The Accoutrements of Class:
Collecting Antique Snuff Boxes and Tea Caddies
By Bill Rau
From Pandora’s Box of mythological fame to chests of
treasure buried by swashbuckling pirates, boxes have always
held a particular fascination, not only for what they actually
held, but for the promise of what they might hold. Whether large
or small, unadorned or beautifully decorated, made of wood,
porcelain, metal or precious materials, boxes have a charm and
mystery that many find irresistible, and they are among the most
widely sought after collectibles on the market today.
When it comes to antique boxes, the collector is spoiled
for choice. There are a number of ways to build a collection
depending on your interests. You could focus on a specific type
of box (snuff boxes, powder boxes, glove boxes, jewel boxes,
patch boxes, cigar boxes, lock boxes, deed boxes, neccesaires,
etc.), collect according to the style of the decoration (enameling,
miniature paintings, engravings, repoussé, inlay, jeweled, etc.),
or by type of material (ivory, wood, silver, gold, tortoiseshell,
glass, etc.). Antique boxes can also be found at any price,
from a few dollars to several hundreds or thousands of dollars,
depending on the age, decoration, maker, condition and material
Boxes are, essentially, useful items, and it seems that our
ancestors had a purpose for every box and a box for every
purpose. Thus, one of the more popular and imaginative
methods of collecting boxes is according to their use. Two
types of boxes, in particular, combined function with form in
exceptionally beautiful ways, and they are extremely popular
with collectors. Snuff boxes and tea caddies can be found in a
seemingly endless number of variations and offer collectors a
host of options.
Small Size, Big Impact…Snuff Boxes
When it comes to boxes, smaller can often mean better for
some collectors. Diminutive boxes came into fashion in the
18th Century and were often crafted of porcelain, gold or other
“exotic” materials and adorned with hand-painted images,
jewels or other types of inlay.
Small boxes with original artwork are of particular interest
to collectors and depending on the quality of the design, can
command lofty prices. These small boxes were often carried
by well-to-do ladies and gents as a reflection of their status
and power. Artisans went to great lengths to create these tiny
masterpieces, using the most expensive materials and hand
decorations to create the biggest impact.
Snuff boxes are the most collected of the small boxes.
Although it had been around for hundreds of years, snuff, which
was essentially pulverized tobacco, was the tobacco product of
choice among Europe’s elite by the 1700s. Napoleon, Pope
Benedict III and Queen Charlotte were among those who enjoyed
this luxury. Soon, the snuff sensation caught on amongst the
classes, and artisans began creating special accoutrement for the taking of snuff, among them the snuff box.
Snuff boxes were crafted from all types of materials,
including papier-mâché, silver, gold, pewter, enameled copper,
tortoise shell, wood and horn and were often highly decorated.
They ranged in size from very small, to be carried in a lady’s
purse, to medium size, to be carried in a gentleman’s pocket,
to the larger table snuffboxes. Snuff boxes have tight fitting
lids, which could be hinged or lifted off completely. Snuff box
manufacturers were regarded as artists, creating and designing
these elegant little boxes with a high level of skill and artistry.
Snuff boxes were among a gentleman’s most expensive and
elegant personal effects, and he would often carry a number of
them to hold his various snuff varieties. These small boxes were
highly personal and were a reflection of the carrier’s tastes and
social standing, often more cherished than even their jewelry or
other personal effects. Even during their heyday, snuff boxes
were coveted collector’s items. Wealthy and fashionable men
would have a fair number of them and often offered them as
The Rothschild Snuff Box. One of the most exquisite snuff
boxes in existence today is an 18th-Century French snuff box
that once belonged in the private collection of the prestigious
Rothschild family. Crafted by the famed French goldsmith
Robert-Joseph Auguste, this delicate, oval-shaped gold box is
exquisitely decorated with luminous guilloche enameling on
every side, raised enameled flowers and finely-painted porcelain
on the lid. Such an exceptional keepsake crafted of solid gold
and enamel and boasting the detail found in this piece would
only have been made for someone of great wealth and power.
Like gold, porcelain snuff boxes were among the most
precious among aristocratic men and women. For today’s
collectors, porcelain snuff boxes are in a class all their own.
The absolute finest examples were made by the Meissen
manufactory. Porcelain by Meissen was considered the
“white gold” of Europe, and snuff boxes made by the company
are of exceptionally high quality. Meissen wares were so
desired and highly regarded that many of the most exemplary
early pieces immediately became part of the historical royal
collections in Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Russia where
they remain today. Meissen porcelain also became the most
popular gift exchanged among royalty and heads of state.
Meissen snuffboxes began to replace the ubiquitous gold
snuffboxes usually presented to ministers and high-ranking
officials during this time.
Precious Boxes for Precious Cargo. Tea caddies or tea chests–
the decorative boxes that contain canisters–epitomize a whole
era of English society. Introduced to Europe in the 17th century,
tea was one of the most precious commodities, and it continued
to be so for nearly two centuries. Storing it had a greater
importance than simply preserving freshness. There was, of
course, a matter of security; tea was a precious commodity and
was always kept under lock and key. But there was also the
matter of status. Tea was expensive and often only available to
the wealthy classes, and tea caddies were crafted to reflect the
owner’s social status.
In this era of decorum, containers of these precious tea leaves
were objects of great pride. Made by artist cabinetmakers, they reflected the stylistic and cultural developments of the 18th and
19th Centuries as well as the idiosyncratic preferences of the
commissioning clients. Lord Petersham, of snuff box fame,
was one of the Regency Period dandies who elevated the art
of affectation to exquisite refinement. He had a selection of
tea caddies specially crafted so he could store his tea leaves
according to their individual character.
Like snuff boxes, tea caddies were made of any number
of materials in many shapes and sizes. Those crafted of
exotic materials, such as tortoiseshell and ivory, are among
the most desirable to collectors and among the most
costly. Making use of the quality of the material rather than
complex shaping or decoration, these caddies exhibit subtle
and restrained shapes, and boxes whose sides are veneered
in single panels of tortoiseshell are especially prized.
Because they are so coveted, these caddies are also frequently
faked. A wise collector will buy from a reputable dealer who
stands behind his pieces. In addition to the danger of buying a
fake, remember that the use of these materials, if new, is illegal.
A deep understanding of the aesthetic criteria of the period will
hopefully help avoid the pitfalls.
Tips for Collecting Antique Boxes. As with any collection,
there are a few basic rules for collecting antique boxes.
First and foremost, collect a box because it appeals to you
historically, visually or personally. Many of the materials
used to craft the finest boxes, such as porcelain, gold, silver,
tortoiseshell or ivory, tend to age beautifully if cared for
correctly with many looking almost new! Look for clean
surfaces, free of scratches or dents. Take care to look for
missing decoration or shoddy repairs.
If the box has painted decoration, check that there are
no duplicated scenes or decorations which often means the
“painted” decoration is actually a decal. Make sure the box
opens easily and closes properly with a snug or even seal.
Check that the decoration lines up correctly and that the
decoration on the top of the box is consistent with that on the
body of the box.
If you are considering a tea caddy, check to see if the original
interior lids are still available and intact. Many tea caddies were
set on small balls or shaped feet, and an ideal example will
retain the original feet.
For any collector, the best advice is to buy from a reputable
dealer. But don’t let a real find pass you by. Visit antique
stores, museums and special collections to study the very finest
examples of whatever type of box you wish to collect. Apply
what you learn from the masterpieces, and you should be happy
with your growing collection.
Antique boxes offer an incredible opportunity to collectors.
The range of style, materials, origins and techniques involved
in their manufacture present not only a glimpse into the
craftsmanship of bygone eras, but into the tastes and societal
practices, as well. And that is truly a treasure you’ll want
Bill Rau is the third-generation owner of M.S. Rau Antiques in
New Orleans, La.
The Rothschild Snuff Box.
A rosewood brass
tea caddy set.
A Georgian tortoiseshell
The Empress of
Austria’s jewel case.
An ivory china box.