The Senate Snuff Boxes

"Allan G. Thurman, The Veteran Ohio Democrat."
Mayer, Merkel & Ottmann Lithograph, after Joseph Keppler
April 13, 1881


The Senate Snuff Boxes

In olden times it was fashionable for senators to take snuff. It was the custom to keep a box of snuff on the vice president’s table. The senators would step up to the vice president’s table and take a pinch of snuff. It seemed to be a part of the senatorial dignity but soon after Mr. Fillmore was vice president, during the morning hour, when so many senators rise to offer petitions, the senators annoyed him so much that he called me up to him and said, “Bassett I want you to take this snuff box away from this table. I cannot understand what is going on in the Senate on account of the conversation of senators who come here to get a pinch of snuff. You must get some other place for it.” I suggested that on each side of the Senate there be placed a snuff box. “That is just the thing, go and have it done.” It has been done ever since. On each side of the Chamber there is secured to the walls a comely black snuff box.

The snuff box is not resorted to in these days as in olden times. There is a very few senators that use snuff at this the time that I now speak, 1887.

I will name a few of the senators in those days and in these who was fond of a pinch of snuff. Henry Clay, when I was a page called me often 20 times a day to bring him the snuff box off the vice president’s table. On one occasion I asked him why he did not use his own box. “Well my boy I will tell you. I have my box on my table at my hotel. If I bring it with me, I am constantly using it.” He was so fond of snuff that he would stop in the middle of sentences and holler out, “Page, bring me a pinch of snuff.” If we happened to be out (there was but two pages in those days) he would leave his seat and walk up to the vice president’s desk, take a pinch and return to his seat, and go on with his speech. It always created a laugh. No matter how crowded the floor was, the ladies would get up and let him pass. In those days ladies was admitted to the floor of the Senate.

Martin Van Buren was also fond of a pinch of snuff. When he was vice president he gave me a gold snuff box to keep filled and place on the desk every morning the Senate was in session, and every Monday morning gave me fifty cents to keep it filled (I attended to it faithfully) and when his time expired as vice president just as he left the vice president’s chair, he grabbed up the box put it in his pocket and forgot to give me the fifty cents for the last week. He left the city soon after. [As a] matter of course he forgot to give me the fifty cents (so his estate still owes me the money).

Senator Bibb of Kentucky was a great snuffer he carried his box in his hand most of the time he was in the Senate Chamber.

Senator Thurman of Ohio was also a great snuffer. On one occasion when he was making a speech in the Senate, his snuffbox gave out. He called a page and gave it to him to “Carry to Captain Bassett and tell him to fill it and send it back to him immediately.” I was in my seat and heard what he said, went out to the case back of the Senate and filled it and handed it to the page. He carried it and gave it to the senator. He gave it a rap on top and then opened it and put a big pinch up his nose, took out his bandana handkerchief, and then went on with his speech.

Senator Phelps of Vermont was an excessive snuff taker. I have often seen him come in to the Senate Chamber with his face all smeared with snuff, so much so that I have been often requested by senators to go to him and tell him.

Senator Linn of Missouri was a great snuffer. He also would often come in the Senate with [snuff] running down his cheeks. Senator Preston of South Carolina was very fond of snuff. Senator Marcy of New York was a great snuffer.

Senator Wilson of Maryland is a great snuffer. When the snuff box on the side of the vice president near the wall gives out he comes round to my seat and I give him pinches. I have counted them as many as 12 some days. [13B30-13B38]

Editor's Note:

Among the many signs of change in the country and the Senate, one in particular seemed to hold Bassett’s attention—the taking of snuff. He witnessed gentlemen’s fashion shift from snuff to cigars, and recognized it as a facet of change in the institution. To this day, a remnant of this earlier tobacco fashion remains. In the Senate Chamber, there are still two snuff boxes, displayed as historical relics, one on each side of the rostrum.

People, Places, & Things:

  • Vice President - Under the Constitution, the vice president serves as president of the Senate. In the Senate Chamber, the vice president sits on the platform at the front of the Senate. He is allowed to vote only in the case of a tie. The president pro tempore, or others designated by that officer, presides in the absence of the vice president.
  • Millard Fillmore (Whig - NY) U.S. representative 1833-1835 and 1837-1843. Later, in 1848, he was elected vice president and eventually became president.
  • Each side of the Senate - The custom of dividing Senate seating by party goes back to the creation of political parties in the United States, but has not always been rigidly followed. In the Old Senate Chamber an equal number of desks were placed on each side of the center aisle, requiring a few members to sit across from the rest of their party. Since 1877, however, the practice has developed of moving desks back and forth across the aisle to permit all members of each party to sit on the appropriate side.
  • Henry Clay (Democratic Republican, National Republican, Whig - KY) U.S. senator 1806-1807, 1810-1811, 1831-1842, and 1849-1852.
  • Page - For more than 175 years, messengers known as pages have served the U.S. Senate. Page duties consist primarily of delivering correspondence and legislative material within the Capitol complex. Other duties include preparing the Senate Chamber for Senate sessions, and carrying bills and amendments to the presiding officer’s desk.
  • Martin Van Buren (Democratic Republican, Crawford Republican, Jacksonian - NY) U.S. senator 1821-1828. He became the vice president of the United States on the Democratic ticket  and served in this capacity from 1833-1837, when he was elected president.
  • George Mortimer Bibb (Democratic Republican, Jacksonian - KY) U.S. senator 1811-1814 and 1829-1835.
  • Allen Granberry Thurman (Democrat - OH) U.S. senator 1869-1881.
  • Captain Bassett - Early in the Civil War it was decided by the senators and employees of the Senate that it was necessary to organize a military company for the defense of the Capitol should it come under attack. Bassett was unanimously elected captain. His command consisted of the Hamlin Guards, an independent company of Senate employees named after Vice President Hannibal Hamlin.
  • Samuel Shethar Phelps (Whig - VT) U.S. senator 1839-1851 and 1853-1854.
  • Lewis Fields Linn (Jacksonian, Democrat - MO) U.S. senator 1833-1843.
  • William Campbell Preston (Nullifier, Whig - SC) U.S. senator 1833-1837 and 1837-1842.
  • William Learned Marcy (Jacksonian - NY) U.S. senator 1831-1833.
  • George Franklin Edmunds (Republican - VT) U.S. senator 1866-1891.
  • James Zachariah George (Democrat - MS) U.S. senator 1881-1897.
  • John James Ingalls (Republican - KS) U.S. senator 1873-1891.
  • James Burnie Beck (Democrat - KY) U.S. senator 1877-1890.
  • Wade Hampton (Democrat - SC) U.S. senator 1879-1891.
  • Leland Stanford (Republican - CA) U.S. senator 1885-1893.
  • George Gray (Democrat - DE) U.S. senator 1885-1899.
  • Ephraim King Wilson (Democrat - MD) U.S. senator 1885-1891.