Chinese snuff bottles were extremely popular during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when tobacco was thought to be an important medical remedy. At that time, many Chinese believed that snuff was a good medication for colds, stomach problems, headaches and other common ailments, so snuff bottles were often carried around in everyday life. Like European snuff boxes, Chinese snuff bottles provided a lightweight, sealable canister for carrying powdered tobacco.
Tobacco was first introduced into China during the 16th century via the imperial palaces and courts in Beijing. Though originally only smoked by the upper classes, by the beginning of the Qing Dynasty in the mid-1600s, tobacco use had spread throughout every social class and region of the country. At first, it was smoked mostly through pipes, but later inhaling powdered snuff became the most popular way to enjoy tobacco.
Snuff bottles eventually became a symbol of prestige and status within Chinese society. The choice of the bottle’s style and design was a source of beauty and impression for many Chinese, and offering a pinch of snuff to friends and relatives was an honored greeting.
The size and design of snuff bottles differed, but most were small enough to fit comfortably in the palm of the hand. The materials that were used to make snuff bottles varied from the most commonplace ceramic to exotic and ornate tortoiseshell, jade and ivory. Each bottle was equipped with a stopper and a spoon to extract a small amount of snuff for inhalation. Most snuff bottles also bore decorations in the form of carvings and painted patterns, which distinguished the common everyday bottles from the more prestigious variety.
The motifs used for decorating Chinese snuff bottles generally included themes of wealth, prosperity and good luck, as it was felt that bottles bearing such decorations would bring good fortune. Animals were another commonly used decorative pattern, many featuring images of rabbits, horses or dragons. Other decorations showed auspicious Chinese characters painted in traditional calligraphy.
Today, antique snuff bottles are a common collector’s item. The most rare and valuable bottles sometimes sell for thousands of dollars. Less authentic snuff bottles can often be procured from antiques markets in Chinese cities for a cheaper price. Though perhaps less precious, these bottles still bear the same interesting decorations and historical importance of their more pricey antique counterparts.