Mesmerizing and Masterful Miniatures: History and Treatment of Snuff Bottles

Our conservation staff recently examined some of the Museum’s most overlooked objects, Isabella’s diverse collection of ornate snuff bottles. Keep reading to learn more about the history of snuff bottles and their conservation treatment.

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Isabella Stewart Gardner collected a diverse range of artwork, from large architectural elements to tiny snuff bottles.  Tucked away in a gilt vitrine in the Little Salon, are eleven of these bottles made with different materials, colors, and shapes—all roughly the size of your hand. Several snuff bottles were recently examined and cleaned by Museum conservation staff.

A shelf in a historic gilded, glass-door, cabinet with snuff bottles in the Little Salon of the Gardner Museum.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photo: Sean Dungan

Snuff bottles collected by Isabella Stewart Gardner in the Little Salon

History of Snuff Bottles

These bottles were created to hold snuff—a powdered tobacco flavored with various aromatic spices and essences meant to be inhaled through the nose or rubbed on the gums.¹ It was thought to be medicinal for the common cold, headaches, and stomach bugs.²

Tobacco was first introduced to China by European missionaries, envoys, and merchants in the late 1500s and by the turn of the century, it became a regular import.³ However, the typical container in which the tobacco was held, was considered impractical for consumers in Asia. Europeans kept their snuff in boxes, but in the humid conditions of Asia, the large hinged lids could not keep the dry snuff from spoiling, so a new container design was needed. Chinese medicine bottles were the perfect form to inspire the shape of snuff bottles, with their soft edges and tiny mouths. The air-tight stopper and small scoop was a design addition for snuff over dried herbs.

In the early 1700s in China, snuff bottles were made for the imperial court but popular interest led to increased production in the 1800s. People in all levels of society used snuff and the bottles were not only essential to social interaction but also symbols of status.⁴ Commonly measuring between 1.5 – 3 inches high, snuff bottles are exquisite miniature vessels made of a range of materials, including glass, porcelain, jade, quartz, ivory, and metal. The level of intricacy in their design varies from simple to very complex.

Isabella’s Snuff Bottles

Mrs. Gardner likely purchased her collection of snuff bottles during her trip to China in 1883-84.⁵ Easily transportable to the United States, the snuff bottles may have provided Mrs. Gardner “a window on the life and culture of late imperial China.”⁶ Represented in the collection is a range of snuff bottle materials and quality; there is even one bottle that still has its original stopper, which is rare.

Treatment of a Snuff Bottle

Treated for the exhibition Beyte Saar: Heart of a Wanderer (February–May 2023), this porcelain snuff bottle was created in the late 18th or early 19th century and is an example of double-walled, reticulated porcelain, meaning the vessel has two walls with pierced decoration on the exterior wall. The reticulation creates beautiful shadows and adds depth to the figures—a dragon on one side and a phoenix among clouds on the other. The bottle has silver trim around the foot as well as a green glass stopper which has a bone scoop for the snuff.

Overall, the condition of the bottle was very good and required minimal treatment. The main concerns were the dirt caught in the details of the porcelain, the tarnished silver and a cracked porcelain fragment of the foot of the bottle, thankfully held in place by the silver trim.

To address the dirt and grime hidden away in the reticulated porcelain, the bottle was cleaned with tiny cotton swabs coated with saliva. As odd as it may seem, saliva contains enzymes that break down organic compounds which makes it perfect for gently breaking down dust, dirt, and grime. (However we do not recommend licking plates in your grandmother’s porcelain cabinet next time she asks you to clean them.)

A white snuff bottle with a green lid lies next to implements (from left to right: two sizes of tweezers, a bamboo skewer, a stiff short haired brush and cotton) used to clean the bottle’s reticulation. Above the bottle are some cotton swabs used to clean the dirt and grime from the reticulation.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Reticulated porcelain snuff bottle with various tools (tweezers, cotton, bamboo stick, stiff brush) used to clean the dirt and grime

After the dirt and grime, it was time to address the silver and cracked fragment of the porcelain foot. The silver trim was polished using precipitated calcium carbonate, which is a very fine powdered form of chalk, mixed with water and ethanol to create a paste-like consistency. The crack was stabilized with a conservation-grade acrylic resin that is well-loved for its durability, non-yellowing properties, and reversibility—important properties in conservation-grade materials so future conservators can remove previous treatment if needed.

A snuff bottle is propped up on foam in a fume hood, with the silver foot exposed. To the right of the bottle is a solution of 20% Paraloid B-72, used to stabilize the cracked fragment of the foot, a syringe, brushes and tweezers.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Reticulated porcelain snuff bottle during reattachment of cracked fragment

Come see the bottles yourself the next time you are in the Little Salon and be sure to take a peek in all of the nooks and niches in cabinets and cases in the museum.  Artworks come in all shapes and sizes and some are easily overlooked but sometimes, it is the most unassuming that can be the most interesting of them all.

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¹ Yasuko Horioka et al. Oriental and Islamic Art in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1975), p. 30.

² Zhixin Jason Sun. Small Delights: Chinese Snuff Bottles. 2014.

³ International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, The History of Snuff Bottles and Snuff. 2023.

⁴ Zhixin Jason Sun. Small Delights: Chinese Snuff Bottles. 2014.

⁵ Alan Chonget al. Journeys East : Isabella Stewart Gardner and Asia (Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2009), p. 446.

⁶ Sherese Tong, Collecting Guide: 5 Things to know about Chinese Snuff Bottles, 2022.