A student on her work experience at Salisbury Museum (Charlotte; see her blog below) has done some interesting research on a snuff box which is part of one of our collections…
The object I have chosen is a souvenir coffin shaped snuffbox from the 19th century. I chose this object because of its immediate irony and dark humour, as well as the intriguing local history behind it.
Most wooden snuffboxes were made by country craftsmen, which can make them hard to date, and have less delicate designs. Country craftsmen had no need to keep up with fashions, so many snuffboxes are shaped and decorated with humour or simple design, as opposed to the latest style. Whilst the shape of a coffin is initially shocking, it is not unusual; there were quite a few snuffboxes shaped as coffins, some even containing miniature skeletons. The snuff powder these skeletons would be replaced with would serve as a macabre reminder of the dust we all return to. A few snuffboxes also bore engravings of skulls, further exemplifying this surprisingly dark humour.
This particular snuffbox in the form of a coffin, was made by Benjamin Best of Tisbury, from a piece of the ‘Parliament Tree’ allegedly felled sometime in the late 19th century. It bears the inscription: OLD SARUM DIED 7th JUNE 1832 AGED 584.’ Here the reference to the death of Old Sarum is about the passing of the Reform Bill, the local political history that makes this object so fascinating.
The Reform Bill was passed in the 1830s, and deprived Old Sarum of the right to return two members to Parliament. Old Sarum had retained this right previously, even though the town had been completely deserted for many years. By the 19th century, the town was often known as a ‘rotten borough’, or ‘pocket borough’; a place where a small number of electors voted under the control of their landlord (in this case, because it had been abandoned for Salisbury).
This box not only relates to the ‘death’ of Old Sarum in writing, but it is made from the ‘Parliament tree’, beneath which the polling tent would have been set up. The tree is also said to have been situated on ‘election acre’ although there is not a decided location for it. A second snuff box was made from this tree. Inscribed: OLD SARUM DESERTED IN YEAR 1217, DISFRANCHISED JUNE 7 1832’, which bears a similar message to the coffin shaped one I have chosen.
I find the coffin shaped snuff boxes really interesting, as they are the product of a certain type of dark humour and irony that many of us would consider to be more modern. Snuff boxes shaped as coffins are an unusual combination of fear and fascination with death, and a morbid joke.
This specific box’s relation to the Reform Bill and subsequent ‘death’ of Old Sarum, makes it all the more engaging. There were very mixed emotions surrounding the reform bill, so this symbol of the death of the old town may have been like a political statement, not just an ironic souvenir. I would be interested to know how the maker of it, Benjamin Best, felt about the bill.
I think that this snuffbox is an interesting object in itself, but also with an engaging message, and story behind it.