Object of the month: Cowrie Snuff Box

This month’s object can be seen in our latest exhibition, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition, until 12 October. Found under X is for X-rated, this cowrie shell snuff box features an erotic scene. Even cowrie shells themselves used be known as “Venus shells” because of their resemblance to female genitalia. Taryn Cain tells us about the rise and fall of snuff and how its popularity resulted in the variety of the boxes used to hold it.

The cowrie shell snuff box in the A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

The cowrie shell snuff box in the A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

We all know members of the 20% of the population who still light up a cigarette, despite the many warnings. Since smoking is considered a serious health risk today, it’s hard to imagine that only 300 years ago tobacco was seen as a health product with cigarettes only becoming a social norm around 1880.

Clay tobacco pipe, France.

Clay tobacco pipe, France.

1714 was a year of change: it was the year of Queen Anne’s death, and saw the war of the Spanish Succession coming to an end. England was already familiar with tobacco, though its use was restricted to small pockets of the population.  Charles II was quite fond of snuff, a ground and perfumed tobacco, introducing it to his court in 1660. In 1665 the College of Physicians declared the smoking of tobacco a cure for the plague; a risky tonic to take considering matches were not to be invented for another 160 years.

Despite its regal and apparent medicinal properties, tobacco needed another three decades to finally gain in popularity. In 1702 the Allied Naval forces delivered to England at least 50,000 pounds of snuff taken from the Spanish treasure fleet, which soon elevated its use to a social necessity. From then on no gentleman would be seen in public without his snuff and many ladies were keen to indulge too.

A gentleman visitor offering snuff to a woman at her fireside.

A gentleman offering snuff to a woman at her fireside.

This avid use of snuff predictably birthed a new fashion accessory: the snuff box. Originally a small, hinged box to protect the quality of the snuff, it quickly became a fashion statement. In 1781 it was written that a well-dressed man should have a different snuff box for every day of the year, advice some genteel men took literally to heart. Popular dandy, Lord Petersham, would only use each snuff box once in 12 months, while George IV owned 700: one for every day and evening. Visit Wellcome Images to see a selection of historic snuff boxes.

Towards the middle of the 18th century, snuff boxes became more personal. Erotic images began to appear on the insides of the boxes, either openly or hidden in secret cavities. Most showed a couple engaged in sexual activity, but nudes were also popular; generally a mistress or sometimes a wife. Occasionally the images were even accompanied by music.

Though the keeping of erotica was a private matter, Henry Wellcome managed to acquire one of these lewd items to add to his collection, allowing us to have it on display in the museum today. Snuff boxes were generally made of fine materials, such as porcelain and tortoiseshell; ours is no exception, being a cowrie shell and silver creation. The image inside is of a man unlocking a woman’s chastity belt. For a long time chastity belts were believed to have originated in the Middle Ages as a means for men to control their wife’s sexuality. We now know they were an 18th century invention which, if used at all, were more likely to prevent sexual assault than protect a lady’s fidelity.

Silver-bound hinged cowrie shell containing a painting of a man unlocking a woman's chastity belt.

Silver-bound hinged cowrie shell containing a painting of a man unlocking a woman’s chastity belt.

Cowrie shells come from cowries, a diverse species of nocturnal marine snails living in tropical environments, feasting on algae, corals and sponges. The shell in our collection came from a humpback cowrie, which can be found in shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific. Both the inside and the outside of cowrie shells have a beautifully polished appearance due to a layer of calcium carbonate crystals secreted by the mantle; it was this porcelain-like exterior which ensured the cowries would never have a peaceful life. Like tobacco, cowries have had a long history with humans, being used variously for medicine, divination, fertility and, primarily, as money.

As currency, cowrie shells are one of the oldest in the world, at times being more valuable than gold. They were first used in China during the 2nd century and were still being used in Africa during the 19th century. They were an ideal choice for money, being consistent in shape, difficult to obtain in inland areas, easily transportable and, crucially, difficult to forge. While mostly used as currency in Africa and Asia, Europe began trading cowrie shells in the 15th century to obtain slaves for the slave trade. The use of shells was eventually overtaken by metal currency.

By the 19th century snuff began to fall out of favour as interest in cigars grew. After the death of George IV in 1830 the demand for imported cigars had grown massively, while matches and hand rolled cigarettes were increasingly available. As the Victorian era began, snuff boxes bore the brunt of the changing market. Many of them became obsolete short of becoming a collector’s item. Erotic snuff boxes suffered most of all due to strict Victorian morals, with few avoiding destruction by embarrassed families. It was said that George IV’s niece, Queen Victoria, melted down most of his enormous collection in order to make more socially acceptable jewellery for herself.

Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Foolish remedies: Tobacco resuscitation kit

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicked off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

In yesterday’s blog on bloodletting I introduced the concept of the four humors. A theory put together by the ancient Greeks and Romans who considered that good health was maintained via the correct balance between our bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. It may seem hard to believe that a practice such as bloodletting survived until the 19th century based on this theory, but various other medical devices have been developed in an effort to address the balance of the four humors.

Resuscitation set, 1801-1850.

Resuscitation set, 1801-1850.

My personal favourite is the tobacco resuscitator kit (above) usually displayed in our Medicine Man gallery. In 18th century London, two physicians (Doctors William Hawes and Thom­as Cogan) were concerned at the number of people wrongly taken for dead and buried alive.

In 1774, they founded the “Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned” known today as The Royal Hu­mane Society. Swimming was not a popular sport in Georgian London and, in 1773, 123 people died from drowning in London. Hawes and Cogan believed that if they had administered a quick and effective treatment, some of the victims would have been brought back to life. Since the theory of the four humors was still widely spread and commonly accepted at the time, they based their observations on it: drowned people have an excess of wet and cold in their humors so a rational way to cure them, 18th century style, was to quickly reestablish the balance by introducing warmth and administering stimulating vapors, such as tobacco, into the body.

A man recuperating in bed at a receiving-house of the Royal Humane Society, after resuscitation by W. Hawes from near drowning.

A man recuperating in bed at a receiving-house of the Royal Humane Society, after resuscitation by William Hawes from near drowning.

Traditional resuscitation kits, such as the one displayed in our Medicine Man gallery, contain the equipment necessary to inject into the lungs, stomach or rectum. Resuscitator kits were provided by the Royal Humane Society of London and placed at various points along the River Thames.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Blowing smoke

Wellcome Collection team at QI

Back row (l-r) David Mitchell, Jeremy Clarkson, Alan Davies. Front row (l-r) Wellcome Collection’s Sophia Austin, Valerie Brown and Poppy Bowers

It’s not just artworks like Bernal’s Picasso that go on the road. Sometimes even the humblest object from Medicine Man is called forward for its hour in the limelight. Valerie Brown recounts what happens when the BBC called with an unusual request…

In Visitor Services we like to accommodate the unusual and the unexpected, as well as encouraging exchanges with visitors that can range from the extraordinary to the quite interesting.

In the vein of ‘quite interesting’, some months back we received a request from the BBC asking if we could provide a tour of the permanent galleries on the theme of the letter H for an episode of QI with Stephen Fry.

Naturally, we decided that this task should fall to the only member of the VSA team whose name began with H, the lovely Honor Prysor Jones, who sadly has since moved on to other things. Amongst the items included in the tour were talismanic hands of Fatima, paintings depicting haemorrhages, and a variety of heads and healers. After much scratching of heads, the theme of ‘Health and Safety’ was alighted upon by the QI team and in due course a request was received for the loan of our wonderful tobacco resuscitation kit.

The resourceful Poppy Bowers from Public Programmes was detailed to ensure the health and safety of our precious artefact, monitor its condition, record its vital signs and generally note any indications of over excitement brought on by the outing. Together with Sophia from Communications and myself (currently researching the practice of tobacco resuscitation for a dissertation) we set off for the TV studios.

On arrival Poppy instructed Stephen Fry in the very careful handling techniques necessary for precious artefacts and we watched the rehearsals and recording, reflecting on how we would run our own version of QI. The tobacco resuscitator was then duly returned to its usual habitat in the ‘End of Life’ case in Medicine Man.

The episode can be seen on BBC next autumn, but if you would like a preview, please do come and visit Medicine Man!

Valerie Brown is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.