Growing up in a family of second generation Swedish Canadians, try as they might to keep an English speaking household, there were always some terms that followed my parents from the old country. Lefse was a pretty obvious example, but that was the proper name given to the type of Norwegian flatbread my Mom would make — no one changed the names of Perogies or Baklava for a more Canadian-sounding name. So I didn’t know if snewze (as they pronounced it) was the Swedish word for “snuff” or what it was. To tell the story of the snewze box, I needed to do a bit of research.
Now I know it was snus, a powdered tobacco that was different from snuff. I found this from Wikipedia:
Snus (/ˈsnuːs/; Swedish pronunciation: [snʉːs]) is a moist powder tobacco product originating from a variant of dry snuff in early 18th-century Sweden. It is placed under the upper lip for extended periods. Snus is not fermented and contains no added sugar. Although used similarly to American dipping tobacco, snus does not typically result in the need for spitting and, unlike naswar, snus is steam-pasteurized.
The history of snus goes back a long way. In 1730 Virginia, USA opened the first snuff mills. Around that time, the French king, Henry II, introduced snuff to his wife in an effort to stop her migraine headaches, and it became popular with the aristocrats. In England, King George III’s wife, Charlotte, was a celebrity snuff addict, and became known as Snuffy Charlotte, always dipping her nose in it. Snuff was to be sniffed.
The Swedes liked trying whatever was popular at the time and they tried snuff and then found a way to refine it. They called that “snus” and instead of sniffing, snus was something they slowly sucked the flavour out of, hidden behind their upper lips.
Popular in Sweden
Since there’s no spitting required for snus, and it hides so easily, it’s a rather clean dirty habit, well, except for the damage that can be done to your teeth and gums. Interestingly, one of the conditions of Sweden entering the European Union was they could continue manufacturing and selling snus: after all this time, it’s still a popular vice there, although it’s illegal in the rest of the EU.
Although snus comes in tins, snuff boxes were all the rage amongst the aristocrats and some were decorated with rubies and diamonds, others had master painters decorate theirs with portraits, etc. I have no idea what my grandfather’s snus box looked like, but I’m sure it was a box, not a tin, and it was the one possession the family was sure to pack as they began their voyage by ship, emigrating to the USA.
The Stens were numerous even then and numbered nine in total. That included my father Peter and his aforementioned twin brother, Paul, their parents Anna and Per, and brothers Henry, Axel, Dave, Frank and Nils. And amongst their belongings was one cherished wooden box filled to the brim with snus.
1892 on the Atlantic Ocean
The twins were undoubtedly the cutest youngsters on the ship. Just two years old and with the blonde hair of many young Swedes, they were likely the center of attention. It must have been exciting for the older children of the Sten family too, as they were able to explore the ship. Most of the time, the older siblings were kept busy, taking turns minding the twins. It was quite the adventure.
The day the twins went playing in the Stens’ possessions and took the snus box up on deck, two things happened, right around the same time. The father, Per, saw his snus box was gone, and the mother, Anna, found her two youngest boys were missing.
The family went into panic mode, looking for their boys. When they were spotted, at last, the two were hanging over a guard rail, looking as they were about to fall in. The family yelled, “Stop!”, but the boys couldn’t hear: they were mesmerized by the water below. As the family got closer, they watched in horror as the boys lifted the snus box up and, together, threw it down into the Atlantic Ocean below. They giggled as they saw the box hit the water and disappear in the waves.
Whatever joy Peter and Paul felt as they watched the ocean waves engulf that box was definitely short-lived. My Dad recalled to me that “the two of them were not very popular” after this incident. I can only imagine!
Fingers were pointed as to who was responsible for what had happened, who should have been watching the twins, how could the box have gotten into their hands in the first place. At the end, the family arrived in the USA and the only item missing in action was the snus box. Which was a story that’s been retold in our family now for more that 120 years.