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“For the Love of Snuff”

Looking Back with Mathews, originally printed September 6, 1977


“Whether taken by the puff, or in the form of powdered snuff, or chewed and swallowed by heroes tough, it’s awful hard to quit the stuff.”

As far back as I can remember, the question of whether to, or whether not to, smoke has been one of great concern among parents, teachers, preachers and doctors. The habit got control of me very early in life, and for 25 years, I smoked anything with fire on the end, from monkey cigars to rabbit tobacco. Even tried some coffee in a pipe, and it wasn’t too bad. While I was still fairly young, a doctor scared me into quitting. Having been on both sides of the fence, I feel like an expert on the subject.

Back in the old days, men worked hard, and they would sit up on their high front porches on summer nights and smoke while they told fish tales. They would flip the butts off into the yard, and anxious youngsters would be there to shoot the ducks, almost before they hit the ground. The older men thought it was some kind of funny watching the kids get the habit.

In those days it was almost unheard of to see a woman smoking a cigarette, and if she was seen, all the saints in the neighborhood were sure to have special prayers for her. I always heard it said that if a friend couldn’t get his nicotine one way, he would find another, and that’s just what the womanfolks did. They found snuff. Snuff used to enjoy a great popularity, especially among the older women. That doesn’t mean that younger ones didn’t indulge. I’ve seen them holding a nursing baby in one hand and a snuff can in the other.

They would get together for quilting parties or for just social visits, and before long, one or two would break out the snuff cans. I’ve watched them many times, and I don’t believe any of the modern-day habits could produce the ecstasy that was caused by powdered tobacco. The real old-timey snuff was nothing more than tobacco ground into a powder. It came in little inch-diameter tin cans (and still does) that held a few ounces. The ladies would timidly unwrap their little dip sticks, which were usually small peeled limbs from a sweetgum tree. One end was known as a brush. This end was made wet with saliva, and dipped into the can of snuff, thus the phrase dipping came into being. A brisk brushing of the gums, or the moving of the stick in a rolling motion throughout the mouth, brought the required sensation, which I can only describe as a look of ultra-contentment. There were used baking powder cans available to expectorate in, and many a can has been filled to overflowing in the course of a long evening of gossip. Conversation would usually center around such things as cousin Emmy Lou being seen down behind the barn smoking a nasty old cigarette, or little Tom smoking his daddy’s corncob pipe, before he even learned to chew. They wondered what the world was coming to.

Chewing was the rage among the younger boys, and every country store had a tobacco cutter with which any size plug could be cut to order. In this day, boys buy loads of bubblegum in order to get baseball and football cards. In the day I’m speaking of, the fad was to save tobacco tags, and a lot of chewing was done in order to get the tags. The two most popular brands were Brown’s Mule and Red Coon, but there was a great variety.

Women wouldn’t dare chew the filthy stuff, and men were just the same way about dipping. It was about as common to see a man dip snuff as it was to see a woman smoking cigars. But that was then. Now we see such hefties as football hero Walt Garrison advertising it.

I don’t know how long snuff has been around, but I do know that in the very early days, it was used by the bluebloods, and was taken in small amounts between the thumb and forefinger and snuffed up the nose. Of course, this is how it got its name. How it’s taken is not important. But for the real honest-to-goodness, mouth-watering flavor of genuine tobacco, the word is snuff. I guarantee it’ll tickle your nostrils. And I repeat, “It’s awful hard to quit the stuff.”



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