selling reproductions of 18th and 19th century snuff bottles and pawning them off as the real deal. Authentic antique snuff bottles go for thousands of dollars.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society

International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society

This simple site features a beautiful collection of antique Chinese snuff bottles. Start on the categories page, wh… [read review or visit site]

Inside Painted Snuff Bottles

Inside Painted Snuff Bottles

This site is a great showcase for hundreds of beautifully detailed inside painted snuff bottles - featuring artwork… [read review or visit site]

Hall of Jades

Hall of Jades

The Field Museum houses an informative, permanent exhibition dedicated to Jade. Browse the highlights of the exhibi… [read review or visit site]

Historic Glass Bottle Identification

Historic Glass Bottle Identification

Bill Lindsey's fantastic bottle identification and information site. Loaded with detailed descriptions and diagrams… [read review or visit site]

Asian Art Museum

Asian Art Museum

You can get happily lost searching through the 10,000 or so objects on the Asian Art Museum's website. For example,… [read review or visit site]

Gotheborg.com

Gotheborg.com

Jan-Erik Nilsson's extensive reference on antique Chinese porcelain. Jam-packed with information (e.g. on porcelain… [read review or visit site]

Antique Bottle Collector's Haven

Antique Bottle Collector's Haven

There's a ton of information here, but as with bottles, you have to dig to find the best stuff. Start with the famo… [read review or visit site]

Bottle Cap Index

Bottle Cap Index

Assembled by Gunther Rademacher with the help of several other contributors, this collection of over half a million… [read review or visit site]

Plopsite.de

Plopsite.de

Norbert Lamping's collection of 600+ ceramic bottle stoppers, Hutter stoppers, swingtops, swivel stoppers, and ligh… [read review or visit site]

Old Spice Collectibles

Old Spice Collectibles

Lather up with Creighton Fricek's complete chronology of collectible Old Spice shaving products. Start with the bot… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Estate Lot Chinese Peking Glass Porcelain Cloisonne Snuff Bottles Jade PendantsEstate Chinese Reverse Inside Painted Peking Glass Stone Emperor Snuff BottlesEstate Lot Chinese Carved Cinnabar Turquoise Scenic Corn Cob Snuff BottlesChinese Amethyst Carved Pendant Now Converted To Snuff BottleAntique Chinese 19th/ 20th Century Carved Jade Snuff Bottle Peach & BatA Good Chinese Snuff-bottle With Raised Figures In Famille-rose Colours 19thcEstate Lot Chinese Bamboo Bitong Snuff Bottle Vase Fan Famille Rose Dish FiguresAntique Chinese 18th /19th Century Goldstone Glass Snuff BottleChinese Porcelain Blue White Red Dragon Snuff Bottle 18th/19thAntique Shadow Agate Snuff Bottle 19cFine Chinese Antique Carved Dragon Lines Yellow Glass Snuff Bottle 18th C. An Antique Qing Chinese Blue White Iron Red Snuff Bottle With Jadeite TopChinese Cow Bone Snuff Bottle Signed 19th Century ?Antique Chinese C1900 Reverse Painted Glass Snuff Bottle Figures In LandscapeChinese Qing Dynasty Antique 18c Porcelain Snuff Bottle Marked Qianlong Ta366kAntique Chinese 20th Century Carved Jade Snuff Bottle Bird Trees / Figure BoatAntique Chinese Porcelain Cameo Glass Snuff Bottles Robert Kleiner Gallery BookChinese Snuff Bottles Rietberg Museum Porcelain Jade Glass Robert Hall BookFine Chinese Antique Carved Natural White Nephrite Jade Snuff Bottle 19th C. Fine Chinese Antique Painted Crickets Enamel Glass Snuff Bottle 18th C.Fine Chinese Antique Painted Mother And Son Enamel Copper Snuff Bottle 18th C.An Antique Qing Chinese Antique Moss Agate Red Stone Snuff Bottle With Agate TopSpecial Carved Chinese Lavender Jade Snuff Bottle In Custom BoxFine Chinese Antique Painted Children Enamel Glass Snuff Bottle 18th C.Fantastic Chinese Ox Horn Skillfully Carving Snuff Bottles - Phoenix D16Superb & Large 20th Century Chinese Signed Inside Painted Glass Snuff Bottle.Old Chinese Peking Glass Carved Snuff Bottle~mouse/monkey/bat/peach/chayoteRare Chinese Antique Overlay Carved Dustpan Lines Yellow Glass Snuff Bottle QingVtg 1966 Antique Chinese Snuff Bottles Carved Jade Painted Glass Porcelain #1Antique Chinese Red Glass Snuff Bottle €Antique Chinese Snuff Bottles Society Jade Glass Hardstone Art Journal 2003Vtg 1966 Antique Chinese Snuff Bottles Carved Jade Painted Glass Porcelain #4Rare Chinese Antique Carved Dragon Yellow Glass Snuff Bottle Qianlong MarkFine Old Chinese Silk Covered Scholars Box For Snuff Bottle Or Carved Art PiecesChinese Whispers Snuff Bottles Porcelain Jade Lacquer Amber Robert Hall Book Ix Signed 1800s Snuff Bottle Chow Revolving Chinese Famille Rose Porcelain QingFine Old Chinese Silk Covered Scholars Box For Snuff Bottle Or Figurine PiecesChinese Snuff Bottles Porcelain Jade Cloisonne Exeter 6th Book Hugh Moss SignedLovely China Old Porcelain Hand Armored Dragon Copper Snuff Bottle Ornament Antique Chinese Inside-painted Snuff Bottle With Provenance €Antique Chinese Snuff Bottles Jade Cameo Lacquer Peter Collection Book M. HughesChinese Snuff Bottles Porcelain Jade Quartz Thewlis Collection Book C. LaweranceChinese Elder Boy Carved Peking Overlay Glass Snuff BottleAntique Signed Chinese Hand Painted Blue White Red Porcelain Snuff Bottle China Chinese Snuff Bottle Society Carved Lacquer Jade Hardstone Society Journal 2003Vintage Handmade Collection Old Exquisite Snuff Bottle Jewelry BoxAntique Chinese Flattened Hu Form Celadon Lion Mask Scholars Vase Snuff BottleAntique Chinese Blue Lapis Lazuli Necklace With Pendant Hand Carved Snuff BottleChinese Snuff Bottles Porcelain Jade Carnelian Cameo Glass Ault Collection BookAntique Carved Rose Quartz Snuff Bottle With Leaves And BlossomsRare Chinese Antique Painted Mother Enamel Glass Snuff Bottle Qianlong MarkAntique Chinese Carved Jade Snuff Bottles Wright Museum Art Exhibit BookletChinese Snuff Bottles Porcelain Jade Hardstone Hardy Collection Book C LaweranceFine Old Chinese Silk Covered Shou Scholar's Box For Snuff Bottles Or FigurinesFine Chinese Antique Painted Landscape Enamel Glass Snuff Bottle 18th C.Fine Old Chinese Red Silk Covered Scholars Box For Snuff Bottles Or Art FigurineChinese Snuff Bottles Lot Of 9 DifferentFine Big Old Rose Wood Carved Peach Shape Stand Shelf For Statue Snuff BottleVintage Collection Handmade Painting Vivid Children Coloured Glaze Snuff BottlesCollectable Handwork Old Beeswax Snuff Bottle Armored Flowers Buddha Sf45t01