Tobacco was first introduced into England in 1573 when Sir Francis Drake brought the tobacco leaf to our shores from the Americas. In 1586 the smoking of tobacco in pipes was introduced by returning Virginia Colonists disembarking at Plymouth, which caused a sensation in Elizabethan Society. The first book devoted to the art of smoking was published in 1595 and in 1600 Sir Walter Raleigh famously persuaded Queen Elizabeth to try smoking.
By 1614 there were over 7000 tobacco shops in London alone and tobacco smoking had spread like wildfire throughout the land. Tobacco merchants established in all of the major seaports supplying raw tobacco to all manner of retail trades including public houses, grocers, hardware shops and of course tobacconists. As tobacco smoking rapidly took hold of the population, the habit forming nature of smoking was soon recognised and there was a strong movement against smoking. King James I in particular strongly opposed it’s use, writing ‘A Counterblast to Tobacco’ in 1604 and then introducing the first Tax on tobacco of 4% in the same year. Despite the Kings opposition tobacco smoking proliferated and an unhappy King James I was obliged to Incorporate the Guild of British Pipe Makers in 1619.
In 1660, the restoration of King Charles II to the English throne introduced the French Court habit of taking Snuff (powdered tobacco) and the use of small bejewelled snuff boxes. The fashion of taking snuff soon spread to the mass population who purchased their snuff in a loose form from tobacconists shops dispensed in paper wraps or small card boxes. As the working classes could not afford the fine snuff boxes used by Society all manner of crude containers made from horn or wood were being fashioned to contain snuff.
In 1760 London tobacconists recognised the need for a pre-packaged option for dispensing snuff and so introduced the first pre-packaged snuff in tin boxes. At first wrap around paper labels were used to brand the product and to conceal rust which quickly formed on the un-plated tin, but in some cases premium snuff was sold in highly coloured hand painted tins simulating the luxurious tins used in Society. By 1860 the process of printing directly on tin had been perfected and the major producers soon adopted this practice to brand and advertise their products.
The use of tin advertising boxes was soon extended to pipe tobacco which had previously been sold in paper wraps, card boxes, cartridges (paper wrapped tobacco plugs), cedar boxes and of course predominantly loose. Large retail advertising boxes were produced from which tobacconist’s dispensed loose tobacco. Smaller boxes followed in 1lb, 8oz, 4oz, 20z and 1oz sizes that contained pre-weighed tobacco of a specific brand.
As production and printing processes developed, so the quality and durability of the tins improved, with the result that many survive waiting for collectors to find them.
Tobacco packaging Timeline
Tins with air holes in them were introduced in the late 1800's when the majority of tobacco was sold in bulk to the retail trade in large branded tins. The purpose of the holes was to allow a small amount of air into the tin to prevent the tobacco from going mouldy and in some cases to allow it to mature. Inside the tins the contents would have been wrapped in waxed paper or foil to help minimize evaporation.
By 1900 most of the leading brands were available in off the shelf pre-packaged 1Lb tins which also required air holes to ensure tobacco quality. As smoking habits changed and pocket sized packs became popular, 1lb tins were gradually replaced by smaller tin sizes which in the main did not require ventilation holes, although there were exceptions to this such as Digger Flake and Erinmore Mixture which were available in 2oz ventilated tins in the 1950’s
Unfortunately, the presence or absence of air holes does not give much if an indication as to the age of a tin as the ventilated tins were phased out very gradually over a long period of time.