My name is Sonny, and I have been interning at The Museum at Eldridge Street for five months now. As the education intern at the museum, one of my jobs is researching new and interesting facts to include in our tours and school programs. I’ve always been fascinated by history, especially the unusual parts that people are less likely to discuss! One thing I love about the Museum at Eldridge Street are the clues that teach us about the ways that the first congregants balanced their cultural and religious identities with the new American way of life they were now living – many of which are built right into the synagogue itself. Something that sparked my interest when I first visited the museum in 2008 was the snuff box in the Bes Medrash – it seemed totally out of place, as well as perfectly natural, and in my opinion is one of the parts of the synagogue that gives it’s first congregants a more human face. Recently, Miriam Bader asked me to do some research on the history of snuff to share with our docents, and I was very intrigued by what I found out!
What is “Snuff?”
Smokeless tobacco has been manufactured and sold across the globe for centuries, but was most popular in the United States during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The two main categories are dry and moist snuff. Dry snuff is pulverized tobacco, which a user would take a pinch of and sniff into their nose. Dry snuff was typically thought of as a European habit, hence it is also referred to as “European snuff.” In the United States the more typical form of smokeless tobacco has always been moist snuff. Commonly referred to as “dip,” moist snuff is a version of Snus, a Swedish smokeless tobacco which was brought to America by Swedish immigrants in the 19th century. Moist snuff is often confused with chewing tobacco, but their uses are slightly different: rather than chewing snuff, a person would take a pinch of the loose tobacco and place it between their lower lip and their gums. Sucking on the tobacco causes an excess of saliva to develop, making it necessary to spit into a container (or on the ground!), as swallowing can cause nausea or irritation to the esophagus. Long time users, however, can often swallow without any side effect, which is colloquially referred to as “gutting” it. It became popular because it was able to be used indoors, especially during long work days, when an employee might not get a cigarette break or might be required to use both hands to work.
At Eldridge Street
Since smoking was a common habit among Americans during the early days of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, it is not surprising that many of the male members of the congregation would use snuff during long services when they could not smoke cigarettes. Accordingly, the snuff box in the bimah in the Bes Medrash, which is one of the most unusual features of the architecture at Eldridge Street, does not seem so out of place when you consider the widespread nature of the habit at the time of the synagogue’s construction. During the synagogue’s hey-day, the congregation used a portion of their funds every year to purchase new spittoons, and had strict rules regarding spitting on the floor, as noted in the detailed minute books. These facts leave us with the assumption that many of the congregants used dip during services rather than European snuff, as dry snuff does not require the user to spit. Additionally, moist snuff was more popular in the U.S. at the time and therefore it was likely much easier to purchase. However, it is possible that the congregation might have provided dry snuff in the snuff box in the Bes Medrash. Either way, smokeless tobacco was a popular indulgence of the time that many of the congregants took part in, even during religious services.