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01 March 2014

A New Companion for My Desk

Copyright Parvum Opus
My new treasure: an antique papier-mâché snuff box.

Recently, I was the very lucky recipient of a particularly beautiful papier-mâché snuff box. It's in wonderful condition and features a lovely painting of a lady on the hinged lid. This box sits on my desk, and is perfectly sized for stamps and address labels. 


Copyright Parvum Opus


It's such a tiny thing, only about 1.5" wide and 3" tall, but the romance of it looms large in my imagination. Consider it's interesting origins: it was made generations ago, by a craftsperson most likely from Birmingham, England. Perhaps a second artist in the same workshop painted the tiny portrait onto this perfectly formed box made from nothing but paper pulp hardened with enamel. Perhaps it was a special commission for a local gentleman who would have carried it in his pocket, containing a day's worth of snuff. I can't imagine how many owners this box has known in its 150+ years, but I'm thrilled to be the most recent! 

A view of my new acquisition along with another
papier-mâché box from my collection.
 


Taking snuff is an odd habit, isn't it? I gather from my reading that the custom travelled from the new world to Europe with Christopher Columbus whose crew members witnessed it being used by the Taino in Haiti. Tobacco use, not surprisingly, spread quickly through Europe, and by the later 17th century, air-tight boxes made from precious materials were being crafted. There were larger examples for communal use at the table (still present in the House of Lords and US Senate), and more precious small pocket-sized versions for personal use. 


A shell-form snuff box, Capo di Monte, ca. 1750. 
Soft-paste porcelain with French silver-gilt mounts.
Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum Collections.

    If you take a moment to browse through the snuff boxes held in collections like that of the V & A Museum, you can see from the variety and quantity that there must be something in human nature that is fascinated with tiny boxes. Snuff boxes were exchanged and presented as gifts long after the snuffing craze waned, and are voraciously collected today. I can imagine that the precious scale, multi-purpose box format and the object's inherent intimate nature inspired both the artisans and prospective collectors. The snuff itself, however, is definitely not my cup of tea!

    I couldn't resist sharing this curiosity: 1894 Kinetoscope of Fred Ott taking a snuff and then sneezing, taken by Thomas Edison's laboratory. Courtesy Wikipedia

    10 comments:

    1. Oh my gosh, Erika, your papier maché snuff box is beautiful! And how nice that it has a companion piece. I am beyond starting another collection, but I would love to specialize in tortoise shell snuff boxes. In a way, that yen has been satisfied by the daguerreotype cases that have passed through my hands.

      It is interesting, isn't it, how lovely little artifacts have a life of their own, have gone on adventures to far-flung places beyond our own imagining, and have been loved by who knows how many people for different reasons? That movie, "The Red Violin," comes to mind.

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      1. Hello Mark! Thanks for your message. I love that little box, too. You're so right that it illustrates perfectly the romance of old objects... I love that snuff boxes in particular can have new lives and be so useful after all this time. The tortoise shell and silver ones are indeed among the most beautiful, as are those gorgeous daguerrotype cases--lucky you! I'm off to look for "The Red Violin" on Amazon...:)
        Warm regards,
        Erika

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    2. Dear Erika - what a delightful little papier-mâché box with such a charming image.
      It is interesting to mull over the history of previously owned objects and discover more about them, where they came from, who made them, and even who they may have belonged to.
      A few years ago I did a weekend papier-mâché course and have the bowl to prove it. I expected my results to be very lumpy, but no, it is a nice smooth bowl, which I seem to remember involved a lot of sanding to achieve.
      I too have a small black lacquer papier-mâché box, mine was made in Palekh, Russia. It is exquisitely decorated with a Russian fairytale.

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      1. Dear Rosemary,
        Thank you for your visit! I'm so glad that you enjoyed seeing this little box-- having created your own papier-mâché piece, you must have a deep appreciation for this art form. It's so funny that you mention the Russian Palekh boxes: I am lucky to have a collection started for me by my parents when I was a child (we had a relative at the IMF who had a connection to a Russian dealer). Along with the accompanying books of Russian fairytales, this is one of my favorite collections! Perhaps a future post is in order...
        Warm regards,
        Erika

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    3. Hello Erika:

      Your papier-máché box is absolutely delightful, a real treasure. We should love to have something similar sitting on our desk.

      We very much are attracted to papier-máché and are fortunate to have both a table and chair dating from Victorian times and which make for decorative pieces in our Morning Room.

      Jó hétvégét!

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      1. Dear Jane and Lance,
        How lovely to hear from you! I'm glad you enjoyed seeing this little box-- it really is a beauty, and it's such a pleasure to use. Your papier-mâché table and chair sound beautiful-- how lucky you are! We're preparing for our local chamber festival in May, and as I eagerly wait, I'm thinking of you both-- I hope the season has been full of music and beauty for you!
        Warm regards,
        Erika

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    4. Hello Erika, Snuffboxes epitomize everything small and elegant, and you are lucky to have acquired this example. Part of the appeal of snuffboxes is that they are personal items, belonging to one person only, rather than a group or family, so the aura of previous owners seems more attached to them.

      I love the Fred Ott film. It reminds us that the refinement of the boxes themselves was paradoxically opposed to the coarse nature of their intended use.
      --Jim

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      1. Dear Jim,
        Thank you for your message! I completely agree with you that something of a person's humanity clings to intimate objects like these... Fascinating! And despite the beauty of the boxes, snuffing really is an odd sort of habit! I was trying to imagine the elegant ladies and gentlemen who owned precious snuff boxes, in a beautiful room, and snorting tobacco together... It seems so strange-- and the little film illustrates the point perfectly!
        Warm regards,
        Erika

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    5. Dear Erika,
      What a lovely box. I do like little things, especially laid out in small groups. They make an elegant addition to any collection. I was fortunate enough to see some of the snuff boxes in the V & A only the other week!
      Bye for now,
      Kirk
      PS
      I wonder what your next papier-mâché box will look like?

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    6. Hello Kirk,
      Thank you for your message-- how lucky you were to spend time in London and especially at the V&A!! It is truly one of my favorite places... I of course have space for the next treasure-- that's the beauty of collecting these tiny pieces! I've often thought it would be wonderful to do a small needlework pillow using one of the motifs from these boxes-- the colors are so beautiful...
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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