“Scent to match thy rich perfume.
Chymic art did ne’er presume,
Through her quaint alembic strain,
None so sovereign to the brain.”
SO sings the quaint, dear, gentle Elia in his chaunt to the Virginia weed; and a passionate lover of it he was, in all its witching forms of pigtail, roll, and titillating dust. How ardent was his devotion to the plant, is well known to all who have read his “Farewell to Tobacco,” in which, after ironically abusing it with all sorts of hard names, he abruptly turns traitor (a good traitor) to the side he had espoused, and, archly declaring his hatred was but feigned, concludes by asserting his resolve still to retain
“— a seat ’mong the joys
Of the bless’d tobacco boys.”
where, though he may be debarred by sour physician the full luxury of the plant, he yet
“— may catch
Some collateral sweets, and snatch
Sidelong odours, that give life
Like glances from a neighbor’s wife.”
The struggle which Lamb has so vividly depicted between his love for tobacco and his acquiescence in the necessity which severed him from it, is one through which millions of human beings have passed; and, almost invariably, with the same result. Who, that ever fell under 348 the sorcery of the weed, has not again and again resolved to escape from its spell, — racking the vocabulary for epithets with which to curse it, and yet again and again yielding to the siren, affirming
“ ’Twas but in a sort I blamed thee,
None e’er prospered who defamed thee.”
If logic and learning, satire and eloquence, could “kill off” a plant, tobacco would ages ago have ceased to be chewed, smoked, or snuffed. Alphonse Karr declares that, had it been a useful plant, it could never have survived the assaults made upon it. Had any statesman, he adds, before tobacco was discovered, proposed, for the purposes of revenue, to introduce so nauseous and poisonous an article among the people; had he declared it his intention to offer it for sale, chopped up into pieces, or reduced to powder, telling them that the consequences of chewing, snuffing, or smoking it would be only heart-pains, stomach-pains, vertigoes, cholics, convulsions, vomitings of blood, etc., — that’s all; the project would have been ridiculed as absurd. “My good friend,” would have been the reply of every sane listener to the scheme, “nobody will dispute with you the privilege of selling a thing of which there will be no buyers. You would have a far better chance of success, should you open a shop and write over it
KICKS ARE SOLD HERE!
HORSEWHIPPINGS SOLD HERE,
WHOLESALE AND RETAIL.”
And yet the speculation has succeeded and tobacco and its praises are in almost every man’s mouth. Kings have forbidden it; popes have anathematized it; physicians have warned against it; and even clergymen have thundered 349 their denunciations of it from the pulpit; but in spite of declamations, and “counterblasts,” and sarcasms, it continues to be rooted in the affections of its votaries, who greet it with the cry —
“Hail, sole cosmopolite, Tobacco, hail!
Shag, long-cut, short-cut, pigtail, quid, or roll,
Dark Negrohead, or Orinooka pale,
In every form congenial to the soul.”
Gentle reader, we are no slave of the weed; but, should we ever become one, as in our weakness we may, we shall have a decided choice as to the form of our servitude, and shall incline to the powdered article as the least objectionable to our senses. Chant as you may the praises of chewing and smoking, they are but wretched ways of extracting the juices of the plant, and, if for no other reason, would be without a charm to us, by the vulgar commonness to which they are degraded. Inconvenient and laborious, they are at the same time uncleanly, offensive to one (and that the better) half of humanity, and, it is hardly too much to say, that no man who is addicted to them can expect-to-rate as a gentleman.
But snuff-taking is not only a more delicate and refined operation per se, but the number and character of those engaged in it show it to be at once a dignified and an aristocratic practice. It requires a certain finesse and delicacy of perception to apprehend the virtues of fine Spanish; and hence the vulgar part of the community, whose senses take cognizance of the coarser scents and substances, — who dine off the most strongly-flavored dishes, and, when they drink, want their wine brandied, every glass a headache, — almost universally “turn up their noses” at the pleasures of the box. Add to this, that 350 snuff-takers are, almost entirely, a serious, reflecting race; no men know better than they that things are not always what they seem at first blush, and that it is dangerous to approach to an examination of them bluntly and with uncleared optics. A snuff-taker, before he looks into any grave question, is careful to take his pinch; and then, as Leigh Hunt observes, if any fallacy comes before him, he shakes the imposture, like the remnant of the pinch, to atoms, with one “flesh-quake” of head, thumb, and indifference. Or should he “look into some little nicety of question or of creation, — of the intellectual or the visible world, — he, having sharpened his eyesight with another pinch, and put his head into proper cephalick condition, discerns it, as it were, microscopically, and pronounces that there is more in it than the un-snuff-taking would suppose.’ ” Hence, doubtless, it is, that the phrase “up to snuff” is a synonym for keenness and quickness of intellectual vision.
But it is not merely on philosophical grounds that we prefer this form of using tobacco. It has authority in its favor. If we turn over the page of modern biography, we shall find hardly a man whose name has been emblazoned high on fame’s scroll, that was not a votary of snuff. Talleyrand used to declare that diplomacy was impossible without it. It was indispensable, he argued, to politicians, as it gives them time for thought in answering awkward questions while pretending only to indulge in a pinch. Among his snuff-boxes was one which was double, being two snuff-boxes joined together by a common bottom. The one was politely offered to his acquaintance; the other, never to be profaned by the finger and thumb of a second person, was reserved for himself, — a 351 precaution in which we recognize the arch-diplomate, who was so eternally on his guard, that, when a lady requested his autograph, he wrote his name on the very top of the sheet of paper handed to him. Pope tells us, in his “Key to the lock,” that the Prince Eugene was a great taker of snuff as well as of towns. Frederic the Great had a collection of 1,500 snuff-boxes, and he loved the dust so well that he had capacious pockets made to his waistcoat, to get at it readily. “Glorious John Dryden” was a liberal patron of snuff, and in his later years, was peculiarly fastidious in the article, abhorring all ordinary snuffs, and satisfied only with a mixture which he himself prepared. When from his chair in Will’s Coffee House he issued those literary decrees which ruled the judgment of the town, he was never without the stimulant; and for a young author, on visiting Will’s, to receive a pinch from Dryden’s snuff-box, was equivalent to a formal admission into the society of wits. It has been said that you might as soon divorce the idea of the Popes, Steeles, and Voltaires, from their wigs and caps, as from their snuff-boxes.
Beau Brummell, who so long was the glass of fashion, had a gorgeous collection of snuff-boxes, and was distinguished for the grace with which he opened the lid of his box, with the thumb of the hand that carried it, while he delicately took his pinch with two fingers of the other. His claim to be the leader of the beau monde was based not more on his walk, his coat, and his cravat, than on the inimitable and distingué manner with which, — snatching “a grace beyond the reach of art,” — he indulged in the “nasal pastime,” as his biographer terms it, of taking snuff. The great literary leviathan, 252 Dr. Johnson, was fond of the delicious dust; and so lavish was he in the use of it, that he was wont to take it from a waistcoat pocket, instead of from a box. The gloom of his life might have deepened into a profounder melancholy, had he not cheated its ennui by frequent pinches of snuff, as well as draughts from the tea-kettle that was “never dry.” Sir Joshua Reynolds had a keen zest for this stimulant, and we know not how much the exquisite beauty of his pictures may be owing to the clearness which it gave to his brain and his optics. When bored with talk about “Raphael, Correggio, and stuff,” by canting ignoramuses whose shallowness his old-fashioned politeness would not allow him to ridicule, he found a ready resource in his box:
“He shifted his trumpet, and only took snuff.”
Scott, though he may not have carried it with him, was yet fond of an occasional pinch; and Cowper, as all know, rescued an hour from melancholy to hymn the praises of his favorite weed. It is recorded of the elegant historian, Gibbon, that, when about to say a good thing, he was wont to announce it by a complacent tap on his snuff-box. In the silhouette, the profile cut out with scissors, which faces the title-page of his “Memoirs,” he is represented as indulging his habit, and looking, as Colman says,
“Like an erect black tadpole, taking snuff.”
Narrating his journey to Turin, and his presentation at Court there at the age of twenty-seven, the historian says: “The most sociable women I have met with are the King’s daughters. I chatted for about a quarter of an hour with them, talked about Lausanne, and grew so 353 very free and easy that I drew my snuff-box, rapped it, took snuff twice (a crime never known before in the presence chamber), and continued my discourse in my usual attitude of my body bent forward and my forefinger stretched out.” Napoleon was a famous snuff-taker, and, on the eve of battle, always stimulated his thinking powers by extra quantities of the pulverized weed. Canning attributed to it half his own victories: “Would you confute your opponent in argument?” said he; “learn to take snuff, and turn your back!” — a style of reproof which we have seen most felicitously practised. Henry Clay loved a good pinch; and during one of his fiercest encounters with Calhoun, which we witnessed some years ago, in the United States Senate, when the two giants measured swords with each other some half-dozen times, we noticed that he uniformly, each time he advanced to the onset, roused and stimulated himself to the height of his great argument by drawing on the snuff-box of the nearest Senator.
It is said that some one who was a little skeptical about Tom Moore’s originality, once asked him whence he had derived a particularly brilliant sentiment in one of his songs. “Why, I got it,” replied the poet, at the same moment priming his nose with a stiff pinch, “I got it where I got all the rest, to be sure, at Lundy Foot’s shop.” The poet Crabbe was an ardent votary of snuff; and, doubtless, we owe many a fine domestic picture to the stimulus of a pinch. We are told that Dr. Parr, too, — that famous incarnation of Greek and Latin, — fond as he was of smoking (consuming forty pipes a day, according to some authorities), was not niggard in the use of snuff. We have already spoken of Charles Lamb: it is 354 said that if a person took snuff heartily, that alone was enough to commend him to Lamb’s acquaintance. He would understand, by analogy, the pungency of other things besides Irish blackguard or Scotch rappee. A modern essayist, who passed “a day of happy hours” alone with Lamb at Islington, speaks of his wild wayward words of wonder as to the sort of snuff he would meet with in the Elysium, — and the faint stutterings of joy with which he anticipated offering to old Burton a fine pinch of Spanish, as pungent as his own wit. Doubtless he never would have written his “Farewell to Tobacco,” had he used it only in the powdered form, instead of learning to puff the coarser weed “by toiling after it as some men toil after virtue.” Sydney Smith, describing the French savant, says it is curious to see in what little apartments he lives; “You find him at his books, covered with snuff, with a little dog that bites your legs.” Butler has noted that the saints of Cromwell’s time were not averse to snuff. He says of one:
“He had administered a dose
Of snuff mundungus to his nose;
And powdered the inside of his skull
Instead of the outward jobbernole.”
In short, few great or good men have lived since the introduction of the weed, who have not consumed it in this form; and to have deprived them of the excitement which their snuff-boxes afforded would have been, there is reason to believe, not only to lessen their happiness and sour their tempers, but to rob them in a great degree of their powers of reflection.
Again, the snuff-box is a powerful auxiliary to social intercourse and enjoyment. By what subtle, mysterious influence it operates, we know not; but who has not noticed 355 the almost miraculous effect of a little Maccaboy in “breaking the ice” and banishing the freezing formalities of a mixed company, when gracefully tendered by one of their number? Who has not observed also what a bond of union, what an isthmus of communication, the snuff-box is among travelers, even foreigners who know not each other’s language; how quickly the heart opens to the open box of a true gentleman, of whatever country he be, or however humble his station? The snuff-box has been a powerful engine even in Presidential elections, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that to it some of our Chief Magistrates have owed their elevation to office. When Madison was candidate for that dignity, and was assailed with the utmost vehemence of party rage, the polite attentions of Mrs. Madison to the chiefs of all parties, who met in social intercourse in her house, did wonders towards softening the asperities of party spirit at the Capital, and electing her husband to the Presidency. Her snuff-box, in particular, had a magic influence, and its titillating dust seemed as perfect a security from hostility as is a participation of bread-and-salt among some savage tribes. The kindly feelings thus cultivated among those who sneezed together, triumphed, we are told, over the animosity of party spirit, and won for her husband a popularity to which his lofty reserve and chilling manners would have been an insuperable obstacle. The handful of dust with which Virgil ends the wars of the bees, but typified the magic power of her snuff-box:
“Hi motus animorum, atque hæc certamina tanta
Pulveris exigui jactu compressa quiescunt.”
That there is some instinct of our nature which 356 prompts the use of this stimulus is proved by the fact that even anti-tobacconists, who declaim against the weed, are guilty, — unconsciously to themselves, — of the exquisite inconsistency of using it in its powdered form. How often have we listened to a vehement tirade against tobacco, while ever and anon the orator would pull out a silver snuff-box, and sandwich between his sentences a sternutatory pinch! In the reign of Louis XIV, Fragon, the physician of the grand monarch, having to maintain a thesis against snuff in the schools, was taken ill; whereon his place was supplied by a brother medicus, who read the thesis, — taking all the while enormous quantities of snuff! So true is the remark of Horace, that you may pitchfork Nature out of your presence, but
“— usque recurret,
Et mala perrumpet furtim fastidia victrix.”
Few things are more interesting than to notice the different ways in which men take snuff. A thorough and critical knowledge of these would, no doubt, add largely to our acquaintance with psychology, and perhaps give us a profounder insight into men’s characters, — their secret thoughts and hidden motives of action, — than physiognomy or phrenology. On this head, Leigh Hunt observes, with his usual felicity, that “some men take snuff by little fits and starts, and get over the thing quickly. These are epigrammatic snuff-takers, who come to the point as fast as possible, and to whom pungency is everything. They generally use a sharp and severe snuff, — a sort of essence of pins’ points. Others are all urbanity and polished demeanor; they value the style as much as the sensation, and offer the box around them as much out of dignity as benevolence. Some take snuff 357 irritably, others bashfully, others in a manner as dry as the snuff itself, generally with an economy of the vegetable; others with a luxuriance of gesture, and a lavishness of supply, that announces a moister article, and sheds its superfluous honors over neckcloth and coat. Dr. Johnson’s was probably a snuff of this kind.” About a century ago a fashion prevailed among snuff-takers of administering the powder to the nose with a little spoon or ladle, in allusion to which Samuel Wesley expressed a fear that the human ear would not long remain except from its application:
“To such a height with some is fashion grown,
They feed their very nostrils with a spoon;
One, and but one degree, is wanting yet
To make their senseless luxury complete;
Some choice regale, useless as snuff and dear,
To feed the mazy windings of the ear.”
But to leave these references to authority, and glance at some additional advantages of snuff-taking: — what pleasure is there, we ask, comparable to the luxury of a sneeze? We love a good laugh, it is true, and agree with Charles Lamb that it is worth a hundred groans in any state of the market. Its delicious alchemy can convert even tears into the quintessence of merriment, and make wrinkles themselves expressive of youth and frolic. But who will pretend that it sends such an electric thrill through the frame as a sudden sternutation? The former may convulse by degrees; but it is the last only which can instantly electrify the nerves, brighten every sense, clear away the cobwebs from the brain, and give the whole system a shock to which the effect of the voltaic pile is as nothing. Who, that has ever experienced the titillating sensation, — at least, when produced artificially, — 358 can forget the ecstatic feeling that accompanied and followed the paroxysm? Truly has it been said that “one seems to himself suddenly to be endowed with a sixth sense,” opening to him a world of wonders, and teaching him to contemplate the possession of a thousand delicate nerves before unthought of. Hardly are the series of sneezes over, ere the slight premonitory tickling at the nose is felt again, and he tries, by various persuasive arts, to coax forth another; he draws his breath through his nostrils, — he moves his head to and fro with an ish-i, — he thinks intensely of his last sneeze, — when suddenly the titillation begins again, and away he goes, — sn-sn-sneeze!
“Sudden with starting tears each eye o’er flows,
And the high dome re-echoes to the nose!”
According to a late writer the following is the scientific explanation of a sneeze: The nose receives three sets of nerves, — the nerves of smell, those of feeling, and those of motion. The first communicate to the brain the odorous properties of substances with which they may come in contact, in a diffused or concentrated state; the second communicate the impressions of touch; the third move the muscles of the nose; but the power of these muscles is very limited. When a sneeze occurs all these faculties are excited to a high degree. A grain of snuff excites the olfactory nerves, which dispatch to the brain the intelligence that “snuff has attacked the nostril.” The brain instantly sends a mandate through the motor nerves to the muscles, saying, “Cast it out!” and the result is unmistakable. So offensive is the enemy besieging the nostril held to be, that the nose is not left to its own defense. It would be too feeble to accomplish this. 359 An allied army of muscles join in the rescue, — nearly one-half the body arouses against the intruder, — from the muscles of the lips to those of the abdomen, all unite in the effort for the expulsion of the grain of snuff.
A modern poet, who, though he would doubtless object to having his nose pulled, yet holds it ever ready for a pinch, has the following picturesque description of a sneeze:
“What a moment! What a doubt! —
All my nose, inside and out,
All my thrilling, tickling caustic
Wants to sneeze, and cannot do it!
Now it yearns me, thrills me, stings me,
Now with rapturous torment wrings me;
Now says ‘Sneeze, you fool, get through it.’
What shall help me? — Oh! Good Heaven!
Ah — yes, thank ye — Thirty-seven —
Shee — shee — Oh, ’tis most del-ishi
Ishi — ishi — most del-ishi
(Hang it! I shall sneeze till spring)
Snuff’s a most delicious thing.”
Who can conceive of a more innocent luxury than this? What language, then, can paint the cruelty of the cynic who would rob men of this enjoyment? — as did Amurath IV, who, in 1625, forbade his subjects the use of snuff under the penalty of having the nose cut off; and the Grand Duke of Moscow, by whom the Muscovite who was found snuffing was condemned to have his nostrils split. Pope Urban VIII and Innocent XII were comparatively excusable when they anathematized all snuff-takers who committed the heinous sin of taking a pinch in church; nor will any devotee of the dust execrate the memory of “Good Queen Bess,” because she added to the penalty of excommunication in such cases by authorizing the parish beadle to confiscate the snuff-box to his own 260 use. These were harsh penalties for so trivial an offense; but there is a time and place for all things; and abstinence from Maccaboy during the hours of church service, so far from robbing its lover of any pleasure on the whole, would only give a finer edge to his subsequent enjoyment. But to subject men to the death-penalty for the use of snuff, — to bore a hole through their noses, as did Mahomet IV, — to compel the offenders, as once did the Shah of Persia, to expatriate themselves in order to enjoy this “virtuous vice,” — does it not seem a stretch of tyranny too violent for belief? And how paltry and picayunish appear the calculations of such minute philosophers as Lord Stanhope, who estimated that, in forty years of a snuff-taker’s life, two entire years would be spend tickling his nose, and two more in blowing it, and concluded that a proper application of the time and money thus lost to the public might constitute a fund for the discharge of England’s national debt! Out upon such utilitarian suggestions, worthy of the mean “age of calculators and economists!” Hearken unto Boswell, as he sings in his “Shrubs of Parnassus”:
“O snuff! our fashionable end and aim.
Srasburgh, Rappee, Dutch, Scotch, whate’er thy name;
Powder celestial! quintessence divine!
New joys entrance my soul, while thou art mine.
By thee assisted, ladies kill the day.
And breathe their scandal freely o’er their tea;
Not less they prize thy virtues when in bed;
One pinch of thee revives the vapored head.
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and tickles in the sneeze.”
Apropos to sneezing, it is a question which has long tormented the wits of antiquaries, whence came the custom of saying “God bless you!” to one who sneezes. Many 361 writers ascribe it to an ordinance of Pope St. Gregory, at whose time the air was so pestilential that they who sneezed instantly expired. On this the pontiff, it is said, instituted a short benediction to be pronounced on such persons, to save them from the fatal effects of this malignancy. The Rabbins, however, declare that before Jacob men sneezed but once in a lifetime, and then immediately died; and that the memory of this was ordered to be preserved in all nations, by a command of every prince to his subjects to employ some salutary exclamation after the act of sternutation. Whatever the origin of the custom, it has prevailed among all nations, and was found to exist even in the New World, on its first discovery by the Spaniards. Among the ancients, the distinctions made about sneezing raised it to an art; for while it was unlucky in the afternoon, or when men were clearing away food, or if it occurred three times, or more than four, or on the left-hand side, — if it occurred among persons in deliberation, or two or four times, or in the morning, or on the right-hand side, it was accounted a lucky omen. We are told that Themistocles, by a judicious sneeze on his right-hand side, persuaded his soldiers to fight, and Xenophon, by a similar act in the middle of a speech, was elected General. On another occasion, a sneeze from a linesman just before a battle was considered so ominous that public prayers were deemed necessary in consequence.
An old writer says that the ancients were accustomed to go to bed again, if they sneezed while putting on their shoes. Catullus, in one of his charming poems, makes Cupid sneeze his approbation of two lovers. When the King of Mesopotamia sneezes, he is greeted with shouts in the ante-chamber, shouts in the palace-yard, and 362 shouts in the city streets, echoed and reverberated by a thousand loyal voices. Supposing his majesty to be an inveterate snuff-taker, what horrid cries must rend the air of his capital “from morn till dewy eve”! According to mythology, the first sign of life given by Prometheus’s artificial man was a sneeze, caused by the solar rays stealing through his pores. The Siamese wish long life to persons sneezing. The reason, according to Brande, is, they believe that when one of the judges of hell opens the register in which the duration of men’s lives is written, and looks upon any particular leaf, all those whose names chance to be entered on it never fail to sneeze immediately. In Vienna, if one sneezes in a café, the bystanders will doff their hats, and say “God be with you!” The lower class of modern Romans greet a sneezer with the salutation, “May you have male children!” Milton says that earthquakes,
“— though mortals fear them
As dangerous to the pillared frame of heaven,
Or to the earth’s dark basis underneath,
Are to the main as inconsiderable
And harmless, if not wholesome, as a sneeze
To man’s less universe, and soon are gone.”
Perhaps the most terrific sneeze on record is that described by Martelli, an Italian writer, in his Bambocciata, or Sneezing of Hercules, a marionette farce, from which Swift borrowed the idea of his Voyage to Laputa. In this piece Hercules is represented as reaching the land of the Pigmies, who, alarmed at the sight of what seems a living mountain, hide themselves in caves. One day, as Hercules is sleeping in the open fields, the Pigmies venture forth from their hiding places, and, armed with boughs and thorns, mount the sleeping monster, and 363 cover him from head to foot like flies covering a piece of raw meat. Hercules awakes, and, feeling something tickling his nose, sneezes. His enemies are routed, “horse, foot, and dragoons,” and tumble precipitately from his sides, — when the curtain falls, and the piece ends.
A powerful argument for snuff-taking in preference to other modes of using the weed, is, that one does not have to serve a long and disagreeable apprenticeship before he acquires a full mastery of the art and revels in the highest pleasures of snuffing. Unlike the tobacco-chewer or other consumer of the weed, who has to struggle heroically through its repugnant qualities of taste and effect, until by habit its stimulus grows pleasurable and the system gets mithridated against the poison, the snuff-taker, at the very threshold of his career, is placed on a level with the most veteran practitioners of the art. Another argument for this form of the weed is, that the snuff-taker is rarely guilty of such outrageous excesses in its use as are habitual with the chewer and the smoker. The lover of the pipe and the cigar puffs out his volumes of smoke from dawn till bed-time, —
“Fancibus ingentem fumum, mirabile dictu,
Evomit involvitque domum caligine cæcâ”;
The devotee of raw cavendish “chews the cud of sweet and bitter fancy” from the moment he wakes in the morning till he drops to sleep at night; and some wretches, not satisfied with this, resort to what is called “plugging,” — that is, thrusting long pellets or rolls of tobacco up the nose, and keeping them there during the entire night. Sir Walter Raleigh, who first made smoking fashionable in England, was a type of the whole tribe of smokers. Though an elegant courtier, he smoked 364 to the disgust of the ladies at court, smoked as he sat to see his friend Essex perish on the scaffold, and smoked just before he went to the scaffold himself. Robert Hall used to smoke till the last moment before ascending the pulpit, and resumed his pipe as soon as he came down. When a friend sought to convince him that tobacco was sapping his health, he replied: ‘I can’t answer your arguments, and I can’t give up my pipe.”
That snuff-taking may be, and is, abused, — that, like all other innocent enjoyments, it may be carried to such excess as to undermine the health, and even cause death, — is true; and it is upon this abuse that all the arguments against it are founded. The nose is the emunctory of the brain, and when its functions are impeded, the whole system of the head is deranged. One of the effects of excessive snuffing is to deaden the nerves of the nose, which are endowed with exquisite sensibility, and traverse with their fine net-work the entire inner membrane of the nostril. Drying up the secretion which lubricates this membrane, it gradually destroys the sense of smell, and the result is, that of all the pleasure derived from the olfactory organs, — the omnis copia narium, as Horace terms it, — the snuff-taker knows as little as if he were noseless. Similar effects ensue upon the saliva, and the sense of taste is blunted. An inveterate snuff-taker may always be recognized by his brown, sodden complexion, — by a certain nasal twang or asthmatic wheezing when he tries to speak, — and by a sort of disagreeable noise in respiration, which resembles incipient snoring. Snuff, intemperately taken, is a deadly foe to the memory. The Abbé Moigno, an eminent French savant, who in 1861 took twenty grammes a day, found this faculty 365 rapidly decaying in consequence of this habit. He had learned some fifteen hundred root-words in each of several languages, but found these gradually dropping out of his mind, so as to necessitate frequent recurrence to dictionaries. Quitting the use of tobacco in all its forms, he found, after six years of abstinence, that his memory had recovered all its riches, all its sensibility. The army of words, which had run away, had all gradually returned. Snuff, taken in enormous quantities, also causes fleshy excrescences in the nose, tumors, and polypi in the throat, vomitings, loss of appetite, dyspepsia, — is a frequent cause of blindness, and is said to induce convulsions, promote consumption, and even to case madness and death. Napoleon’s death is attributed to a morbid state of the stomach, superinduced by excessive snuffing; and Dr. Rush tells us that Sir John Pringle who was affected with tremors in his hands and an impaired memory, through the use of snuff, recovered his recollection and the use of his hands by abandoning the dust at the suggestion of Dr. Franklin. As if this catalogue of ills to which the snuff-taker is liable were not fearful enough, other imaginary ones have been added; and grave doctors have gone so far as to declare that his brain will be found after death to be dried to a sort of dirty membrane, clogged with soot!
These facts, however, are not solid objections to snuff itself; they only show that it may be taken in excess, or may not be suited to one’s peculiar idiosyncrasies of constitution or temperament. Would you chop off men’s fingers, because they are sometimes pickers and stealers? Or is the fact that some men make gluttons of themselves an argument for the abolition of eating? No one abstains 366 from veal pie because a greedy fool once died of eating a whole calf; and the excellence of sherry at dinner is not disputed because unlimited Old Bourbon induces delirium tremens. There are men so strangely constituted that they cannot digest even lamb or mutton, and whom the bare sight or smell of certain healthful articles of food throws into spasms. The Duke d’Epernon fainted at the sight of a leveret; and Marshal de Breze, who died in 1689, swooned at the sight of a rabbit. Erasmus could not smell fish without being thrown into a fever, and Scaliger shuddered in every limb on seeing water-cresses. Favoriti, a famous Italian poet, could not bear the odor of a rose.
The gravest objection to snuff is the adulterations to which it is subjected. When adulterated, as it too often is, with pepper, hellebore, and pulverized glass, to give it additional pungency, its effects must be anything but beneficial. Add to these the ferruginous earths, such as red and yellow ochre, and no less than three poisonous preparations, viz.: chromate of lead, read lead, and bi-chromate of potash, — which, according to the London “Lancet” Commission, are introduced into it, — and its deleterious effects are frightfully aggravated. At a meeting of the Philosophical Society of Manchester, England, Dr. C. Calvert stated that he had recently analyzed several samples of snuff, in all of which he had found traces of red lead, and of the bi-chromate of potash, which is still more frequently employed. M. Duchâtel, of Paris, found that a dose from one twenty-fifth to one five-hundredth of a grain sufficed to destroy a dog. Colic, “dropped hands,” and other forms of paralysis, are among the least effects of this deadly poison. Statements like this are not to be 367 sneezed at; but, added to the fact that it is the scented snuffs that are the most unwholesome, as they hide the adulteration, and that it is not unusual to save the sweepings of tobacco-shops and warehouses, even the bits of leaf that adhere to the shoes, for the purpose of mixing snuff, — must make even the most hardened and incorrigible snuffer pause ere he again converts his nose into a dust-hole and a soot-bag.
Considering how the practice of snuff-taking tends to spoil the complexion, it seems strange that ladies should ever become addicted to it. The fact that, by the drain of the juices, it tends to injure the muscles of the fact, to furrow and corrugate the skin, and to give a gaunt, withered, and jaundiced appearance to “the human face divine,” would be enough, one would think, — saying nothing of damage to the health, — to deter any woman from touching the “high-dried pulvillio.” Yet in the days of Queen Anne and Louis XV, as we have already hinted, the practice was fashionable, not only with old ladies, who still cling to it, but with those who had their conquests yet to make, and whom time had not begun to rob of their charms. Leigh Hunt remarks that the ladies in the time of Voltaire and the Du Chatelets seemed never to think themselves either to old to love, or too young to take snuff. A bridegroom in one of the British essayists, describing his wife’s fondness for rouge and carmine, complains that he can never make pure, unsophisticated way to her cheek, but is obliged, like Pyramus in the story, to kiss through a wall, — to salute through a crust of paints and washes:
“Wall, vile wall, which did these lovers sunder.”
This, it has been well observed, “is bad enough; yet the 268 object of paint is to imitate health and loveliness; the wish to look well is in it.” But snuff! what a death-blow does it give to all that romance and poetry with which man delights to invest the other sex! How vulgar the thought that a sneeze should interrupt a kiss or a sigh! Fancy a young beauty, to whom her lover on his knees, after a protracted and sentimental courtship, has just closed a tremulous avowal of his passion with the despairing interrogatory, “C-a-n I l-i-ve?” sneezing out, at this very pinch of the game, what would otherwise be one of the sweetest of loving and bashful replies: “Oh, Edward! This is so un-un-un-unexpected!” What sylph, foreseeing the possibility of such a catastrophe, would superintend the conveyance of this dust to the nostrils of a bell! What gnome would not take a fiendish delight in hovering over a snuff-loving beauty.
The question who invented snuff-taking is an interesting one on which antiquaries differ. That Catherine de Medicis, who instigated the horrid massacre of St. Bartholomew, is entitled to the honor of so philanthropic an act, we shall not believe. If she did originate the practice, it was from any but philanthropic motives. It is well known that when she wished to get rid of offensive persons in an “artistic” manner, she was in the habit of presenting them with delicately made sweetmeats, or trinkets, in which death lurked in the most engaging forms; and perhaps she had the same end in view, in inventing and offering snuff. Whoever invented it, it was at the court of the grand monarch, Louis XIV, that snuff, with all its expensive corollaries of scents and curious boxes, first received the highest sanction, so that Molière speaks of it as le passion des honnêtes gens. In 369 England, it became common after the great plague, from a belief that tobacco, in all its forms, prevented infection. Its use is also said to have increased very much after Sir George Rooke’s expedition to Spain, great quantities having been taken and sold as prizes. Howell, in a letter on Tobacco (1646), says that the Spanish and Irish “take it most in powder or smutchin, and it mightily refreshes the brain”; and he adds that the serving-maids and the swains at the plow, when overtired with labor, “take out their boxes of smutchin, and draw it into their nostrils with a quill, and it will beget new spirits in them with a fresh orjour to fall to work again.”
When William of Holland ascended the British throne, the prevalence of the Dutch taste confirmed the general use of snuff, and it was the fashion to be curious in its use. Valuable boxes of all styles were sported, and the beaux carried canes with hollow heads, that they might the more conveniently inhale a few grains through the perforations, as they sauntered on the fashionable promenades. Rich essences were employed to flavor snuff, and a taste in such scents was considered a necessary part of a refined education. Now, snuff-taking has become a practice as wide-spread among civilized people as chewing or smoking, — is the favorite mode of consuming the weed with men of culture, quick intellects, and elegant tastes; and in every country, the boxes, — which are the favorite presents of kings to their favorites, — are devised hardly less ingeniously, and ornamented far more expensively, than pipes. At the coronation of George VI, the bill of Messrs. Rundell and Bridge for snuff-boxes to foreign ministers was £8,205 15s. 5d. It is estimated that in France not less than six millions of persons take snuff, 270 consuming each two and a half pounds annually, at an expense of over ten francs per nose! The bare duty paid upon tobacco and snuff in England and Scotland averaged in 1850 more than twenty-eight millions of dollars annually! — a prodigious amount to be blown away in smoke, or sneezed away in dust, at a time when the government was higgling on a paltry sum of £100,000 for national education. It is an interesting fact that snuffing is more a Scotch habit than an English or Irish one. We are told that an Edinburgh tobacconist, who made a large fortune by the sale of snuff, had painted on his carriage panels the following pithy distich:
“Wha wad a thocht it
That noses could ha’ bought it?”
The consumption of the dust north of the Tweed is enormous. Every man who would have a smooth pathway in “Auld Scotia” carries a “mull”; it is a letter of introduction, a begetter of conversation, a maker of friends. Hence it has been said that the way to a Scotchman’s heart is “through his nose.”
Snuff-taking necessitates snuff-boxes, and it is interesting to note the ingenuity which has been expended in different countries in contriving and ornamenting these receptacles of “the dust.” In France, in the age of Louis XIV, a snuff-box of some elegant material, whether decorated with paintings or resplendent with precious stones, was part of the necessities of a beauty of ton. Mr. Fairholt, in his late work on “Tobacco,” states that quaint forms have been as common to snuff-boxes as to tobacco-pipes. Coffins were at one time hideously adapted to hold the fragrant dust. A coiled snake, whose central folds form the lid, was a box for a naturalist; a book 271 might serve for a student, and a boat for a sailor. Of a fashion in Queen Anne’s time a poet thus sings:
“Within the lid the painter plays his part,
And with his pencil proves his matchless art;
There, drawn to life, some spark or mistress dwells.
Like hermits chaste and constant to their cells.”
When on the death of Louis XV, the beautiful Marie Antoinette ascended the throne of France, the people were so fascinated by her charms and virtues, that a jeweler made a large fortune by selling mourning snuff-boxes in her honor. They were composed of chagrin, with the motto La Consolation dans le Chagrin.
It has been said that snuff-boxes enough have been made of Shakspeare’s mulberry tree to build a man-of-war. Perhaps the most unique and useful of all these devices was a snuff-pistol with two barrels, invented about forty years ago by an Englishmen. By touching a spring with the forefinger, both nostrils were instantly filled, and snuff enough was driven up the nose to last the whole day. Apropòs to royal presents of snuff-boxes, to which we have alluded, a curious secret came to light some years ago in England, showing the manner in which kings are fleeced by those with whom they deal, and the heartlessness of those on whom they lavish their favors. It appears that the royal goldsmith who charged his majesty £1,000 or £500 for a presentation snuff-box, was in the habit of purchasing it the next day of the donee for about half or two thirds of the nominal value, and that the same box was again supplied and again repurchased, till some foreigner, not liking the practice or the price, put it in his pocket.
The literature of snuff-taking teems with amusing anecdotes, with a few of which we will conclude. Everybody 372 has heard of the thief, who, being arrested for having “conveyed” without leave a canister of the dust from a shop, protested that he never knew before that it was criminal to take snuff; and of the anti-snuffing person, who, when politely tendered a pinch, refused with the rude declaration, that, had Nature intended his nose for a snuff-box, she would have turned it the other way, — a logical non sequitur, by the way, since by such an arrangement the organ could be less easily supplied than now. Napoleon’s love of snuff has already been hinted at; not only on the battlefield, but at home in the council, he had recourse to the dust, especially when his schemes were unfavorably received, and he wished to hide his uneasiness or impatience. Unable to sit still in his elbow-chair, he would try in a thousand ways to divert attention from himself; and, among other devices, as soon as he saw a member’s eye fixed on him, would hold out his arm, and shake his thumb and forefinger, to signify that he wished for a pinch of snuff. A box being promptly tendered, Napoleon would help himself to its contents, and then turning it round and round in his hands, would invariably conclude, in his abstracted mood, by putting it into his pocket. Not less than four, and even six, snuff-boxes, disappeared in this manner during a single sitting; and it was not till he had left the council-chamber that he became aware of the larceny. So confirmed was this habit, that some of the councillors, whose snuff-boxes were heir-looms or presents from foreign princes, hit upon the expedient of carrying cheap papier-maché or wooden boxes for the Emperor to pocket. The snuff-boxes, however, always returned to their owners, and, in doing so, were often found to have undergone 373 a very pleasant metamorphosis. By some necromancy, a wooden or tortoise-shell box, on coming out from the imperial pocket, was usually transformed into one of gold, set around with diamonds, or bearing the Emperor’s miniature on the lid.
The distress experienced by inveterate snuff-takers when long deprived of their favorite stimulus, drives them sometimes to desperate shifts; and in such an extremity almost any “Jack-at-a-pinch” at all resembling it, is eagerly snapped up to supply the place of the real article. A severe snow-storm in the Scottish Highlands, which raged several weeks, so blockaded all communication between neighboring hamlets, that snuff-takers were at length reduced to their last pinch. Among the sufferers was the parson of the parish, whose craving was so intense that the sermon was at a stand-still. “What’s to be done, John?” was the pathetic inquiry of the beadle, who had ended a bootless journey through the snow-drifts to a neighboring glen in quest of a supply. John, shook his head gloomily; but soon started up abruptly, as if a new idea had struck him. In a few minutes he came back, crying, “Hae!” The minister, too eager to be scrutinizing took a long, deep inch, and then asked, “Whaur did you get it?” “I soupit (swept) the pulpit,” was John’s triumphant reply. The parson’s wasted snuff had come to be eminently serviceable in the hour of “fearfullest extremity.”
The last anecdote might find an appropriate place in Dean Ramsay’s amusing book, — our next in some future “Reminiscences of New England Character.” Some years ago, a clergyman in the land of steady habits, who was a most inveterate snuff-taker, commenced the Sunday service 374 by reading the fourth section of the 119th Psalm. Unconsciously, as he announced the passage to be read, and while the hearers were looking it out in their Bibles, he drew out his snuff-box, and took a lusty pinch of the contents, which resulted in a startling explosion of his nasal organ, making the style of elocution somewhat as follows: “My soul clea-e-e-e-che-che-e-e-che-che-cleaveth unto the dust!” The titter that ran through the church showed that not only the poor parson but the congregation “felt the pinch,” and were “up to snuff.”