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Contributed by Susan

Description: Laurencekirk Snuff Boxes

Date: August 6 1833

Newspaper published in: Boston, MA

Page/Column: 1

Laurencekirk Snuff Boxes

Probably one of the most amusing articles in Mr. McCULLOCH's bulky "Dictionary of Commerce" of 1,150 pages is the following account of the manufacture of the celebrated Laurencekirk snuff boxes. It is right, however, to explain that Mr. McCULLOCH only mentions these boxes here for the purpose of giving the following details, not to be met with in any other publication.

These beautiful boxes were first manufactured at the village of Laurencekirk in Kincardineshire, about 40 years since. The original inventor was a cripple hardly possessed of the power of locomotion. In place of curtains, his bed (rather a curious workshop) was surrounded with benches and receptacles for tools, in the contrivance and use of which he discovered the utmost ingenuity. The inventor, instead of taking out a patent, confided his secret to a joiner in the same village, who in a few years amassed a considerable property; while the other died, as he had lived, in the greatest poverty.

The great difficulty of the manufacture lies in the formation of the hinge, which in a genuine box is so delicately made as hardly to be visible. Peculiar, or as they are called, secret, tools are required in its formation; and though they must have been improved by time and experience, the mystery attached to their preparation is still so studiously kept up that the workmen employed in one shop are rigorously debarred from having any communication with those employed in another.

About the beginning of this century, an ingenious individual belonging to the village of Cumnock in Ayrshire, of the name CRAWFORD, having seen one of the Laurencekirk snuff boxes, succeeded after various attempts, by the assistance of a watchmaker of the same village, who made the tools, in producing a similar box; and by his success, not only laid the foundation of his own fortune, but greatly enriched his native parish and province. For a while the Laurencekirk boxes were most in demand; but Mr. CRAWFORD and his neighbors in Cumnock not only copied the art, but so improved and perfected it, that in a very few years, for every box made in the north there were probably twenty made in the south.

In 1816, the Cumnock trade was divided amongst either master manufacturers, who employed considerably more than 100 persons. The demand at that time equaled the supply, and it was calculated that the trade yielded from 7,000 to 8,000 annually
a large product for a manufacture seemingly so insignificant, and consisting almost exclusively of the wages of labor. Plane is the wood in common use, and the cost of the wood in an ordinary sized box does not exceed 4d [pence]; the paints and varnish are rated at 2d; and though something is lost by selecting timber of the finest color, the whole expense of the raw material falls considerably short of 1/2 percent on the return it yields. Snuff box, like pin making, admits of sub-division of labor; and in all workshops of any size three classes of persons are employed painters, polishers, and joiners. At the period alluded to, an industrious joiner earned from 30s [shilling] to 40s, weekly; a painter from 45s to 3, and a polisher considerably less than either.

When Mr. CRAWFORD first commenced business, he obtained almost any price he chose to ask; and many instances occurred, in which ordinary sized snuff boxes sold at 2 12s 6d, and ladies work boxes at 25. But as the trade increased, it became necessary to employ apprentices, who first became journeymen and then masters; and such have been the effects of improvement and competition, that articles, such as are specified above, may now be obtained at the respective prices of six and twenty-five shillings.

While the joiner's part of the art has remained pretty stationary, that of the painter has been gradually improving. By means of the "Pantograph," which is much employed, the largest engravings are reduced to the size most convenient for the workman, without injuring the prints in the slightest degree; and hence a snuff box manufacturer, like a Dunfermline weaver, can work to order by exhibiting on wood his own employer's coat of arms, or in short, any object he may fancy within the range of the pictorial art.

Some of the painters display considerable talent, and as often as they choose to put forth their strength, produce box-lids, which are really worthy of being preserved as pictures. At first, nearly the whole subjects chosen as ornaments were taken from Burns' poems; and there can be no doubt that the "Cottar's Saturday Night," Tam O'Shanter," "Willie brewed a peck o' maut," &c. &c. have penetrated in this form into every quarter of the habitable globe. Now, however, the artists of Cumnock take a wider range; the studies of Warlkie and the other artists have been laid under contribution; landscapes are as often met as figures; and there is scarcely a celebrated scene in the country that is not pictured forth more or less perfectly on the lid of a Cumnock snuff box.

A few years ago, the art in question was much affected by the long-continued depression of the weaving business; so much so that many left it for some other employment. And some of those who emigrated, having made a good deal of money instead of being cooped up in a workshop, are now thriving proprietors in Upper Canada. But after a brief interval the trader rallied, and though prices are low, it is now more flourishing than ever. In Cumnock, the number of hands has increased considerably, and in Maunchline there is one workshop so extensive that it may almost be compared to a cotton mill or factory. In other quarters the trade is extending, such as Helensburgh near Greenock, Catrine, Maxwelltown, Dumfries, &c. The principal markets for the snuff boxes are London, Liverpool, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. At one time large lots of boxes were exported to South America, and probably are so at the present. Cumnock, in a word, in regard to its stable manufacture, is in that palmy state so well described by a modern writer: "The condition most favorable to population is that of a laborious frugal people ministering to the demands of opulent neighbors; because this situation, while it leaves them every advantage of luxury, exempts them from the evils which accompany its admission into a country. Of the different kinds of luxury, those are most innocent which afford employment to the greatest number of artists and manufacturers; or those in which the price of the work bears the greatest proportion to that of the raw material."

Some very wretched imitations of Cumnock boxes have been produced in different parts of England, but they can deceive no one who ever saw a genuine box. The hinge, as well as the finishing, is clumsy in the extreme.

Submitted: 10/04/13 (Edited 10/04/13)

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