Digital environment provides great opportunities to explore what we do not notice or simply cannot notice in our daily haste as visitors to museums. In the Rundāle Palace Museum, one group of such items is the Dutch tobacco boxes. Although these tobacco boxes are exhibited, they cannot be viewed from all sides and not only the lids and edges of these boxes, but also their bases deserve attention. Even in the third exhibition catalogue of the Museum’s new acquisitions held 30 years ago at Rundāle Palace, the descriptions of tobacco boxes are supplemented only by black and white photographs of their lids. I have written this article to offer an insight into the history of tobacco boxes and to afford a closer look at these objects, whilst also appealing to the visitors of the Museum to not miss these seemingly simple objects. It is worthwhile to pause and study them longer because the most interesting information is often concealed in the details.
The origins of tobacco use can be traced back to pre-Columbian Central America and South America. When Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) first reached the coast of Cuba in 1492, tobacco was already well known on the North American continent too. Europeans quickly adopted tobacco and, by colonising other parts of the world, exported it further afield thus spreading tobacco across most human habitats. Examining the history of tobacco in Europe that spans five centuries, we can see that it has been used in a variety of ways – snuffed, smoked, chewed, eaten and drunk, and even added to medicinal ointments and other medicines since tobacco was believed to have healing properties.
Soon enough tobacco stopped being a fashion statement and became a part of everyday life, thus a variety of tobacco accessories were introduced in European homes – storage containers of various sizes and shapes, pipes, graters, lighters and other items. Upon entering the collections of various museums around the world, these objects attest not only to this harmful habit but also to the art and craft, and fashion of their time. The collection of Rundāle Palace Museum contains several interesting objects related to this topic – including European tobacco boxes and Chinese snuff bottles. In turn, the consumption of smoking tobacco over several centuries in this territory is evidenced by fragments of white clay pipes found in the archaeological excavations on the site of the original Rundāle Castle.
The Dutch tobacco boxes
The main function of tobacco boxes has always remained the same: to keep the tobacco fresh and protect it from moisture, which was important regardless of the way it was consumed. Special large containers were made for storing tobacco whereas small, pocket-sized boxes were needed for everyday use. It cannot be supposed that their purpose was only utilitarian because these boxes simultaneously served as an important accessory, an object certifying one’s status or a fashion item. Various tobacco accessories are often depicted as vanitas or an allegory of transience in the still lives of the Golden Age of Dutch art. Admittedly, tobacco boxes are less common in these compositions than pipes, however there are also striking examples such as ‘A Still Life with a Berkemeier, Matches, Clay Pipes, a Tobacco Box, and a Brazier’ (1638, in a private gallery in Switzerland) by Pieter Claezs (1597–1660).
Although the term Dutch tobacco box is accepted by experts as indicating belonging to a specific region that does not rule out the possibility that tobacco boxes were also exported. Furthermore, it is possible that when sailors or traders arrived in the colonies, their tobacco boxes attracted local attention and may have been imitated.
The Dutch tobacco boxes in the Rundāle Palace Museum were acquired from private individuals and unfortunately documentation of this collection provides rather scant information about the origin of these objects. The tobacco boxes were made in the first half and in middle of the 18th century. By that time, smoking tobacco in European courts had already become less popular than snuff, which was usually stored in small, luxuriously decorated boxes made of expensive materials. Whereas the object usually referred to as a Dutch tobacco box was a mass product of its time. The oldest surviving boxes of this type date back to the beginning of the 17th century and their production continued until the 19th century. The demand for tobacco boxes made from cheap and available materials was determined by the popularity of smoking among the Dutch in the lower strata. It should be noted that the 18th century was no longer the ‘Golden Age’ of Holland, neither in terms of culture nor economy. France, Austria, Prussia and Russia emerged as the main geopolitical players in Europe, while the British rapidly became the dominant maritime power.
In the 18th century, the Dutch tobacco boxes were made mainly of brass and copper, as well as a combination of both metals. In turn, the most common material in the 19th century was tin. Silver and mother-of-pearl were used less frequently because they were more expensive. Don Duco, a researcher of tobacco history and a specialist at the Amsterdam Pipe Museum, has developed a typology based on the shape of tobacco boxes. In the article ‘The Dutch tobacco box’ (De Hollandse tabaksdoos, 2012; available at: https://pipeportal.eu/article/de-hollandse-tabaksdoos), he notes that the oldest boxes are round or oval, and small due to the high cost and limited availability of tobacco. In the 18th century, as tobacco imports increased and prices dropped, larger boxes were manufactured – a longitudinal shape with rounded corners prevailed, although round and rectangular boxes were not uncommon either. 19th century boxes have a rectangular shape and are flatter.
The Dutch tobacco boxes in the collection of Rundāle Palace Museum
Four of the boxes in the collection of the Rundāle Palace Museum are made of copper and brass, and four – only of brass. On all boxes the lid is attached with a hinge. The predominant form is the elongated rectangular shape, although there is also one oval and one rectangular box; the size and engraved decor of both boxes clearly point to the 18th century. The boxes arrived at the Museum completely empty, however the collection documentation notes that one of the boxes was once lined with green taffeta, which has not survived. Some boxes, such as this specimen from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had a small clasp on the inside of the lid through which a pipe cleaner could be slid. None of the boxes in the Rundāle Palace Museum were found to have such a clasp.
As with mass production, not all Dutch tobacco boxes have known manufacturers and engravers. Most masters remain anonymous. D. Duco states that it is not certain whether the boxes were made in collaboration with several craftsmen in one workshop, or whether some boxes were delivered to another workshop for post-production engraving.
After studying analogies in other museums and specialist publications, it has emerged that tobacco boxes could be divided into two large groups according to the theme of decor – with religious or secular scenes. Although Holland was a Protestant country, scenes from the Bible feature in the decor of many boxes.
Tobacco box with scenes from Samson’s life
Brass tobacco box decorated with acanthus leaf motif. On the lid and base, medallions with scenes from the life of Samson, described in Book of Judges of the Old Testament, are framed by symmetrical acanthus and putti figures.
The lid depicts a canonical image against the background of a stylized landscape – Samson tearing open the jaw of a lion. Similarly, this event is depicted in the work ‘Samson Killing the Lion’ (1620, Stockholm National Museum) by the famous Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and in many imitations thereof. Another work of art that comes to mind is the sculpture-fountain of Francesco Rastrelli (1700–1771), a symbol of Peterhof Palace Park. This scene is traditionally seen as an example of Samson’s heroism, while the moment of Samson’s capture engraved on the base of the box is reminiscent of his betrayal.
In the centre of the base medallion foreground is a depiction of Samson resting on Delilah’s lap. The woman is holding scissors, while armed Philistines loom nearby, ready at any time to take the powerless hero captive. This is a scene that has always been the focal point for artists, and not only in the Baroque era.
Tobacco box with scenes from the New Testament
The copper and brass tobacco box with scenes from the New Testament is decorated with great finesse and detail. On its side are 12 apostles with their characteristic attributes. For example, the angelic representation of Matthew the Apostle is canonical – his attributes are a book and a pen that attest to Matthew as the first author of the gospel. In fine art, Peter the Apostle’s attributes have conventionally been keys or an inverted cross, whereas the ship engraved on this box is a less commonly used symbol reminiscent of Peter’s craft – he was a fisherman until he met Jesus.
Scenes from the Gospel of Luke are depicted in two round medallions on the lid of the box. On the left – dinner with Simon the Pharisee. In the foreground is a depiction of Jesus, with Mary Magdalene perched on her knees beside him; according to the New Testament, she washed his feet with her tears. The composition, which is engraved on the lid of the box by an unknown 18th century master, is very reminiscent of the painting ‘Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee’ (1618, State Hermitage) by P. P. Rubens and his then disciple Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641). The Parable of the Sower from the Gospel of Matthew is depicted on the right side of the lid. I would like to draw attention to the depiction of Satan in the centre of the medallion. According to the parable, the Devil was the sower of weeds, alas here the Devil is depicted so inconspicuously and fits so organically into the composition making it difficult to notice at first.
Scenes from the Gospel of Mark are depicted on the base of the box. On the left is the feast of King Herod in Galilee; on the right is the daughter of Herodias (better known in art history as Salome) with the head of John the Baptist.
Tobacco box with scenes from De Kleine Print-Bybel (illustrated Bible for children)
Most often, the decorative compositions of tobacco boxes were oriented horizontally, however there are also plenty of samples with a vertical orientation. In the collection of the Rundāle Palace Museum is a brass tobacco box with scenes from the so-called De kleine Print-Bybel (illustrated Bible for children).
D. Duco points out that the 1736 edition of the Bible was the most popular, albeit not the only source of illustrations, used in the decoration of Dutch tobacco boxes. Analogous illustrations to the scenes engraved on this Dutch tobacco box were found in the 1720 edition (Amsterdam, 1720; National Library of the Netherlands). An excerpt from Paul’s letter to Timothy about the evil of greed and turning away from faith is engraved on the lid of the box while verses from the Book of Psalms are illustrated on its base.
Oval tobacco box
A stairway to heaven is depicted on the lid of the only oval brass box in the collection of Rundāle Palace Museum and on its base – an interior scene with a clock. Presumably, this decor served as a reminder to the owner of the box of the transient nature of everything secular and the rapid passage of time.
Tobacco box with festive scenes
Various secular entertainments are depicted on the copper and brass tobacco box with festive scenes.
A hunt against the backdrop of park landscape is featured on the side of the box – a hunter and dogs are chasing a deer. Also featured is a fisherman on a boat and swans. The letters ‘LS’ are engraved in the centre of the forward-facing side and to the left of them two obscure numbers. Further research is needed here, but it is likely that they indicate either the manufacturer of the box or the owner.
Tobacco boxes with scenes of everyday life
So far, it has not been possible to successfully determine the exact scenes of all boxes in the collection. For the elongated rectangular copper and brass box with curved volute-shaped corners, both the lid and the base are decorated with an acanthus leaf motif. In the centre of the lid is a scene of everyday life – a man pays or receives money for a product while to the right and left are rectangular medallions with portraits of men.
The base is similarly stylised, though its copper part is severely worn making it difficult to determine the exact scene. Although it is possible to see a table with human figures in the foreground, the inscription, which often determines the context, is currently illegible.
A rectangular brass box, featuring genre scenes on its lid and base, is decorated following a similar principle. It also features a rich acanthus leaf ornament typical of the Baroque era on its sides, the lid and the base. The inscriptions on the lid and the base are legible, but have not yet been deciphered and require further research.
Portraits of women and men in rectangular medallions have been chosen for the decoration of both boxes. Probably, a reflection on the roles and place of women and men in the society of that time is depicted here.
Seaman’s tobacco box
The so-called seaman’s tobacco box is completely different from all the previously mentioned boxes. It is made of copper and brass in an elongated rectangular shape with cut corners and dates precisely to 1753 as engraved on its lid. The documentation of the Museum collection shows that in 1986 this exhibit, together with several other objects, was purchased in St. Petersburg from the well-known Russian avant-garde art collector Solomon Shuster (Соломон Шустер, 1934–1995). Unfortunately, there is no other information about the history of the box. And yet, although it has no maker’s mark or initials on it, this is the only tobacco box about whose origin we know a lot. Such boxes were made and sold by Swedish-born sailor Pieter Holm (1685 / 1686-1776) in Amsterdam.
The reason this item is called a seaman’s tobacco box is explained by the fact that the box also served the owner as a calendar and a tool for determining the speed of the ship. This is the only such item in the collection of Rundāle Palace Museum, but similar boxes can be viewed digitally in the collections of British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art and National Museum of Ireland to name a few.
Archaeologist James Cherry remarks in his article ‘An 18th Century Tobacco Box Log-Timer and other Seamen’s Boxes’ published in the journal of Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society (2006, No. 6) that 91 such tobacco boxes have been identified and documented worldwide. The tobacco box in the collection of Rundāle Palace Museum is not included in this list because until then it had simply not come to the attention of researchers. Former director of the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam (Het Scheepvaartmuseum), Ernst Crone (1891–1975), listed only 20 samples known to him in the booklet ‘Pieter Holm and His Tobacco Box’ (Marine Historical Association, No. 24, 1953), published in the first half of the 20th century. It is only logical that as the interest of researchers surges and the flow of information changes over time that this number grows.
The so-called Eternal Calendar is engraved on the lid of the box. To the right and left are portraits of men in round medallions with the years ‘1582’ and ‘45 BC’ (voor Kristi). They indicate that these are portraits of Iulius Caesar (100-44 BC) and Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585), which in turn are indicative of the Julian calendar (adopted in 45 BC) and the Gregorian calendar (adopted in 1582).
The lid also includes instructions for establishing the phases of the Moon. The Lunar Calendar was essential for sailors to determine the tides according to the position of the Moon. In cells with month names, the upper digit indicates how old the moon is on the first day of that month.
There is a table engraved on the base of the box for determining the speed of the ship, which, unlike the lid, is oriented vertically. Above it, a round medallion depicts a portrait of a man with the year ‘1497’. This is the year that was considered the start of Amérigo Vespucci’s (1451–1512) first trip. Below it is inscription in Dutch: ‘You can lose wealth but not experience, so choose experience’ (Gene const maar rijkdom kan men verlisen, daaran is constant voor rijkdom te krieze). It served as a reminder to the sailor or the owner of the box about the values of life and characterised P. Holm well, since he preferred to rely on his own practical experience.
Unlike other exhibited boxes, the sides of this box are not decorated. Only on its front there is an ascetic inscription in Dutch: ‘Sailing straight on the course’ (Regt door zee). The same name was given to the seafarers’ school established by P. Holm in Amsterdam. In the 17th century the Dutch were already known as a seafaring nation. Although their positions began to be threatened by English sailors in the 18th century, there were still many maritime schools in Dutch port cities. E. Crone, a researcher of the history of navigation, has concluded that P. Holm was not an expert in navigation, however as a former sailor he relied on practical experience, which is why his method worked successfully. The details of this method were compiled by P. Holm in a brochure ‘Stuurmans zee-meeter’ (Amsterdam, 1748), which served as a teaching material and was therefore re-issued. In it, the author explained how to use the table engraved on the tobacco box to determine the speed of the ship.
Although E. Crone criticised this work as quite primitive, he admitted that it was useful for sailors who studied at P. Holm’s school. After Holm’s death, his school and tobacco box manufacturing business were taken over by his student Arend Switer (?) who sustained it until 1817.
Dutch tobacco boxes are displayed in the late Baroque room in the exposition ‘From the Gothic Style to Art Nouveau’ and since Spring 2021 can also be found in the Duchess’s Apartments where two tobacco boxes complement a display case about the 18th century fashion for men.
Written by: Marija Šumilo
Chief specialist of the Collection Department of Rundāle Palace Museum