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FOUR: Tobacco: The Dry Inebriant PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wolfgang Schivelbusch   
Saturday, 23 February 2013 00:00

In 1627 the Palatinate's ambassador to the Netherlands, Johann Joachim von Rusdorff, reported on a new fashion there: "I cannot help but devote a few words to criticizing that new, astonishing fashion that came to our Europe some years ago from America, and which might be called a fog-drinking bout which outdoes all other passions for indulgence in drink, old or new. Dissolute persons have taken to imbibing and noisily drinking into their bodies the smoke of a plant they call nicotiana or tobacco, with incredible avidity and an inextinguishable zeal." Of all the pleasure goods that entered European civilization at the dawn of the modern age, tobacco is undoubtedly the most bizarre. It brought along completely new methods of consumption. In this respect coffee, tea, and chocolate were less revolutionary. The mere fact that they were drunk placed them in a continuum with the semiluxury goods known to Europe up to that time. As strange as their taste and their effects may have been, the form of their enjoyment was familiar.

For a long time there was simply no name for what you did with tobacco. Only in the course of the seventeenth century did "smoking" become a commonly used term. Up to that time it was compared with drinking—one spoke of "drinking smoke" and "drinking tobacco." Even in 1658 the Jesuit preacher and author Jakob Balde titled his satire against smoking "Die trockene Trunkenheit"—"Dry Drunkenness."

The analogy with drinking was thus at first a conceptual aid for grasping an otherwise bewildering novelty. Beyond that, however, the analogy was actually well grounded in the pharmacological effect of tobacco. Its main element, nicotine (named for the French ambassador to the Portuguese court, Jean Nicot, who brought tobacco to France around the mid sixteenth century), is more closely comparable in effect to alcohol than to caffeine. Nicotine does not stimulate the nervous system, but rather dulls it. Technically speaking, it is a nerve toxin. If a habitual smoker were to take in all at once the amount of nicotine that he consumed piecemeal in the course of one day, he would die from it. The,, comparison of tobacco with alcohol is also apt because of the thoroughly unpleasant effect newcomers to it experience. First attempts at smoking result in dizziness, queasiness or nausea, and sweating. As with alcohol, only after one gets used to it does smoking become a pleasure.

If in the seventeenth century smoking was interpreted as dry drinking, there was more in this than mere comparison of a strange form of pleasure to drinking. The quality of "dryness" makes for an underground link with another new pleasure item —coffee. As we have seen, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century medicine described coffee as a dry substance whose main property was to drain the body of its fluids. This concept was based upon the ancient medical schema of the four humors and the temperaments.

(Colored copper engraving, probably from the sixteenth century.)
This picture sequence appeared on numerous seventeenth-century
broadsides, while the accompanying text often changed. These same
illustrations of smoking might on one occasion serve as proof of its
salutary effects, on another the very opposite. The vomiting smokers
in picture H, for instance, are glossed as victims of tobacco, while
other commentaries describe this as an illustration of the effects of
tobacco abuse.

Here it is no longer the thing itself but only its excesses that are
attacked. The three men seated at the table are obviously smoking
away contentedly; only the figure seated apart from them—with a
fool's cap and a gigantic pipe—demonstrates the dire consequences of
excessive smoking: his vomit is made up of symbols of folly: asses'
and rabbits' heads, and grasshoppers.

Smoking as a fatal, unhealthy pleasure is represented in a way that
prefigures Hogarth's later depiction of the hazards of gin drinking (see
p. 154). Death, decay, and destruction dominate the picture. The
windowpanes are cracked, the cupboard door dangles on its hinge; the
skeleton in the foreground, out of whose empty eye sockets a (biblical)
snake rises with puffs of smoke, only too obviously illustrates the
author's idea of where smoking will lead. The link the title makes
between smoking and drinking—one much in keeping with the
prevailing attitude of the day—is illustrated by the figure vomiting in
the background. We see here how sixteenth-century representations of
drunkenness were perpetuated.

It is said that a servant of Raleigh's, on seeing his master smoking for
the first time, concluded that where there's smoke there's fire, and assumed he was burning up from within. Flinging water over him, he "put out" the blaze. The anecdote—here illustrated long afterward, in 1796—shows how bizarre smoking must have appeared to sixteenth-
and even seventeenth-century Europeans

Medicine of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries viewed the effects of tobacco quite similarly. The similarities extended into the verbal formulations themselves. Like coffee, tobacco drained off one bodily fluid in particular, mucus. Thus we read in a pamphlet that promotes smoking, or rather "tobacco-drinking": "This tobacco-drinking . . . also removes the mucus and phlegmatic moisture; it is good for the dropsy, as can be deduced by the fact that this smoke removes moisture and makes the body thin and lean; and this smoke taken in by the body through tobacco pipes is a certain and excellent medicament against wheezing and shortness of the breath, against tuberculosis and lingering coughs, also against all persistent, thick, phlegmatic fluids and viscous elements." The antierotic effect ascribed to coffee also turned up again in medical descriptions of tobacco. A French treatise from 1700, Le ban usage du Tabac en Poudre, claims that tobacco "makes the brain and the nerves drier and steadier. This conduces to a sound faculty of judgment, a clearer, more circumspect faculty of reason and a greater constancy of soul. . . . At the same time, by virtue of this same desiccating effect, it weakens the erotic passions and steers the lascivious faculty of imagination, which takes hold over so many wanton men, in other directions."

As with coffee, this effect of desiccation and mucus depletion was viewed positively or negatively depending on the author's general outlook, and as in the disagreement over coffee, the line was drawn between bourgeois-progressive consciousness, which saw true health (i.e., productivity) in the antierotic desiccation of the body, and conservative opinion, which feared the destruction of the body (i.e., of the status quo) in any tampering with the natural balance of fluids.

This coupling of terms is found in all the literary and artistic
representations of smoking not fundamentally hostile to tobacco. As
in Ostade's village inn (facing page) or the portraits by Martin
Engelbrecht (above) and Johann Kupetzky (next page), smokers
always appeared as relaxed, meditative contemporary figures seated
often at writing desks, as lost in wreaths of pipe smoke as they were
in their own thoughts. The text accompanying the Engelbrecht says:
"Tobacco, when 1 smoke you, my mind soars to a state / of
wistfulness and reverence, and what I am I contemplate. / Smoke, an
untroubled haze, a gentle breeze, a shade: / The flesh's prop and stay:
a pipe of clay. / Who would not lift a glass your praise to sing / For
you are just as good as you are spiriting?"

Although the seventeenth century viewed the effects of coffee and tobacco in astonishingly similar terms, it did nonetheless note the great differences as well. If coffee makes a person wakeful, mentally alert, and, at worst, nervous, the effect of tobacco was described from the very first by reference to calm, placidity, contemplation, concentration, etc. The chemical basis of this effect is, as has been said, nicotine, which, in precise opposition to coffee's caffeine, does not stimulate, but rather tends to dull. Yet other factors also contribute to the calming effect of smoking. Added to the pharmacological are the factors of motoricity (the physical motions performed) and psychology. It is the combination of these elements that leads to the pleasure a modern medical writer (Kurt Pohlisch) describes in all its complexity: "The activity of smoking is formed by an extremely rich and variable concurrence of purposeful and expressive movements. . . . Already at the motor level and thus not merely as a result of nicotine, smoking abruptly relaxes conditions of psychomotor tension; it deflects irritation, nervousness into a calming motoricity. In the act of smoking the nervously restless hand fixes on a purpose. . . . Smoking creates both a feeling of activity in leisure and one of leisure in the midst of activity. . . . In terms of motoricity, pharmacology, and sense psychology, smoking creates a cheerful mood, highly varied nuances of physical feelings, an agreeable stimulation with which to perform intellectual work, a pleasant sense of calm, a state of contentedness, satisfaction [and] easy cordiality."

If one compares this description with texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one finds their tenor much the same. Thus we are told in the following eighteenth-century text: "There is nothing better for contemplation than tobacco smoking, for here straying thoughts are recollected, this being most beneficial for students, in that while smoking they can grow accustomed to pondering everything well. Often enough one's faculties are divided, so that it is impossible to reason correctly over some difficult matter; among tobacco smokers, on the other hand, thoughts are collected, and afterwards too, although they rarely occur, weaknesses caused by overmuch zeal are dispelled. One remains calm within oneself and can make appropriate decisions about the most important matters."

Frontispiece from a 1627 pamphlet against smoking and drinking. The rider's spur-fitted leg turns into the decorative footwear of a cavalier; the book turns into dice and playing cards; the knight's lance-bearing arm turns into a cavalier's hand holding pipe and goblet.

The Latin inscription on the inside of the case, "my companion in those times of distress," refers to Raleigh's imprisonment.

Thus for authors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, smoking and mental exertion are closely related. As the Dutch physician Cornelius Bontekoe (the proponent of coffee, tea, and tobacco) would have it, smoking is an activity which "can challenge and guard against all the adversity that a sedentary way of life is wont to bring with it." At about the same time the Dutch physician Beintema von Palma writes: "One who studies must needs smoke much tobacco, lest the spirits fade and falter, or start to work too slowly, in which event Reason loses its grasp upon especially difficult matters, and must be reawakened, so that the mind may receive all clearly and distinctly, well able to ponder and judge."

Although since the seventeenth century tobacco and coffee had been considered particularly suitable for the intellectually active, their effects stand in remarkable contrast to one another. Tobacco calms, coffee stimulates. Normally one would assume that these contradictory qualities cancel each other. Yet the opposite is true: they complement each other. The common goal both were used to achieve was the reorientation of the human organism to the primacy of mental labor. The brain is the part of the human body of greatest concern to bourgeois civilization. It alone was developed, cultivated, and cared for in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The rest of the body, necessary evil that it was, merely served as a support for the head. Coffee and tobacco, each in its particular way, assisted this reorientation. Coffee functioned positively, arousing and nourishing the brain. Tobacco functioned negatively, calming the rest of the body—that is, reducing its motoricity to a minimum—as was necessary and desirable for mental, i.e., sedentary, activity. In smoking, the mentally active person works off those functionless, indeed dysfunctional bodily energies that had formerly been released in the physical work of prebourgeois man, in hunting, or in jousting. In this sense, smoking is an ersatz action. The fact that it is pleasurable changes nothing. The old instincts, pleasure and enjoyment, have apparently been pushed into retirement.

The Evolution of Smoking: Pipe, Cigar, Cigarette

If, from the seventeenth century to the present day, smoking has been universally characterized as a surrogate activity that calms, relaxes, and at the same time aids concentration, that holds of course only as a basic definition of smoking and its function in modern European times. In the last three centuries European culture has also established specific forms for smoking. The basic function—calming and concentration—has remained, but the forms—a succession of favored smoking implements—by which it is achieved have changed.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the pipe was the preferred smoking instrument. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the cigar appeared, and in the second half of the nineteenth century the cigarette—still the favorite of the three today.

If we look for some concept that adequately describes this evolution, what comes to mind is acceleration. Acceleration, of course, may well be the phenomenon of modern times. Industry produces an increasing number of commodities at increasingly short intervals, and people consume this rising stream of commodities with correspondingly greater rapidity and frequency. Since the sixteenth century everyone has experienced the speedup of everyday life, be it in eating, dressing, traveling, working, or what have you.

In the history of tobacco use the act of smoking accelerates as the smoking process becomes simpler and shorter. Pipe smoking still needs an arsenal of equipment and manipulations before the pipe is ready to be smoked. A small, self-contained procedure is always necessary: cutting the tobacco leaves, filling the pipe, etc.

From the moment feather-light, paper-wrapped cigarettes dominated
the scene, the cigar seemed a heavy thing, the symbol of a placid
conservatism. At the start of the nineteenth century, when it
supplanted the pipe, the cigar was considered decidedly graceful, light,
even feminine. "The pipe," we read in a text of this period, "is a
ponderous contraption that must be wielded in tranquility; the cigar is
easy to handle and does not hinder one's movement; the pipe smoker
is dull and domestic, the cigar smoker gay and lively in his
movements; the pipe is to the cigar as a lady in crinoline is to a naked
beauty." Finally, in the Germany of 1815 to 1848 cigars came to serve
as a sort of revolutionary emblem: Karl Marx smoked them. Only
later would they become a status symbol for entrepreneurs. Brecht's
cigar smoking thus was part of a nineteenth-century tradition. Our
illustrations are: lithograph (1825) after a painting by Sharp (facing
page), and French fashion plate from 1831 (above).


With the advent of the cigar at the beginning of the nineteenth century, this elaborate operation fell by the wayside. The product came fully prepared for consumption, needing only to be cut and placed in the mouth, an event that shortened and accelerated the process, and was comparable to the later invention of the wooden match, which reduced the laborious process of striking up a spark to a single instantaneous gesture.

Half a century after the appearance of the cigar, the acceleration process advanced still further with the cigarette. Like the cigar, it came ready for consumption, yet the time required to finish smoking it was even briefer—quite a substantial innovation. The cigarette was light, short, and quick, in the physical as well as the temporal and pharmacological sense of the word. A "smoke," as this new informal unit of time is called, is as different from the time it takes to smoke a cigar as the velocity of a mail coach is from that of an automobile. The cigarette embodied a concept of time utterly different from that of the cigar. The calm and concentration a cigarette smoker feels in the twentieth century is quite different from that felt by the cigar or pipe smoker in the nineteenth century.

In the twentieth century, cigar and pipe smoking enjoy special status. They represent a definite intention not to conform to the prevailing mode of smoking, the cigarette. They deliberately flout convention, go against the prevailing rhythm of life, with an artificial time sense that suggests nostalgia, snob appeal, etc. Pipe and cigar smokers are as important, or rather unimportant, to an understanding of our era as are, say, antique car buffs; that is, they are interesting merely as a negative expression.

The standards of tranquility and concentration of a period can, in fact, always be deduced from the prevailing mode of smoking. They can even be quantified. The twentieth-century cigarette that takes five to seven minutes to be thoroughly smoked is meant to give all the leisure and concentration smokers in the nineteenth century derived from cigars that took almost a half hour to smoke. The new sense of time that each innovation in smoking embodies can best be felt when the traditional form of smoking is still in use. Thus at the start of the twentieth century the cigarette was a potent symbol of the new velocity of modern life precisely because the cigar was still ubiquitous. For the cultural historian Alexander von Gleichen-Russwurm in 1914, the cigarette was "a symbol of modern life . . . which brings no peace, no sense of calm, no depth or reflection to serious conversation. It stimulates, but is extinguished as soon as the thought it has stimulated has caught fire. A casual distraction for idle hands, it . . . functions as the symbol of a hospitable home when time does not permit that anything else be offered."

As fast-paced, modern, and nervous as the cigarette appears in comparison with the smoking style of the pipe and cigar, the cigarette, in its own development, passed through specific stages of simplification, abbreviation, and acceleration. One example is the separate mouthpiece or tip. Today it is regarded at most as a quaint, nostalgic prop. In the early history of the cigarette, however, it was standard equipment for the smoker. GleichenRusswurm describes it, retrospectively, in 1914: "A predilection, now belonging to past fashion, was cultivated around the end of the nineteenth century for the cigarette tip, which was made chiefly out of amber and meerschaum. Simple in form and only rarely adorned with a crest or emblem, it constituted an important element of the smoking apparatus, and many a young man was proud of the fine, even, brown color the meerschaum acquired under his care. However, with more careful rolling and filling of the tobacco, the tip made of cardboard or gold paper gradually replaced the 'mouthpiece.' This was all the easier, since cigarette smokers probably had adopted it from a time when only pipes and cigars existed."

The cigarette case suffered a similar fate. It had long been an important item for the cigarette smoker. Cigarettes, which were bought singly or in plain packaging at a kiosk, were transferred to this artistically designed container—a time-consuming process whereby the individual converted an industrial mass-produced item to his own use, and one difficult to reconstruct today. In Europe the cigarette case disappeared only after the Second World War, in the wake of the Americans. Nowadays cigarettes are smoked straight from the commercial package.

Just as the Thirty Years' War contributed to the spread of smoking, and the Napoleonic wars contributed more specifically to that of the cigar throughout Europe, the Crimean War led to the expansion of the —originally Russian—cigarette throughout Europe and, soon after, the rest of the world. The lithograph by Marcelin depicts soldiers from
the Crimean War.

(Painting by Antony Palamadesz, called Staevertz; pp. 118-19.)

The Social and Spatial Expansion of Smoking

The same process that led from the pipe to the cigarette and to a more and more drastic simplification and acceleration of smoking led also to the advance of smoking into areas where it had previously been taboo, not only into specific places and settings but also a specific segment of the population—namely, women.

Like coffee, tobacco had long been a symbol of patriarchal society. Just as the early English coffeehouse was closed to women, women were also not allowed to smoke. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries the woman smoker was the object of caricature. In the nineteenth century smoking acquired new symbolic significance for the emancipation movement. Rebels like George Sand and Lola Montez smoked quite deliberately in public. The right to smoke was demanded as much as the right to wear trousers. The forced humor of this newspaper article from the 1840s clearly shows how unsympathetically patriarchal society must have opposed this: "Women's emancipation takes remarkable strides forward in Germany, especially in Berlin, Germany's most discerning city, with the most startling results. In the brilliant circles of that city, girls aged nineteen or twenty speak confidently about Guizot, Thiers, and search laws—it all verges on the incredible! At this point many of these miniature George Sands don't even disdain the cigar; recently an elegant lady stopped a gentleman on the street who was smoking to ask him to light hers. Charming prospects, these! How long before they put on trousers, force men into the kitchen with riding whips, and nurse their babies on horseback! Easy for the emancipated woman! A public coffeehouse is already being opened for women, where debates on their status are to take place, together with cigar smoking, reading of the latest journals—all in all, the life of a gentleman. How happy Berlin husbands will be when they hold their cigar-smoking wives in their arms! In any case, to hell with them—may the devil take them !"


(French caricature from 1842.)

Caricature by Grandville. Compare the role smoking women play here with the one they have in cigarette advertising half a century later.

For feminist adventuresses like George Sand and Lola Montez,
cigarette smoking was an important symbol for the image they
wanted to project. After they met in Paris in the 1830s, George Sand
adopted Lola Montez's habit of dressing in black, and Montez, Sand's
habit of smoking. This photograph was taken around 1850 in the
United States, where Montez ended her days.

It was at the end of the nineteenth century and clearly in connection with the first successes of the emancipation movement that women who smoked began to be socially accepted—as long as they smoked cigarettes. How tenacious traditional opinion is —even today pipe- or cigar-smoking women are regarded as eccentric and unfeminine. Cigarettes, on the other hand, were practically a symbol of femininity—not, admittedly, in the view of the feminist emancipation movement, but in general public awareness, most obviously in cigarette advertising. The shape and form of cigarettes contributed to this, of course; their lightness, their slenderness, the delicate white cigarette paper. "The cigarette belongs with champagne, games of chance and love, frivolity, sin, the poetry of pleasure," according to the associative effusiveness of a Viennese writer at the turn of the century, Paul von Schonthan; ". . . its aromatic, fleeting haze, vanishing in delicate rings and cloudlets, is the perfume of the boudoir."

Meanwhile, the cigarette discarded this feminine connotation much in the way it did the separate mouthpiece, which had been such a significant accessory in the smoking ritual. The mouthpiece or the unusually long cigarette holder turned women's cigarette smoking in the 1930s into an almost theatrical act. It would be tempting to interpret the oral-erotic element of this self-portrayal in terms of cultural history and psychoanalysis, as a typical expression of the period between 1890 and 1930.



Around the turn of the twentieth century, when the cigarette came
into its own, the relation of women to smoking underwent an about-
face. In the nineteenth century the woman smoker had been an object
of caricature, while on the other hand the women's emancipation
movement used smoking as a demonstrative symbol; now the
cigarette appeared as a distinctly feminine prop. The illustrations:
advertisement sketch from 1916 (above); fashion sketch, 1930 (facing

Before the cigarette became ubiquitous, smoking was confined to
certain areas. The reasons for this were social and practical. Smoking
was an exclusive privilege of men who wanted to remain among
themselves, and the accumulation of smoke from pipes was so heavy
it had to be confined to one room. Both reasons collapsed with the
advent of the cigarette. This picture by Robert Dighton of a club for
punch drinking and pipe smoking is modeled on Hogarth's
Modern Midnight Conversation.

The social expansion of smoking because of the cigarette coincided with a spatial expansion. Both movements of course are too intimately related to be neatly separated. As long as the smoking of pipes and cigars resulted in a strong accumulation of smoke and was the exclusive prerogative of men, it remained confined to certain spaces. Middle-class residences of the nineteenth century contained a room reserved for just this purpose, the smoking room or the study. Smoking was not permitted anywhere else. This held true especially for outdoor public places, where an explicit ban on smoking was in effect for a long time. Originally this was essentially justified by the danger of fire in cities built to a large extent of wooden houses. When this no longer applied, the official prohibition against smoking in public places became a symbol of political oppression. Once the streets, squares, and parks were "liberated" for smoking, it assumed a symbolic character similar to that which it had had for the women's emancipation movement. In the list of political demands that emerged in Germany's Vormarz [the period between 1815 and 1848], smoking in public assumed an important place, particularly in Prussia; the authorities, conversely, regarded it as a sign of political recalcitrance. "Just as someone who wore a felt hat instead of the then fashionable top hat was suspected of harboring revolutionary ideas, every smoker seen on the street was suspected of being a dangerous democrat" (Corti). One fact contributing to the political significance of smoking, or more specifically of cigar smoking, since that was the form smoking then assumed, may have been that in this period the cigar rollers actually formed the militant avant-garde of the workers' movement. They organized the first and most radical union in Germany. Thus it was a curious twist in its symbolic history that the cigar should later have come to be a status symbol for capitalist entrepreneurs—an inversion of its original meaning comparable to the fate chocolate suffered in the nineteenth century.

In Prussia the ban on smoking in public places was repealed in 1848, many years after it had been in most other states in Europe. Since then smoking has not been subjected to spatial restrictions, except in places such as theaters, movie houses, or meeting rooms, where safety was a consideration. (The most recent tendencies to restrict smoking do not enter into the discussion here.)

The ubiquity of smoking is a clear index of the state of civilization. If smoking is defined as an ersatz act which absorbs the increasing nervousness of civilized man, affecting the body's chemistry as well as its motor function, then this penetration of our culture by smoking demonstrates to what depth the culture is permeated by nervousness.

Frontispiece of Johann Heinrich Cohausen's book of 1720 Satyrical Thoughts of Pica Nasi, or The Cravings of a Sensual Nose.

Snuff in the Eighteenth Century

Smoking was undoubtedly the most popular and frequent form of tobacco consumption. Yet there was a period in which it lost a degree of its importance. In the eighteenth century snuff became a major cultural phenomenon. "Today one takes snuff at court as well as in the city; princes, lofty lords, and the people all take snuff," read a treatise on Le bon usage du Tabac en Poudre from 1700. "It ranks among the favorite occupations of the noblest ladies, and the middle-class women who imitate them in everything follow them in this activity as well. It is the passion of prelates, abbes, and even monks. Despite papal prohibition, priests in Spain take snuff during the Mass. The snuffbox lies open before them on the altar."

In the ancien regime snuff had much the same sociocultural significance as chocolate. It also had originated in Spain and reached the peak of its cultural prestige in eighteenth-century French court life. From here it, like chocolate and the French language, caught on as a status symbol of the European upper class. In France, shortly before the Revolution, eleven-twelfths of all tobacco was consumed in the form of snuff. Only in England and Holland, bastions of the middle class, did smoking remain the preferred practice of the bourgeoisie and the petty nobility.

For the cultivated person of the Rococo period taking snuff became an important social ceremony; the style with which one handled a snuffbox became a means of self-presentation, of self-display, and of judging others. The proper way to take a pinch of snuff, and in particular the way to offer such a pinch, were taken very seriously and taught like dancing and fencing. Here is a description in an instruction manual from around 1750 of how to offer snuff in fourteen motions:

1. Pick up the snuffbox with the fingers of the left hand.
2. Place it into the correct position in the hand.
3. Tap the snuffbox with your finger.
4. Open the snuffbox.
5. Offer the snuffbox to the others in your company.
6. Take back the snuffbox.
7. Keep the snuffbox open all the while.
8. Make a pile of the tobacco in the snuffbox by tapping on the side of it with a finger.
9. Carefully take up the tobacco in the right hand.
10. Hold the tobacco for a moment between the fingers before bringing it up to the nose.
11. Bring the tobacco up to the nose.
12. Take in the snuff evenly with both nostrils, without making a grimace.
13. Sneeze, cough, expectorate.
14. Close the snuffbox.

Just as the gesture of snuff taking was an important expression of a person's self-stylization in the Rococo period, the snuffbox was a permanent feature of Rococo costume, on a level with the ornamental sword, the ornamental walking stick, and the fan; only now did the handkerchief also become an artistically fashioned decorative article. The cultivated Rococo man had a snuffbox appropriate to every suit he wore. Among the posthumous possessions of Count Heinrich Briihl, the director of the Meissen porcelain works, Boswell recorded over six hundred suits of clothing with an equal number of matching snuffboxes. Besides their use as containers for snuff tobacco, these boxes were valuable for the precious stones adorning them. They were among the most prized jeweled objects of the eighteenth century and thus were exchanged as gifts of state among royalty. A snuffbox that the king of Spain gave to the sister of Louis XIV was said to have had a value of 1.5 million livres.

The snuffbox, as noted, was an integral part of Rococo costume. How a person used it summed up his entire personality. Such had already been the case in the seventeenth century, as the portrait of a French
chevalier from 1688 shows (above). In the eighteenth century this attitude was so prevalent that the snuffbox even turned up in official portraits like that of John Scrimgeour by Gainsborough (next page).
The fashion lasted into the early nineteenth century (p. 135).

The three previous illustrations gave us a sense of what sort of
gestural code evolved for snuff taking in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries. In the following two (above and facing page) the
Rococo shows off the grace of its snuff rituals. The other illustrations
present actual snuff taking; in any event, these actually belong to the
period after Rococo snuff taking: some of its features are clearly
caricatured in the illustrations from the early nineteenth century
(pp. 138-39), most particularly in Grandville's Variete des priseurs
(pp. 140-41).

Among the most precious objects the eighteenth century produced,
they were ornamented not only by jewelers, but no less often by
galant painters (facing page).

The brief scene at the start of the novel in which the narrator
exchanges his snuffbox with a monk stirred Rococo sentiment much in
the way Goethe's Werther did. Many illustrations of the scene
appeared, and clubs were started in which members exchanged
snuffboxes. This swapping became a symbol of fraternity.

By virtue of these associations the snuffbox became as much the mark of aristocracy of the ancien regime as the cigar became a status symbol for industrial capitalists. In the eighteenth century the snuffbox represented exclusively the courtly gentleman's cult of pure luxury consumption. In Diderot's novel Jacques the Fatalist the snuffbox appears in surprising proximity to that symbol of bourgeois rationalization of time, the pocket watch. The theme of this novel is the relationship between master and servant, which would later inspire Hegel in his treatment of the master-slave dialectic. According to Diderot, there are three possessions that define a master: a servant, a watch, and a snuffbox. "He did not know," says Diderot of Jacques's master, "what to do without his watch, his snuffbox, or Jacques. These were the three mainstays of his life, the days of which he passed taking tobacco, checking the hour, and plying Jacques with questions."

Although the gestures and the social meaning of snuff taking differed a great deal from those of smoking, the eighteenth century regarded its physiological effect as identical. The desiccating and phlegm-depleting effect that was observed in smoking was found also in snuffed tobacco. The above-cited French text from 1700 described snuffed tobacco in the following terms: "If one takes a small portion into one's nose, it irritates the mucous membrane that fills the nasal cavity, as it does the nasal septum. It jolts it [the mucous membrane] into repeated contractions, whereby the small projections and glands that are distributed throughout are put under such duress that they discharge mucus —much like a sponge, when squeezed by a hand. Following upon this discharge comes a watery fluid from neighboring vessels and glands, according to the same principle whereby water issues out of a siphon."

In addition to this removal of mucus, snuff brought on another peculiar stimulatory effect. In the views of the eighteenth century the nose and the mucous membranes, like no other organ, represented a direct path to the brain. "There is no part of the human frame more delicately sensible than the nostrils," we read in an English essay of 1761 ("Cautions Against the Immoderate Use of Snuff"); "they are covered, in a manner, with branches of nerves: and these so thinly guarded from the air, that the brain itself may be said to lie almost naked there." The nose as the direct path—a sort of mouth—to the brain is a conception that naturally must have seemed ideally suited to this organ in a century of rationalism and enlightenment. The eighteenth century regarded the nose not as an organ of "basest" sense but rather as the organ of reason. That is why Diderot's Encyclopedia devoted an extensive article to the nose, in which it says, "The use of the nose and its mucous membranes demand the very greatest attention on the part of medical science." Even the eigh: teenth-century vogue for clean-shavenness, in particular the smoothly shaven upper lip, replacing the mustache and "handlebar" of the seventeenth century, has a partial historical and cultural justification. Snuff taking demanded a direct access to the nostrils unimpeded by facial hair.

The eighteenth century's interest in the nose as the instrument of reason also explains its indifference to one obvious logical consequence of snuff taking that by today's concepts would seem of far-reaching import. For the hyperstimulation of the mucous membranes through habitual snuff taking made the nose ultimately insensitive to smell, and in extreme cases fully robbed the user of this sense. Olfactory blindness due to snuff taking was one of the major illnesses of eighteenth-century civilized man. The opponents of snuff taking based their argument and their agitation on this fact. For members of courtly society, however, loss of the sense of smell was no catastrophe; on the contrary, it may have come as a relief. In the eighteenth century, people gradually became aware of the bad odors resulting from deficient personal hygiene and began to consider them an unpleasant odor. At first they tried hard to cover one smell with another. The eighteenth century witnessed the first boom in the perfume industry—less an expression of some new positive olfactory sensibility than an effort to escape the odors of the body. It must have come to people of that day as an altogether welcome side effect that together with its stimulating effect, snuff tobacco also managed to numb the sense of smell.


Our valuable member Wolfgang Schivelbusch has been with us since Tuesday, 19 February 2013.

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