About Snuff Bottles
ABOUT CHINESE SNUFF BOTTLES
WHAT: The Imperial Workshop would produce tiny bottles, called snuff bottles, for containing and carrying powdered tobacco for use by the royal family, or as gifts or favors to civil and military ministers of the royal court, and foreign diplomats. Given their styles or types, techniques, various materials and craftsmanship, these miniature masterpieces became one of the most sought after and important representations of the applied arts during the Qing Dynasty.
Types and Materials
Snuff bottles were made of various types of materials, such as, ivory, silver, lacquer, bamboo, cloisonné, exotic woods, glass, porcelain, jade, crystal, agate and other semi-precious stones. The imperial arts and crafts made during middle to late Qing Dynasty had a quality of extreme refinement. The snuff bottles from that period represent a mixture of elegant aesthetics with folk-art oriented subject matter.
Size and Features
Snuff bottles are usually between two and three inches tall, and were meant to be held in the hand and examined closely.
Each snuff bottle has a cap or stopper with a long bone spoon. The cap/stopper may be of a different material than the bottle itself i.e. Jade snuff bottle with jeweled cap/stopper or ivory snuff bottle with agate cap/stopper.
Signatures or Marks
In China’s history, craftsmen’s names were never known. The artists were not to sign their names on their pieces even if they could be considered master craftsmen and fine artists by today’s standards. It is very rare to find maker’s names left on any ancient craft pieces, such as pottery, textile, furniture, and glass. Therefore, craft pieces were only labeled with the workshop name. In the case of the pieces produced by the Qing Dynasty Imperial Workshops, they were always labeled with the emperor’s regimen name, such as Kangxi, Qianlong, or Jiaqing, etc. Snuff Bottles as a form of art reached its peak during the Qianlong era. Many of the works produced thereafter are copies of earlier masterpieces. Even contemporary works with new designs often bear the Qianlong mark. Nevertheless, the royal labels do not mean original imperial work.
HOW: Snuff bottles were made in the Palace Workshops in Beijing that specialized in specific decorative arts i.e. glass, jade, ceramics ,etc. For instance, jade snuff bottles were made in the Palace Workshops in Beijing that specialized in carving jade pieces as well as in other places involved in the production of jade carving.
WHERE: Beijing, China. Imperial Forbidden City, Palace Workshops
WHEN: Qing Dynasty starting late 17th century. The high point in the manufacture of most types of snuff bottles was during the 18th century. However, a great many fine bottles continued to be made throughout the 19th century. After the revolution and the establishment of the Republic in 1912, the fashion of using snuff died away.
WHY: Europe introduced tobacco to China at the end of the 16th century when it was common to use pipes. The trend of using powdered tobacco snuffed from a tiny bottle was popularized by the Beijing imperial court during the Qing Dynasty towards the end of the 17th century when smoking tobacco was forbidden. The use of snuff was acceptable because it was valued for its medicinal qualities. Considered as an effective remedy for colds, headaches, stomach disorders and many other illnesses, the powdered tobacco was dispensed in a bottle, like most other medicines in China, rather than in boxes as preferred by the Europeans.
The use of snuff bottles remained centered in the Beijing court life for most of the 18th century, and the use of snuff became an upper class social ritual. Much art, taste and money had been expended to these miniature bottles which made them the subject of active acquisition. Snuff bottles also became the new currency for the purchase of favors, positions and advancement in government.
By the end of the 18th century, the trend of snuff-taking and collecting snuff bottles become a nationwide habit among all social classes. It was common courtesy to offer friends a pinch of snuff upon meeting them in the street or at home. The snuff bottle became a status symbol especially if an owner possessed the most unusual or finest bottle.
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