Jewelry Box of Drug

A brief look into the history of the gilded drug capsules: snuff bottles.

Collection from our 'Up to Snuff' Auction, October 15th

For millennia, narcotics have fascinated civilization. Altering mood and behavior was a quest which consumed mankind, reshaped the way we perceive society and what we called ‘reality’.
Enter Snuff.

The smokeless tobacco originated in the Americas and was a world-wide hit by the early 18th century. Socialites and aristocrats in Europe and beyond found favor in this aromatic powdered pinch of delight. One swift nasal inhale and – voilà. Who needed the downward casting glare, the hassle and judgement that came with low-brow behaviors like smoking? Plus, think of all the time one saved not having to roll your own cigarette.
Enter Snuff Bottle.

These fashionable replacements for European snuff boxes originated in China and were first recorded in writing in 1711. After being embraced as a celebrated court art as well as lucrative industry, Qing Dynasty artisans masterfully executed these precious gifts with a bravado and prolificity seldom displayed in modern manufacturing. Not only works of art, but just as wine or beer glass forms, the anatomy of the vessels also availed to experience. Materials such as jade, agate, coral, porcelain, and glass served as luxurious conduits for the herbal remedy, but one’s bottle also offered a glimpse into the individual backgrounds and social status for the average lookers-on.

Now a product and relic of a bygone time, the production of these magical little bottles has steadily decreased since the 1920s, attributable to changing trends, growing health concerns, and the commercialization of cigarettes as the main catalyst. The Chinese snuff bottle was once the world reigning champion capsule for drug, now just a capsule of time – a two-inch window to the past.


Selkirk's Auction 'Up to Snuff: Rubin Family Chinese Snuff Bottles' takes place October 15, featuring a large variety of early 18th to 20th century snuff bottles, from the Rubin family of St. Louis, Missouri.