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    

Rare Antique Chinese Snuff Bottle. Please LookAntique Chinese Fine Carved Stone Lotus Flower Form Snuff BottleChinese Cloisonne Snuff BottleAsian Eastern Carved Jade Vintage Style Snuff BottleChinese Antique Or Vintage Mother Of Pearl Snuff BottleChinese Porcelain Snuff Bottle Blue And WhiteJichi Wood Carved Display Stand Shelf For Netsuke, Snuff Bottle Small StatueChinese Antique Or Vintage Polychrome Snuff Bottle Cow Bone Qianlong MarkSix 19th C. To 20th C. Chinese Beijing Glass Snuff BottlesRare Old Decoration Cloisonne Painting Red Cowned Crane Snuff Bottle Antique 19th Cent. Chinese Jade Double Gourd Shape Snuff Bottle 19th Cent. Chinese Gilt Copper Chased Snuff Bottle - 4 Character MarkJingdezhen Porcelain Painting Pair Lovers Make Love Delicate Snuff BottleSuperb Chinese Bronze Cloisonne Gilt Snuff Bottle - Qing 19th CChinese Famille Rose Porcelain Snuff Bottle, Scholar W/ Fly Whisk, 19th CenturyAntique Yongzheng Signed Chinese Underglazed Blue Teadust Glaze Snuff Bottle NrVintage Chinese Or Japanese Carved Face Seed Nut Netsuke ? Snuff Bottle ? RareRare Chinese 18th C Antique Gilt Enamelled Snuff Bottle Qianlong Mark Ne094Antique Chinese Carved Bone Snuff Bottle Inscribed MarkedSuperb Chinese Dark Agate Silver Snuff Bottle - Qing 19th C Fine Antique 19thc Chinese Blue And White Porcelain Snuff Bottle C 1820Old Chinese Spinach Green Nephrite Jade Carved Snuff Bottle 19thc.~top QualityCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Porcelain Carved Woman Snuff BottleChinese Hand-carved Ox-horn Snuff Bottle Inlay Bronze & GemSix 19th C. To 20th C. Chinese Beijing Glass Snuff Bottles Large And SmallSuperb Collectable Old Handmade Tibet Copper Dragon Phoenix Snuff Bottles☆☆☆☆☆Chinese Peking Glass Overlay Snuff Bottle, Brown Over White, Pocket Watch DesignBird & Tree & Crane Pattern Carved Peking Overlay Glass Snuff BottleOld Chinese Peking Glass Carved Snuff Bottle~building Under Pine TreeChinese White Purple Banded Crystalloid Agate Snuff BottleFine Chinese Old Jade Collectable Handwork Armored Copper Dragon Snuff Bottle Collectable Old Handwork China Porcelain Snuff Bottle Armored Dragon Phoenix SfChinese Handwork Carved Bone Character Snuff Bottle 1206097Jingdezhen Porcelain Carving Sexy Belle Wait For Husband Snuff Bottle Decoration Tinted Glass Painting Butterfly Fly Under The Flowers Snuff Bottle Collectible Decorated Old Handwork Cloisonne Carved Duck Swim Snuff BottleSuperb Collectable Old Handmade Pretty Rare Porcelain Snuff Bottles☆☆☆☆☆Exquisite Antique Chinese 18th C Glass Snuff Bottle Marked Qianlong Ne095Collectible Old Handwork Wood Carved Big Stands For Snuff Bottle Display ShelfChinese Snuff Bottle, Inside-painted Double Glass Snuff Bottle's Artist SignedVintage Collection Handmade Precious Plant Fruit (象牙果)snuff BottlesOld Chinese Peking Glass Carved Snuff Bottle~crane Designed On Both SurfacesVintage Collection Handmade Precious Yak Fine Angle Snuff BottlesCollectible Decoration Amber Carving Fish Swimming Under The Grass Snuff BottleChinese Carp Water Lily Carved Peking Overlay Glass Snuff BottleSuperb Vintage Collectable DecorationChinese Cloisonne Hand-painted Fish Snuff Bottles W Qianlong MarkHandwork China Old Jingdezhen Porcelain Snuff Bottle Paint Landscape Sf46a23Superb Vintage Collectable Precious Wood Elegant Snuff Bottles/vase BaseFine Natural Old Chinese Agate Made Snuff Bottle~fish Style~beautiful VeinsChinese Natural Lapis Lazuli Snuff BottleOld Folk Art Handwork Tibet-silver Snuff Bottle Carved Dragon Flower Sf4dm10Chinese Natural Aqua Jade Snuff BottleCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Porcelain Carved Dragon Head Snuff BottleFine 20th Century Carved Chinese Carnelian Chalcedony Snuff Bottle Chinese Sinkiang Nephrite Jade Carved Fish & Bat Snuff BottleOld China Handwork Glass Snuff Bottle Inside Paint People Armored Dragon Sf4dm02Vintage Collection Old Handmade Precious Yak Fine Angle Snuff BottlesChinese Plutus Carved Hetian Nephrite Jade Snuff BottleBlue White Flower Peking Are Glass Snuff Bottle