Taking Tobacco

Eaten raw, tobacco leaves are poisonous. But dried leaves were smoked in clay pipes, chewed, or sniffed as a powder. Inhaling powdered tobacco, or snuff, through the nose became fashionable in Spain, France, and the British Isles in the mid-1600s. Users ground their own powder with a small grater, or rasp, which they carried with a plug of tobacco in a small box. By the mid-1700s ready-made snuffs were available, and habitual snuff-takers were “taking a pinch” several times an hour. Snuff boxes, like these dating from 1750 to 1850, came in a variety of sizes and materials.

Engraved snuff box and grater

Gift of Avis & Rockwell Gardiner

Ivory snuff rasp

Gift of Alfred Duane Pell

Wooden man snuff box

Papier-mâché snuff box

Gift of Dr. Leo Stoor

Wooden shoe snuff box

Gift of Mrs. J. W. Harris


Tobacco ad card, Newman’s best Virginia, 1700s

Courtesy Heal Collection, Department of Prints and Drawings, British Museum


Gifts of Mrs. Dorothy Lee Baxter and Kenneth D. Haynes

Clay pipes

Clay tobacco pipes were commonplace in the tobacco-rich world of the 1700s. Their long stems could be broken off when shared with different smokers.


Ship Brilliant

Built in Virginia for British owners, 1775

Gift of the Tobacco Institute, Inc.

View object record

The Tobacco Ship Brilliant

The new Virginia-built ship Brilliant departed for Liverpool, England, in the summer of 1775. The vessel was part of the last tobacco fleet to sail before American exports stopped during the Revolutionary War. Tobacco was so valuable that Great Britain organized convoys to protect its tobacco ships from Dutch, Spanish, and French raiders. With convoy protection, tobacco ships did not need to sail fast, so shipbuilders gave them bigger holds and greater cargo capacity.

Miles of Rigging

This model contains 9/10 of a mile of scale rigging to mimic the 9-1/2 miles of rope rigged on the original ship. Seamen had to know the names and functions of all the ship’s lines.


Virginia Gazette, September 1, 1774

Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Imported goods from England to Virginia on the Sparling

Ships brought a wide range of materials and items from Europe and the Caribbean to the Chesapeake Bay colonies.


Virginia Gazette, May 19, 1774

Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Indentured servants arriving in Virginia

Slaves weren’t the only type of captive labor in the American colonies. A British ship also named Brilliant arrived in Virginia’s York River with a load of “choice, healthy” people who were to be sold for “money or tobacco.” They were English and African indentured servants—men and women who would work for a specified period of time, usually several years, before gaining their freedom.

Virginia Gazette, June 10, 1775

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Tobacco ship Brilliant’s first and only known sailing from Virginia