Cowrie Snuff Box

27 August 2014

This month’s object can be seen in our latest exhibition, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition, until 12 October. Found under X is for X-rated, this cowrie shell snuff box features an erotic scene. Even cowrie shells themselves used be known as “Venus shells” because of their resemblance to female genitalia. Taryn Cain tells us about the rise and fall of snuff and how its popularity resulted in the variety of the boxes used to hold it.

We all know members of the 20% of the population who still light up a cigarette, despite the many warnings. Since smoking is considered a serious health risk today, it’s hard to imagine that only 300 years ago tobacco was seen as a health product with cigarettes only becoming a social norm around 1880.

 Clay tobacco pipe, France.
[object Object]

Clay tobacco pipe, France.

1714 was a year of change: it was the year of Queen Anne’s death, and saw the war of the Spanish Succession coming to an end. England was already familiar with tobacco, though its use was restricted to small pockets of the population.  Charles II was quite fond of snuff, a ground and perfumed tobacco, introducing it to his court in 1660. In 1665 the College of Physicians declared the smoking of tobacco a cure for the plague; a risky tonic to take considering matches were not to be invented for another 160 years.

Despite its regal and apparent medicinal properties, tobacco needed another three decades to finally gain in popularity. In 1702 the Allied Naval forces delivered to England at least 50,000 pounds of snuff taken from the Spanish treasure fleet, which soon elevated its use to a social necessity. From then on no gentleman would be seen in public without his snuff and many ladies were keen to indulge too.

 A gentleman visitor offering snuff to a woman at her fireside.
[object Object]

A gentleman offering snuff to a woman at her fireside.

This avid use of snuff predictably birthed a new fashion accessory: the snuff box. Originally a small, hinged box to protect the quality of the snuff, it quickly became a fashion statement. In 1781 it was written that a well-dressed man should have a different snuff box for every day of the year, advice some genteel men took literally to heart. Popular dandy, Lord Petersham, would only use each snuff box once in 12 months, while George IV owned 700: one for every day and evening. Visit Wellcome Images to see a selection of historic snuff boxes.

Towards the middle of the 18th century, snuff boxes became more personal. Erotic images began to appear on the insides of the boxes, either openly or hidden in secret cavities. Most showed a couple engaged in sexual activity, but nudes were also popular; generally a mistress or sometimes a wife. Occasionally the images were even accompanied by music.

Though the keeping of erotica was a private matter, Henry Wellcome managed to acquire one of these lewd items to add to his collection, allowing us to have it on display in the museum today. Snuff boxes were generally made of fine materials, such as porcelain and tortoiseshell; ours is no exception, being a cowrie shell and silver creation. The image inside is of a man unlocking a woman’s chastity belt. For a long time chastity belts were believed to have originated in the Middle Ages as a means for men to control their wife’s sexuality. We now know they were an 18th century invention which, if used at all, were more likely to prevent sexual assault than protect a lady’s fidelity.

 Silver-bound hinged cowrie shell containing a painting of a man unlocking a woman's chastity belt.
[object Object]

Silver-bound hinged cowrie shell containing a painting of a man unlocking a woman’s chastity belt.

Cowrie shells come from cowries, a diverse species of nocturnal marine snails living in tropical environments, feasting on algae, corals and sponges. The shell in our collection came from a humpback cowrie, which can be found in shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific. Both the inside and the outside of cowrie shells have a beautifully polished appearance due to a layer of calcium carbonate crystals secreted by the mantle; it was this porcelain-like exterior which ensured the cowries would never have a peaceful life. Like tobacco, cowries have had a long history with humans, being used variously for medicine, divination, fertility and, primarily, as money.

As currency, cowrie shells are one of the oldest in the world, at times being more valuable than gold. They were first used in China during the 2nd century and were still being used in Africa during the 19th century. They were an ideal choice for money, being consistent in shape, difficult to obtain in inland areas, easily transportable and, crucially, difficult to forge. While mostly used as currency in Africa and Asia, Europe began trading cowrie shells in the 15th century to obtain slaves for the slave trade. The use of shells was eventually overtaken by metal currency.

By the 19th century snuff began to fall out of favour as interest in cigars grew. After the death of George IV in 1830 the demand for imported cigars had grown massively, while matches and hand rolled cigarettes were increasingly available. As the Victorian era began, snuff boxes bore the brunt of the changing market. Many of them became obsolete short of becoming a collector’s item. Erotic snuff boxes suffered most of all due to strict Victorian morals, with few avoiding destruction by embarrassed families. It was said that George IV’s niece, Queen Victoria, melted down most of his enormous collection in order to make more socially acceptable jewellery for herself.

Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.