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. < http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/581601/Charles-Maurice-de-Talleyrand-prince-de-Benevent>