University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Seward's Gold Snuffbox

Volume XIV · Spring 1959 · Number 3
Seward's Gold Snuffbox

An enameled and jeweled gold snuffbox of startling beauty, once owned by William Henry Seward, Secretary of State in Lincoln's administration, is an important addition to the Seward memorabilia in Rush Rhees Library. Given to the University by Mrs. William H. Seward III, the exquisitely dainty box--it is only four inches long and one inch wide--has all the perquisites of a rare and valuable antique: age, beauty of design, and historical significance. It was made in the eighteenth century by one of the finest craftsmen of the goldsmith's art. As a container for snuff, it records a social custom, which happily is no longer in fashion; and it was owned by one of our greatest national figures. With other mementos and the Seward official papers relating to the purchase of Alaska, it is now on display in the William Henry Seward Room of Rush Rhees Library.

Made of 18 carat gold (66 pennyweights' worth) it is wholly covered with a pinkish enamel which takes on the iridescent tones of the tiny opals--128 in all--which are set around the top, sides and bottom. On the bottom and inside of the cover, it is stamped with the punch mark of the maker, Edmé Pierre Balzac, a master goldsmith working in Paris before the Revolution, 1769. As required by the strict regulations of the Goldsmiths' Guild, his initials appear in a cartouche beneath a crowned fleur-de-lis. Another mark, a crowned "f" between two dots, is the warden's, or duty, mark, indicating that the required tax had been paid. The dots signify the margin the maker was allowed to vary from the then gold standard of 20¼ carats. In the top of the leather case is the trademark, lettered in gold, of M. Laurent, a fashionable jeweler, located at 54-55 Palais Royal, from whom, presumably, the snuffbox was purchased.

The great age of snuff taking was the eighteenth century, and boxes made during the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI are greatly and justifiably prized as vivid and elegant records of that golden age. Snuff itself was not always popular or even accepted. In 1634 Tsar Michael of Russia decreed that snuff takers should have their noses amputated. Even Louis XIV decried the evils of the habit--although he indulged himself--but to no avail. Women as well as men went right on snuffing, and it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that snuff taking went out of style.

Besides its intrinsic worth, exquisite craftsmanship, and historical connection, the Seward snuffbox has a romantic claim to fame. It was given to the Secretary of State by a grateful lady whom he had rescued from a most embarrassing situation. It seems that a clandestine love affair was being carried on during President Lincoln's administration by the ambassador of one power and the wife of another prominent diplomat. They used to meet, of all places, opposite the White House, in the little park, which was then enclosed by an iron fence. One evening they were so absorbed in each other that they did not notice when the fence was locked at 6 p.m. It so happened that the Secretary of State was strolling along Pennsylvania Avenue in the twilight when, out of the bushes, he heard the ambassador's frantic cry: "Mr. Secretary! For Heaven's sake help me !" The startled Seward eased over to the fence and got a briefing of the situation.

Anxious to avoid a diplomatic scandal, he went over to the White House to get a key. Unsuccessful, he then rummaged around the tool shed looking for a ladder. There the President found him, so the story goes, and wanted to know what was going on. Apprised of the difficulty, Lincoln, after overcoming his mirth, helped the Secretary carry a ladder across the street and together they rescued the distraught pair. Like most anecdotes connected with famous people, this story must be taken with a little sprinkling of salt, at least as far as the part played by the President is concerned. Among the Seward letters willed to the University in 1951 by Seward's grandson, William H. Seward III, is a letter written by the Secretary to the lady in question, thanking her for her gracious gift. The letter is dated June 12, 1866, more than a year after the death of Lincoln. It does not seem likely that Seward, who was the soul of courtesy, would have waited so long before sending his thank-you note.

"My dear Mrs.________, he wrote, "The snuffbox you sent me is of rare beauty and exquisite taste. A pinch from so magnificent a receptacle becomes a double luxury. But the quality for which I prize it is that its coming is the 'avant courier' of your own. I need not assure you how gratified we all shall be to welcome you once more to Washington." From this letter, it would appear that the teller of the tall tale above either didn't believe in spoiling a story for the sake of the truth or that the amorous episode took place, if it did at all, some time earlier. It also explains the small amount of snuff remaining in the box. Possibly Seward, like many others in high places, was a snuffer too.

Another memento, also on exhibit, is a gold cigar case which is equally rich and more important historically. It was presented to Seward by the Pioneer Society of California when, in the summer of 1869, after his retirement from office, he visited the West Coast. It commemorates Seward's part in the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Of 14 carat gold, it weighs 10¼ troy ounces, which represented a considerable outlay even in those lush days. There seems to be no sign of wear. No doubt, it was too heavy for any gentleman to carry in his waistcoat pocket. It is elaborately decorated with scenes representing two views of Alaska, with the words "Alaska" and "California" as part of the design. The superior craftsmanship and fineness of the engraving give it an almost photographic quality. On the cover Seward's name is inscribed in Old English letters in black enamel.

A bronze medal in the collection bears the inscription "Awarded to George E. Robinson by Act of Congress, March 1, 1871, for his heroic conduct on the 14th day of April, 1865, in saving the life of the Honorable William H. Seward, then Secretary of State." This recalls an incident which almost resulted in as great a tragedy as the assassination of the President. The Secretary was not able to attend the performance in the Ford Theater on that fatal night, being confined to his home with a broken arm and fractured jaw, suffered when he was thrown from his carriage on the fifth of April. Nine days later he was attacked by fellow conspirators of John Wilkes Booth, the Lincoln assassin, who gained access to his bedroom and severely slashed him about the neck and face, after striking down his son, Frederick W. Seward, who came to his rescue. It was only through the timely arrival and courage of Robinson that the would-be assassins were driven off.

Other important items are three solid silver plates which were part of a complete dinner service used in the Seward Washington home during his term of office. Made by Tiffany and engraved with the Seward monogram and the date, 1867, they are marked "Eng. (English) sterling 925-1000." This was and still is the standard for sterling silver in England. These beautiful heirlooms entrusted to the care of the University of Rochester, like the Seward papers, are significant records of our social history.