Oh, Take Snuff & Blow Your Head Off!
“He settles terms in such a way that each leaves the other entirely satisfied (no easy achievement in itself); with only one minor reservation: Mr Oddman has a preference for a particular kind of snuff which makes up no part of his fee – yet his clients always feel totally convinced that a constant, fresh supply is entirely requisite, and do their utmost to ensure his wish in this respect is met to the fullest degree. After the usual introductions he is given his instructions; simple and to the point, which is how he would wish it, indeed, he encourages his new ‘client’(and here he pauses, takes a pinch of snuff, and leans forward confidentially) to be as brief and to the point as can be – nothing is better, more appropriate to the situation, more – (and here he takes yet another pinch of snuff, and waves his hand in the air) – to the point, in matter of fact….”
Greenwood Tree, chapter 24
Mr Oddman is an Agent – one sent to discover information about individuals for his clients; in this particular case, he is engaged to follow the footsteps of the villain of the piece. Something of an 18th century private eye, with a penchant for snuff. Nothing but the best – and he makes sure, somehow, that he receives a plentiful supply of it from his clients. On top of his fee – which would not be modest either. Snuff, you say? A luxury then, on a par with sugar and tea – thereby limiting its use to the wealthy, while Joe the fisherman drew on his simple clay pipe. I am not about to relate its history – there is an abundance of information on the subject (in particular on this most excellent site: RegencyRedingote); an interesting story of travel it is,too, from 15th century Haiti, passing through Portugal,Italy, Russia,Africa and China to reach British shores by the 18th century, where it continues to be enjoyed to this day in a strangely secretive way- which I won’t go into now. What I will mention though are the snuff boxes. The minute I started thinking of the containers, I had a mental picture of skulls. This macabre item decorated a great many personal articles and trinkets during the Renaissance (when memento Mori and thoughts of man’s mortality were fashionably de rigueur) – how had it fared since then ? Sure enough, there are such things as snuff boxes with skulls on them : (Science Museum UK). Quite why I thought of this in particular I cannot say – I suspect it is that part of me that forever hunts out material for more ghost stories (do I feel one coming on now ? Possibly), or perhaps something surfaced from the dusty corners of my memory to tickle my inner eye …
Handsome fellow, ain’t he ?
It was one of the quickest signals when a person whisked out a snuff-box; an immediate indication of status – and naturally enough, the materials the box was made from reflected this: ivory and tortoiseshell, silver and gold, gem-encrusted, multiform and occasionally eccentric – perhaps rivalling the tea caddy and teapot on that score. Dr Samuel Johnson’s was ivory and in the shape of a gloved fist . Others favoured pug dogs, piglets, eggs,shells, shoes (hmm, I suspect loose morals in there somewhere..) – even coffins (I did already mention the skull motif I believe?) – all in all, tastes varied then as much as they do today, with an enviable level of invention and craftsmanship to accommodate them.
And what about language, I hear you say – you surely aren’t going to leave it there, are you ? Well, no, not without mentioning that curious expression ‘up to snuff’ ; now perhaps a little out of use, but with a story of its own that I find quite intriguing.
1811 and Shakespeare’s Hamlet was being performed – only not quite perhaps as the Bard had intended. Parody, that accolade of admiration, had picked him out under the pen name of John Poole, the earliest known originator of the farce, whose work Hamlet the Travestie in Three Acts now trod the boards. For Poole to use the expression ‘up to snuff’ in his comedy suggests it was already common parlance, although the original meaning of the phrase was ‘knowing, sharp, not easily deceived’ rather than ‘up to standard’, which only came into use in the early 20th century. Grose later defined it as ‘flash’ – derived from the stimulating effects of taking the wretched stuff in the first place. So stuff that, I’ve had enough, damme, I’m off . . .
No more, I pray, or I shall snuff it. And mention not those snuff-taking iniquities such as that Corsican upstart or I shall take snuff and depart!