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    

A Really Good Antique Chinese Peking Glass Snuff Bottle, DragonsChinese 19th C. Natural Baltic Amber Snuff Bottle, Superb, Sotheby's ProvenanceA Rare Carved Chinese Coconut Bowl 19th Century, With A Large Glass Snuff BottleAntique Or Vintage? Chinese Carved White Jade & Red Coral Snuff Bottle19th/20th C. Chinese Overlay Glass Snuff Bottle19th/20th C. Chinese Carved Polychrome Snuff BottlesAntique Chinese Ornate Hand-carved Cherry Amber Figural Snuff Bottle Signed19th C. Chinese Underglaze Iron Red Cylindrical Snuff BottleRare Antique Hand Carved Oriental Rose Glass Snuff Bottle-awesome Color&carving!Antique Chinese Interior Painted Glass Snuff Bottle 19th C.Very Old Chinese Novelty Snuff Bottle In The Form Of A Temple - Very Rare - L@@kChinese Porcelain Snuff Bottle With Underglaze Blue & Grey Floral Decor 19thcVintage Chinese Fingers Citron Snuff Bottle 20th C.Chinese Exquisite Handmade Crab Carving Agate Snuff BottleAntique Chinese Carved Natural Jade Snuff Bottle 19th CChinese Porcelain Snuff Bottle With Underglaze Blue & Grey Landscape Decor 19thcRare Chinese 18/19thc Antiques Porcelain Blue White Snuff Bottle VaseAntique Chinese Carved Jade / Hardstone Snuff Bottle With Wooden Stand Exquisite Chinese Natural Agate Hand-carved Snuff BottleVintage Lot Of 10 Chinese Snuff BottlesHorseshoe Figural Snuff Bottle / Tobacco Jar - Ground LipTwo Good Antique Chinese Cloisonne Enamel & Gilt Metal Snuff Bottles Sterling Silver - Boma Love Heart Perfume Decanter Snuff Bottle 8g - PendantNice Antique Chinese Blue & White Porcelain Snuff Bottle Qianlong MarkQianlong Marked Chinese Overlay Glass Snuff Bottle19th/20th C. Chinese Cloisonné Double Gourd Snuff BottleChinese Old Blue And White Porcelain Buddha Kwan-yin Figure Statue Snuff BottleExquisite Chinese Natural Agate Hand-carved Fish Snuff BottleExquisite Chinese Glass Hand Carved Snuff BottleExquisite Chinese Glass Gilt Hand-carved Lotus And Fish Snuff BottleBeautifully Chinese Glass Hand-carved Flowers And Birds Snuff BottleAntique Old Chinese Celadon Nephrite Hand Carved Dushan-jade Snuff Bottles China Culture Symbol Collectible Decor Old White Agate Carve Snuff BottleAntique Old Chinese 19thc Deer Horn Snuff Bottle Figures Under Old Pine TreeChinese Exquisite Handmade Landscape Characters Pattern Glass Snuff BottleCollectible Old Porcelain Colored Drawing Carve Elephant Auspicious Snuff BottleBig Antique Old Chinese Peking Glass Carved Snuff Bottle Cranes Lotus AuspiciousExquisite Chinese Natural Agate Hand-carved Snuff BottleOld Fine Chinese Gourd Made Snuff Bottle Beautiful Countryside LandscapeChinese Handmade Exquisite Glass Gilt Snuff BottleAntique Faceted Squat Form Chinese Snuff Bottle Well Hollowed China C1900South Africa Tribal Zulu Wire Bound Snuff Bottle & Stopper No Assegai KnobkerrieChina Antique Collectible Enamel Porcelain Colored Drawing Decor Snuff BottleExquisite Chinese Natural Agate Hand-carved Snuff BottleTwo Hand Painted Inside Glass Snuff Bottles#675 Chinese Hand-carved Old Old-jade"5-pic" Snuff Bottle Lid Authentic Chinese Exquisite Hand-carved Antlers Snuff BottleOld Chinese Masters Hand-carved Kirin Old Jade Snuff Bottle +copper Spoon H346Exquisite Chinese Natural Agate Hand-carved Snuff BottleCollectible China Old Cloisonne Carve Flower Rattan Decor Snuff Bottle VintageQianlong Marked Chinese Enamel Bronze Snuff BottleChinese Hand-carved People Landscape Carving Natural Shoushan Stone Snuff BottleExquisite Chinese Gourd Hand-carved Snuff BottleExquisite Chinese Natural Agate Hand-carved Snuff BottleExquisite Chinese Glass Hand-carved Butterfly Snuff BottleChinese Old Peking Green Colored Glaze Snuff Bottle Handwork Elephant Statues Antique Chinese Well Carved Beautifully Grained Agate Snuff Bottle Jade Top 1900Beautifully Chinese Glass Hand-carved Snuff BottleExquisite Chinese Glass Hand-carved Cranes Snuff BottleLate Qing Reverse Painted Carved Glass Enamel Japanese Meiji Showa Snuff Bottle