Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Box for a Fragrant Powder

Object: Snuff Box
Accession #: 1952.2.1A-B
Snuff, which is prepared by drying, toasting, then crushing cured tobacco leaves, was the preferred method of tobacco consumption by the Incas. Containers used for storage of snuff included bottles, pockets, and bags as well as boxes.  The term "japan" entered the English language in 1688 as a word synonymous with black varnish or lacquer applied to wood.  One such "japanned" box in Wilton’s collection is this black wooden snuff box. Painted on the lid is a landscape with people on horses, a village, trees, and mountains in the distance.  As on many 18th century plantations, the cash-crop at Wilton was tobacco.  It is likely that the tobacco from Mr. Randolph’s plantation was made into snuff that was sold to the elite.
Snuff-taking was considered fashionable amongst the elite as well as being useful for preventing contagious diseases, colds, and consumption.  John Murray wrote Snuff Taking: its utility in preventing bronchitis, consumption, etc. in 1870 and includes a chapter with prescriptions.  He attests in his book that the first reception among the elite was “due much more to its reputed virtues, as a valuable remedy, than as an article of luxury; hence, the early names of the plant—southern all heal, holy herb, holy healing herb, &c.”  A powder of herbs was taken through the nose and used as a remedy for diseases as early as Hippocrates, in 400 B.C.  Jean Nicot, French diplomat and scholar who is connected with the introduction of tobacco in a granulated form, presented the powder to Catherine de Medici.  Catherine, the wife of King Henry II of France from 1547 until 1559, had been looking for a remedy for her headache.

There was an importance placed on how the “fragrant powder” was taken into one’s nose. One historian expresses the attitude of the times that “a polished snuff taker also required a steady hand, smooth nostrils and a clean shaven face.  Careless snuffers were a mess.”  Schools in London in the early 17th century were formed to teach the proper use of snuff.  Charles-Maurice-de-Talleyrand-Perigord, French statesman and diplomat under Napoleon during the French Revolution, “held snuff-taking to be essential to the politicians, as it gives time for thought in answering awkward questions while pretending only to indulge in a pinch.”  A box such as this one would have been ideal for a snuff-taker, such as Talleyrand, to keep a stash of the ground tobacco close by his side.
Mr. Randolph may have owned a box similar this one which could be set on a table for easy access to the snuff for the sniffing of the owner or for offering of it to a guest.  Either way, he would have been familiar with snuff as the owner of a tobacco plantation and a member of the elite.

Curtis, Mattoon M. The book of snuff and snuff boxes. Bramhall House. New York: 1935.

Gately, Iain. Tobacco: The Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World. Grove Press, 2001. New

Le Corbeiller, Clare. European and American Snuff Boxes 1730-1830.. Viking Press. New York:

Murray, John Carrick. Snuff-Taking. J. Chruchill. London: 1870.

“Charles-Maurice-de-Talleyrand, prince de Benevent”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 7 February
2013. <>

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Object: Book, The Young Gentleman’s Astronomy, Chronology, and Dialling by Edward Wells, D.D.
Accession #: 2012.0009

There were five sons in the Randolph family, each of whom was likely given the highest education.  The family likely hired a private tutor, who would teach the children year-round.  Not only were they taught by a tutor, but also used numerous books to aid their lessons.  One such book might have been similar to The Young Gentleman’s Astronomy, Chronology, and Dialling by Edward Wells, D.D.  This volume on astronomy, as well as related topics, includes multiple illustrations, diagrams, and tables, some of which fold out.  The book includes six chapters, three tables, and a catalogue. 

Astronomy is the scientific study of the individual celestial bodies (excluding the earth) and of the universe as a whole.  Its various branches include astrometry, astrodynamics, cosmology, and astrophysics.  Astronomical almanacs show that the colonists, according to one historian, “had a great desire to speculate on the mystical influence of stars on the fate of mankind.”  This included providing a connection between health remedies and the timing of the phases of the moon, as the Pennsylvania Dutch believed.  Even one of the nation's founding fathers had a keen interest in the subject.  When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819, his earliest plan for the curriculum of the school included astronomy.  He also made plans for the nation's first observatory and planetarium.  The university's observatory was constructed in the 1830s (the first one having failed to be finished before Jefferson died).  By this time the federal government had built the U.S. National Observatory and astronomy become, “one of the most popular courses in the American university.”   

Along with the subject of astronomy the book also covers chronology and dialing.  Chronology is the science of computing time or periods of time and assigning events to their true dates.  One historian explains that it was considered a “legitimate field of study through medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods” and even Isaac Newton wrote about the subject in his treatise, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended.  Lastly, The Young Gentleman’s  examines dialing, the telling of time using the face of a sundial and the casting of the sun's shadow. 

The conviction of the author, Edward Wells, as stated in his preface was that

Wherefore, the most proper method to make Young Gentleman Learned, is this, to teach them at first the only such elements of the Liberal Arts or Sciences, as are most useful in the common affairs of Life, and withal most easy to be known…And when they find that the Understanding thereof has no Difficulty, then they will be also encouraged to proceed. And when they have thus gone through, and become Masters of the most useful and easy Elements of the liberal Arts and Sciences, they will thereby be enabled with much more Ease to conquer the more difficult Parts of Learning, if their own Inclinations shall lead them thereto hereafter, when they are come to Riper Years, and so can judge more rightly of the worth of Learning.

It is possible that the Randolphs saw the importance of studying these subjects as well and had a book similar to this one presenting astronomy, chronology, and dialing to their five young gentlemen. 


Aveni, Anthony F. Colonial Williamsburg. “Astronomy and Stargazers”. 4 November 2012.
Latham, Lance. Hermetic Systems. “Technical Chronology”. 4 November 2012.
Wells, Edward. The Young Gentleman’s Astronomy, Chronology, and Dialling. Googlebooks. com. 6 November 2012.
“Dialling”. 5 November 2012.
“Monograph”. 4 November 2012.