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]

Match World

Match World

This ambitious site showcases the 20,000-item Rankei Library matchbook collection, owned by the Japan Match Manufac… [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]

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]

Kensitas Silk Flowers

Kensitas Silk Flowers

Don Wearmouth and his wife showcase the 230 beautiful silk designs that were distributed free with Kensitas cigaret… [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]

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]

Matchbox Labels

Matchbox Labels

Jane McDevitt's huge Flickr photoset of matchbox labels, primarily Eastern European, from the 1950s and 60s. These … [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]

Truth in Advertising

Truth in Advertising

This gallery of cigarette magazine advertising from the 1940s and 50s contains no surgeon general's warning, just p… [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]

Matchbook Museum

Matchbook Museum

James Lileks' gallery of 400 matchbooks from coffee shops, hotels, motels, bars, banks, restaurants and more. Lilek… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Perfect Rare Chinese Porcelain B/w Snuff Bottle 19th C. Yongzheng HuntingAntique Chinese Hand Carved Jade Snuff Bottle.Old White Jade Snuff Bottle Two Antique Chinese Agate Snuff Bottles.A Fine Carved Chinese Amethyst Prunus Blossom Small Snuff Bottle Antique RareSet Of 3 Chinese Inside-painted Glass Jadeite And Gold Shine Snuff Bottles.Set Of 2 Antique Chinese Red Glass And Jadeite Snuff Bottles.Antique 18th 19th C Chinese Porcelain Yellow Glaze Snuff Bottle Miniature VaseCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Cloisonne Carved Phoenix Flying Snuff BottleAntique Snuff Bottle Figures Buddha Rohan Netsuke Okimono Pre-1900Pair Antique C. 1890 Chinese Solid Silver Snuff Bottles Signed Antique Chinese Famille Rose Porcelain Snuff Bottle Collectible Decorated Old Handwork Cloisonne Carved Squirrel Leaf Snuff BottleChinese Snuff Bottle, Cloisonne, Believed To Be Old, Dad Owned From 1970Fine Old Chinese Celadon Nephrite Jade Carved Snuff Bottle~two Parts~archaisticOld Celadon White Jade Snuff Bottle Chinese / Japanese Interior Painted Glass And Jade Topped Scent / Snuff BottleOld Antique White Jade Snuff Bottle Chinese Cloisonne Snuff Bottle Painting LandscapeFine Chinese Antique Inside Painting Birds Natural Crystal Snuff Bottle 20th CAntique Old Chinese Peking Glass Carved Snuff Bottle~inner Painting~artist SignAntique Chinese Copper Red Blue And White Snuff Bottle 19thc / 20th CenturyA Superb Chinese Moss Agate Antique Snuff Bottle - Rare Early Old Peking Hand-carved Painting Glass Glaze Snuff Bottle Antique Chinese Vintage Snuff Bottle Floral Decoration Iron Red PrunusCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Cloisonne Carved Duck Swim Snuff BottleCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Tibet Silver Carved Belle Flower Snuff BottleOld Peking Hand-carved Painting Glass Glaze Snuff Bottle Collectible Decorated Old Handwork Coloured Glaze Dragon Tortoise Snuff BottleOld Chinese Peking Glass Carved Snuff Bottle~powerful Dragon ImageCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Tibet Silver Carved Gourd Belle Snuff BottleFine Old Chinese Agate Made Snuff Bottle~unique Color~beautiful VeinsFine Chinese Antique Painted Flowers Enamel Glass Snuff Bottle 19th C. Fine Chinese Antique Inside Painting Birds Natural Crystal Snuff Bottle 20th CCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Porcelain Carved Flower Vase Snuff Bottle Collection Chinese Manual Handmade Kiln Snuff Bottles ***free Shipping*** Collecting Oriental Vintage Handwork Glass Handmade Rare Snuff Bottles Fine Chinese Antique Carved Flowers & Birds Overlay Glass Snuff Bottle 19th C. Peking Glass Carved Fish & Crane Pattern Snuff BottleFine Chinese Antique Carved Flowers & Birds Yellow Glass Snuff Bottle 19th C. Fine Chinese Antique Carved Children Overlay Glass Snuff Bottle 19th C. Chinese Landscape Painting Qianlong Mark Cloisonne Snuff Bottle Fine Chinese Antique Inside Painting Fish Natural Agate Snuff Bottle 20th CSolid Jichi Wood Display Shelf For Netsuke, Snuff Bottle, Figurine, Miniature 03Chinese Old Jingdezhen Porcelain Collection Handmade Painting Sage Snuff BottleCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Porcelain Carved Bat Snuff BottleVintage Collection Old Handmade Precious Cattle Bone Bamboo Snuff BottlesCollectible Decorated Old Handwork 0x B0ne Carved 3 Moods Monkey Snuff BottleChinese Old Green Jade Snuff Bottle Fine Chinese Antique Carved Dragon Overlay Glass Snuff Bottle 19th C. Antique Chinese Peking Glass Snuff Bottle Blown Orange Red SwirlCollectible Decorated Old Handwork 0x Horn B0ne Carved Bamboo Snuff BottleFine Chinese Antique Carved Dustpan Lines Yellow Glass Snuff Bottle 19th C. Chinese Hand-carved Elephant Snuff BottleAsian Chinese Old Jingdezhen Porcelain Carved Fish Collect Statue Snuff BottleChina Collectible Decorate Handwork Old copper Carve Locust Rare Snuff BottleCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Porcelain Carved Dragon Head Snuff BottleChinese Beautiful Porcelain Snuff Bottle, Elephant Shape, End Of Qianlong MkSuperb Vintage Collection Handmade Porcelain Old Man Monkey Snuff BottlesCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Cloisonne Carved Crane Flying Snuff Bottle