The parent species of Nicotiana Rustica and Nicotiana Tabacum are believed to originate in South America. According to genetic studies they have been cultivated as far back as 8,000 years ago, and maybe the first cultivated plant of the Americas.
Pre 15th Century
It is documented that the Mayas were the first to use snuff and smoke Nicotiana Rustica as far back as 200 BC, which they may have called Petun. The using of tobacco would have slowly spread throughout the Americas by trading with neighboring tribes. The Mexican Aztecs, who created the mighty Aztec Empire, may well have been introduced to tobacco by the Mayas and three types of tobacco users emerged. The first group was in the Court of Montezuma, who mingled the leaves of Nicotiana Rustica with the resin of other leaves. This mixture was smoked in pipes with great ceremony after their evening meal. The second group was one of lesser Indians, who rolled the leaves together to form a crude cigar and the third group were the snuff users. The archaeologist, Peter T. Furst uncovered in Colima, Mexico some unique snuffing implements dating form 1600-1800 BC that he theorized were used for snuffing N. Rustica.
As in Southern America, a complex system of religious and political rites was developed around the burning and smoking of the leaves of these plants. No one really knows how long American Indians had been smoking, chewing and snuffing before the 15th century. A best guess puts it around 2000 years before Columbus.
There is little credence given to the idea that Vikings were the first Europeans to experience smoking however it is possible, as there is evidence that they beat Columbus to America by many centuries.
In October 1492 Christopher Columbus and his men stepped ashore on an unknown island in the Bahamas and were greeted by the Taino (Nobel) Indians. They were given many gifts; among them some dried leaves which the Taino called Cohiba (tobacco) these they conveyed to the Spanish explorers were extremely precious.
Columbus was to later name the plant Nicotiana Tabacum after the Taino.
Tobacco by name, but not by nature. In 1497 Christopher Columbus returned to America bringing with him the monk Ramon Pane whom he had commissioned to document their discoveries. In one entry in Panes, Relación acerca de las antigüedades de los indios (Report about the antiquities of the Indians) he describes witnessing the drinking of smoke through a “Y” shaped hollow stick which the natives called a “Tobacco”. We can only suppose that when Pane asked “what’s that” pointing at the person smoking, his hosts presumed he was asking about the “Y” shaped stick and answered “Tobacco”.
The tobacco plant was brought to Europe through Spanish and Portuguese sailors. In Lisbon in the middle of the 16th century snuff was used as medicine by doctors, who believed that the herb could cure both syphilis and cancer. They grew the tobacco in their own gardens and ground their own snuff.
Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Lisbon is recognized as the father of snuff usage. Carl von Linné even used Nicot’s name to give the tobacco plant the Latin name, Nicotiana tabacum.
Nicot was friendly with the scholar and botanist Damião de Goes, who showed him a tobacco plant growing in his garden and told him of its marvelous healing properties. The application of the tobacco plant to a cancerous tumor allegedly worked wonders. Nicot tried treating an acquaintance's face wound for 10 days with the plant with excellent results. He became convinced of the healing powers of tobacco. Nicot obtained cuttings, which he planted in the garden of the French Embassy. In 1560 he wrote of tobacco's medicinal properties. He described tobacco as a panacea and in the same year sent tobacco plants and snuff to Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France. He recommended the snuff to treat her migraine headaches. Nicot had applied it to his nose and forehead and found it had relieved his headaches. Catherine de Medici used it to cure her migraines and was so impressed that she decreed that tobacco was henceforth to be called Herba Regina ("the queen's herb"). With the Queen's blessing it was not long before snuff became the fashion item of the French court.
Paris served as a model for all the European courts and it was not long before snuff had spread across mainland Europe and to Scotland through ‘The Auld Alliance’. Despite the fact that visiting Scottish nobles were seen using snuff, it remained relatively unknown in England until 1660. It was then that the court of Charles II returned to London from exile in Paris, bringing with them the French court’s snuffing practice. Snuff became the aristocratic form of tobacco use, replacing the common practice of “huffing” or taking the vapours.
Unfortunately for users, snuff underwent a period of prohibition across Europe in the late 17th and early 18th century. Tsar Michael I of Russia ordered that persons caught taking snuff should be whipped for the first offence, have their noses cut off for the second and be executed for the third (there are no records of anyone ever being executed, probably due to it being difficult to snuff without a nose). Around the same time the Florentine Pope Urban VIII ordered that anyone found guilty of taking snuff in church should be excommunicated. This was because he believed it led to sneezing, which too closely resembled sexual ecstasy.
Portuguese tradesmen and Jesuit missionaries, the same priests who would have been excommunicated for using snuff back home, first introduced Snuff to China in the 17th Century. Tobacco had been seen in China, in the form of pipe smoking before the turn of the century. There is a strong possibility that Vasco de Gama had started trading Tobacco in 1560 with India, Persia and China.
In 1612, the Wan-Li Emperor of China banned smoking, but not snuff, due to its therapeutic significance. By the time of the Qing Dynasty in 1644 snuff had become very popular and to many it was regarded as a medicine. This partly accounts for snuff being kept in Chinese medicine bottles. However, a more likely reason lay in China's humid climate. Snuff boxes were found impractical and this led to the adaption of Chinese medicine bottles for storing snuff. The Chinese, following Jean Nicot’s example, claimed that snuff could be used to dispel colds, cure migraines, sinusitis, tooth pain, asthma, constipation and that it was beneficial for those with poor memories. (Today scientists are discovering that nicotine is helpful in the treatment of Alzheimer's, Dementia and Parkinson's disease).
Snuff became much more popular with ordinary British citizens, due to a battle that took place off the coast of Vigo in Spain in 1702. The French and Spanish fleet were harboured at Vigo and a detachment of fifteen English and ten Dutch man of war were ordered to enter and attempt to destroy the enemy’s fleet. Vice-Admiral Hopson "of the Torbay" led the attack; his cannon fire was incredibly accurate and most of the enemy vessels were destroyed. One of the Spanish ships, which were on fire, came perilously close to their own ship. Hobson was about to blow it out of the water when an English cabin boy, who had been captured by the Spanish and later rescued by Hobson, informed him of the cargo. This makeshift warship had been hastily prepared and was actually a merchant ship full of snuff. The fire was quickly extinguished and Hobson claimed the lot as booty. To top it all, Hobson was knighted and awarded a pension of £500 a year for his part in this battle. The bounty of snuff was sold in London, the profits of which bought him an estate fit for a Knighted Admiral. Hobson’s snuff was referred to as Spanish, which soon became abbreviated to ‘SP’ one of the best known and most popular of snuffs.
The French revolution led to the end of the French upper class's love of traditional snuff: No upper class, no snuff sales. Under Napoleon, who was a heavy snuffer, snuff sales temporarily increased but after his exile it became unfashionable and even a little politically risky to continue using snuff.
This century also saw the first warnings about the use of tobacco. After an argument with his tobacconist about his bill, John Hill, an 18th Century poet and writer of farces, released a public notice. Under the guise of a Doctor, he proclaimed that the overuse of snuff could lead to nasal cancers, which has since been (fortunately) disproved by the Royal College of Physicians. The likely cause of the rise in nasal cancer at this time has been attributed to the period’s smokers blowing smoke through their noses. This was done to cover the horrendous smells caused by the build up of rubbish in the streets of cities and towns all over Britain. Interestingly with better sewage systems smokers stopped blowing smoke through their noses and nasal cancer ceased to be.
In the 19th century snuff was still popular in many parts of society across Europe, although Victorian England became less tolerant of the habit and snuff started to be frowned upon in some quarters. Snuff was, however, popular amongst the professions where it wasn’t possible to smoke or to be seen to smoke such as Doctors, Lawyers, Judges, Clergymen and of course Miners.
During the nineteenth century snuff was so popular in the Chinese community that millions of Chinese snuff bottles were made, which makes collecting them and snuff boxes in general an affordable hobby for the snuff enthusiast.
The beginning of the end for snuff-taking was the invention of the automatic cigarette rolling machine in 1881. Up to that point, manufacturers rolled cigarettes by hand at considerable expense.
The First World War saw the virtual death knell for snuff, as cigarette companies literally flooded the trenches with free cigarettes and returning soldiers made smoking fashionable.
After the 1949 communist revolution in China, Moa outlawed snuff as a decadent habit of the previous Qing dynasty. Although Moa’s ban was lifted in 1967 The 1612 ban on smoking has never been lifted and smoking in China is still officially banned, though no one has informed the Chinese people who smoke more than any other nation.
Today snuff is undergoing something of a renaissance and Sneeshyn now sells Toque, Silver dollar, Freybourg and Treyer and many other brands of snuff all over the world including China. Could the smoking bans of the twenty-first century result in the decline of cigarettes and make snuff once more fashionable? Today many smokers are switching to Toque snuff not only because of the bans but also because the medical fraternities are now informing smokers that snuff is a dramatically less harmful alternative to cigarettes.