Zulu snuff container, South Africa

Carved wood, wire

5 1/7 x 2 x 2 3/4 in. (14,5 x 5 x 7 cm)


About this object

Snuff, a preparation of powdered and processed tobacco — often mixed with ashes of other plants, minerals, and animal fats — has been widely used in Africa since Europeans introduced tobacco in the 16th century. While it may be a personal pastime for some, among the Zulu and other southern African ethnic groups tobacco is widely associated with public ceremonies, social etiquette, and the recognition of rank differences. It is most commonly used in social situations: Offered to visitors or shared among friends, it may also be used in greeting or as part of ceremonies. According to the Metropolitan Museum, “tobacco has associations with procreation, creating favorable conditions for growth and fertility.” By extension, tobacco is also linked with the powers of the ancestors.

Snuff is usually carried in a small container made from a simple gourd or fruit shell. Snuff containers are among the most personal objects produced in southern Africa. Being discreet but portable tokens of status, snuff containers were worn as accessories by both men and women. They were sometimes worn as decorative extensions of the owner’s costume. Decorative and geometric patterns are often formed by inserting short pieces of brass wire, like staples, into the surface of the container. This snuff container of carved wood is decorated with multicolored wirework, perhaps telephone cable wire.

The Met. “Staff with Snuff Vessels.” The Collection: The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing. Accessed May 3, 2023.

Smithsonian. “Snuff container.” National Museum of African Art*.* Accessed May 3, 2023.

Victoria and Albert Museum. “Snuff Container.” The Collection. Accessed May 3, 2023.