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Snuff Handkerchief: Detail from "Industry and Idleness Rewarded"

Detail from snuff handkerchief "Industry and Idleness," England, 1770–1785. Accession # 1950-104.

Gentlemen used handkerchiefs to wipe their faces after using snuff, a ground tobacco product that was sniffed up the nose. In the eighteenth century, many snuff handkerchiefs were handsomely printed and quite expensive. They were also considered a desirable fashion accessory.

Snuff handkerchiefs were often decorated with scenes telling a story with a moral. One such handkerchief in the Colonial Williamsburg collections is titled “Industry and Idleness Rewarded.” Printed in England between 1770 and 1785, the handkerchief depicts the progress of two servants—one bad (Jack Idle) and the other good (William Goodchild)—throughout their working lives. A portion of the border design also includes some extra illustrations labeled “Trade and Commerce” and “Transportation.”

All of the illustrations on this snuff handkerchief are interesting because they reveal wonderful details about eighteenth-century daily life. But, since this issue of the Teacher Gazette focuses on agriculture and tobacco, it is the “Transportation” image (shown above) that is of particular interest. The scene shows two men and a woman working in a tobacco field. Even though some of the scene's details are difficult to decipher, and it is an English interpretation of what American tobacco farming was like, there are some useful historical details. For example, the tobacco plants are shown planted some distance from one another and in widely spaced rows. The tobacco is also in full leaf and the two foreground plants are in bloom (especially the plant on the far right), indicating that the time of year is probably mid-summer. The men on the right-hand side are dressed as laborers wearing work clothes, including short jackets, breeches, and short trousers. One man also seems to be barefoot. Could these laborers be enslaved people? All three laborers are shown using a tool called a broad hoe. Broad hoes were designed specifically for tobacco cultivation and were used to “hill” around each plant and keep the ground clear of weeds.

While this depiction of a Virginia tobacco field may be somewhat primitive, it does help researchers corroborate—and challenge—some of our understanding of eighteenth-century agricultural practices.

This article was written by Frances Burroughs, Producer–Educational Media, Department of Education Outreach, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.