The widespread use of tobacco led to distinctive designs in snuff boxes, hookahs, and pipes

Tobacco was discovered by Incas of Peru, some 8,000 years ago. It was dispersed by the Amerindians through both the South and North American continent. By the time Columbus visited in late 1590s it was seen widely grown in America. The tobacco reed reached Europe in 16th century and Africa and Asia in 17th century, courtesy the Portuguese and the Spanish.

Today, the plant species ‘Nicotiana tabacum’ is present in more than 120 countries and its manufactured products are known to virtually every one. How was tobacco used?. It was first used by chewing. The next method of use was drinking tobacco tea. Tobacco was taken as medicine: it was applied as enema. Tobacco promoted trade: it brought huge revenues to the countries that traded in it. Tobacco caused slavery: vast numbers of Africans were bought with gold and sold for tobacco in America. The most common form of tobacco has been in smoking which is now “one of the leading causes of statistics” , the data being the death brought in by smoke-related diseases.

In its cultural ‘avatar’— its acceptable form — tobacco caused the appearance of new art forms.

Tobacco made its appearance in the Dutch paintings of 17 Dutch painters. They drew common man smoking pipes. Elegant ladies holding slender, long-stemmed pipes in their red-lipped mouths are collector’s items. Tobacco showed in Indian art too: finely detailed hookahs are attractive portions in the pictures. In the pipes, snuff boxes, and hookahs the artistic expressions that became manifest are remarkable for the variety in shapes and designs, the use of costly materials like jade, gold, ivory and the high quality of art work.

Pipes are the common form of smoking. The pipe apparatus consists of a bowl, a stem and a mouthpiece. A tobacco box to contain the pipe is also a part of the pipe ensemble. South Americans, the first pipers, puffed pipes adorned with “exquisite carvings of men and animals”.

Their famous pipes, however, were human-shaped red pipes, made out of ‘Catlinite’, a fine grained-silica stone.

European pipes were of clay, silver and ceramic, “sumptuously sculpted and decorated”. Tobacco boxes constructed out of nut wood, ivory, mother-of-pearl, and tortoise shell were coveted objects both on the continent and Asia. The most preferred pipes were “Meerschaum” pipes fashioned out of a deep brown stone available in Turkey and “Briar” wood-pipes tipped with amber mouth-pieces.

The Asia pipes were an improvement over their European counterparts. They were both simpler and imaginative in their choice of materials — bowl of wood, stem of bamboo, mouth-piece of Jade, ivory or Porcelain.

Snuff boxes

In Europe snuffing was practiced as an art by the French. They added exotic colours and flavours to the powdered tobacco, making it magical to store the rich “gold dust”. They constructed magnificent snuff boxes designed by leading artists. Every known metal, both natural and man-made, was employed in making the snuff boxes. Marie Antoinette had fifty two gold boxes in her wedding basket. Napoleon who was a great snuffer collected snuff boxes shaped out of ivory, amber, and tortoise-shell. His favourite box bore a portrait of his wife. It was the chosen subject of Josephine.

Snuffing and snuff-container construction reached high artistic levels in China. The Chinese got acquainted with snuff in 18 and ‘theatrical’ reasons. They believed that snuff prevented infections and brightened eyes.

They created the precious powder in five different colours, apple colour being the first rank. The stuff was put up in glass bottles and was sniffed into the nostrils with small ivory handles. The small, narrow-necked glass bottles were rendered dramatic by being painted inside. The Chinese showed their distinctiveness in bottle design: whereas the Europeans kept their snuff in square boxes, the Chinese designed round receptacles made from materials ranging from gold, silver and brass to porcelain, jade, agate and coral.


Exactly who invented hookahs is not known. It is believed that hookah took its birth from an African water pipe perfected by smokers of dagga, a herbal friend of tobacco before it formed into Persian narghile and Indian hookah .

The Indian hubble bubble (hookah ) is said to have been introduced by a Persian Hakim Abu’l Fathgilani (died. 1588) at the court of Mughal emperor, Akbar (1542-1605).

Its entry in China occurred in 18 out of the hubble bubble. In Arabic countries hookah is called sheesha (glass), mainly because its bowls were made of glass. In India hookahs became a status symbol. Rich people preferred gold, silver hookahs. Rulers had their mohnals (mouth-pieces) of ivory, jade, agate decorated with rubies and emeralds. The Salar Jung Museum houses fine examples of hookah art, like sculpted smoke pipes and stunning snuff bottles, particularly the Chinese ones painted inside.

Dep. Keeper (Retd)

Salar Jung Museum

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