The Complete History of Snuff Bottles

The snuff bottle is a marriage of craftsmanship and artistry that evolved in ancient China and Mongolia. Even with a practical purpose in mind, these functional items quite often feature detailed and elegant designs that artfully reflect their cultural origin.

Painted White Agate Snuff Bottle, Est. $100-$200, Nov. 6 Jasper52 Sale

Painted White Agate Snuff Bottle, Est. $100-$200, Nov. 6 Jasper52 Sale

The origin of snuff’s arrival in China is a topic of debate. According to some historians and historical records, members of China’s imperial families and social elite were introduced to snuff by European missionaries and merchants. This reportedly occurred during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Other reports say that snuff made its way to China by way of Japan.

The popularity of snuff — tobacco leaves finely ground and infused with herbs and spices — grew rapidly in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). As more people discovered the stimulating and relaxing effects of snuff, as well as its ability to “cure” aches and pains, colds, and digestive issues, efforts to create snuff containers began. Chinese and Mongolian craftsmen began developing the diminutive bottles, with a cork affixed to the stopper in order to ensure the snuff remained fresh.

By the middle of the Qing Dynasty, the use of snuff and snuff bottles had spread throughout China and into nearly every aspect of society. The bottles were appreciated not only as a means for carrying and accessing snuff anywhere, but also for their artistry and decorative appeal, according to an article by Zhixin Jason Sun, curator, Department of Asian Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Painted White Agate Snuff Bottles, Est. $100-$200, Nov. 7 Jasper52 Sale

Painted White Agate Snuff Bottles, Est. $100-$200, Nov. 7 Jasper52 Sale

While early snuff bottles were made from a variety of materials, glass and variations of glass with artistic elements were by far the most popular. In fact, in an article appearing on The Cultural Concept Circle, it is reported that Emperor Kangxi established a central glass workshop early in the Qing Dynasty with snuff bottles as one of the primary products. During the Qing Dynasty, snuff bottles were produced primarily in six regions: Guangzhou, Beijing, Boshan, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning Province, and Tibet. The area of Liaoning was best known for producing agate snuff bottles.

The most popular types of glass snuff bottles include:

  • Reverse-painted-on-glass: Largely said to have become popular in the middle of the Qing Dynasty, they are still created by artisans today. The bottles are decorated with paintings and often include calligraphy on the inside. Scholars were among the first to create this type of snuff bottle, accessing the polished “canvas” of glass through the mouth of the bottle, then carefully painting the scene.
  • Overlay-on-glass, also referred to as Peking glass: This type of snuff bottle is created when an artisan uses a singular color of glass as the base, then adds layers of contrasting colored glass. After the layers have been added, the artist carves a design. In do doing, each of the layers of glass is revealed, according to an article posted on the Scanlan Fine Arts Gallery website.
  • Agate: This type of stone was first utilized in snuff bottles by artisans living in Beijing. In a Collectors Weekly article by snuff bottle expert Vincent Fausone Jr., the author explains that winter temperatures in Beijing could drop considerably, and in that climate, glass bottles could shatter. This led to the use of stone, especially agate.
  • Enameled: Antique enameled snuff bottles are miniature works of art that required a high level of workmanship on the part of the artisan creating them. The temperature had to be very carefully monitored as the enamel was applied, Fausone Jr. explained, adding that craftsmen in ancient China learned the enameling technique from European Jesuits.

It was common for the palm-sized masterpieces known as snuff bottles to be capped with a piece of jade. The jade would be attached to the cork stopper, which in many cases had a small spoon fastened to it. The spoon was used to assist in sniffing the snuff.

  • Jade: In addition to serving as the material from which many snuff bottle caps were made, jade was also used as a primary material for the bottles themselves. Over the centuries, Chinese leaders have viewed jade with reverence. During the Han Dynasty, Xu Shen extolled the five virtues of jade: benevolence, honesty, wisdom, integrity and bravery.
Jade Snuff Bottle, Est. $10-$200, Nov. 7 Jasper52 Sale

Jade Snuff Bottle, Est. $10-$200, Nov. 7 Jasper52 Sale

Just as snuff bottles were appreciated for their beauty and cultural significance during the Qing Dynasty, they continue to be held in high regard by collectors, historians and designers alike. Small in stature, diverse in composition and artistry; and varied in cost, they comprise an endless collecting field to explore and enjoy.


View the exceptional snuff bottles in this week’s Asian Antiques Jasper52 auction.

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