“The firm of SALES, POLLARD & Co was established in 1750. It is one of the oldest houses in England in the Tobacco Trade. In the last century it had a great reputation for fine Rappee and Scotch Snuff, also for Saffron Cut Tobacco. The initials of the firm have been adopted as the name of a very popular Snuff, thereby proving the high repute of the house as Snuff Makers.”
Source: Advert for Sales, Pollard & Co
It is stated in the authoritative 1881 journal ‘Tobacco Whiffs for the Smoking Carriage’ that S.P snuff is named after Sales Pollard before they were renamed Sales, Pollard & Co, moving to Farringdon Street in 1871, and becoming what was possibly the largest tobacco manufactory in Britain. The text states that:
“Among the specialities manufactured by the firm, so often mentioned in this chapter, is the "S. P." Scotch snuff, originally manufactured when the house was known only as Sales & Pollard, the initial letters of which names were used to give a "brand" to this particular article. This snuff, however, was imitated by other houses before the present law as to trademarks was in force, and is now sold in large quantities, under the same brand, to the detriment of those who, though they are morally entitled to the exclusive enjoyment of the notoriety obtained by the article in question, have no legal remedy.”
The legal remedy referred to in the above text was attempted in 1875 when Sales Pollard was moved to register S.P as a trademark. Alas, they were too late in their application for the reason given above. The 1878 result of the 1875 trademark application is as follows:
62O. Ex parte Sales Pollard & Co. [T. M. A. 1875].
“ON motion by the registered proprietors of a trade-mark on snuff, consisting of the letters "S.P." (the initials of the firm), which they had discovered, subsequently to registration, to have been in common use for many years in the snuff trade, though used originally by themselves : Leave given to rectify the register by striking out the mark in question.”
The Sales & Pollard trade-mark dispute over S.P snuff is cited in The Yale Law Journal Volume 20 No.1 of 1910 as an example of terms held publici jurus. The text explains that -
“Publici jurus words frequently used by tradesmen in a certain line of goods are said to be common to the trade. Of course, the true test is whether the use of the word “has ceased to deceive the public” as to the maker of the article and whether the word is current in the market amongst those “who are more or less directly connected with the use of the commodity to which the word is applied......Where three people use the name and at least two of them innocently, there is no proprietorship.”
Source: Yale Law Journal
But the true origin of S.P is also recorded in The Parliamentary Papers: Volume 39, page 60.
“1511. What is the real meaning of S.P., is it a trade brand? - S.P. refers to Sales and Pollard. Those letters are the initials of the manufacturers who were the originators of that kind of snuff. There is no trade mark in them but people have stuck to the initials.”
But people have stuck to the initials! So there we have it. Sales Pollard, operating before brands could be trade-marked, lost proprietorship of the name S.P. due to two or more competitors using the same name. Interpretations of S.P as standing for Spanish Prize or Sheffield Pride – neither of which can be qualified by any evidence - or any of the other suggestions may be discounted in favour of the less glamorous Sales Pollard – once Britain’s largest tobacco manufacturer, now no longer existing even in memory. W.D. & H.O. Wills & Sons acquired the business in 1893 and it ceased to exist as a company.
Hopefully, when next taking a pinch of S.P, suitable dedication may be made to the moral entitlement of Sales Pollard to the snuff that still bears their initials. It is their final epitaph.
SPECIFIC NOTE ON THE VIGO ACTION: Many books and articles claim the Vigo action of 1702 as the source of SP (here meaning "Spanish" or "Spanish Prize") after Admiral Sir George Rooke captured hundreds of casks of fine Havana snuff, which were sold according to Prize Law in English ports and cities. This event is perfectly true, but what and where are the original sources to confirm that it was sold specifically as the abbreviation for Spanish? All early sources state that the 1702 booty was sold in England as "Vigo Snuff" at three or four pence a pound, and described as “gross snuff from the Havannah“. The book ‘Social life in the reign of Queen Anne: Taken From Original Sources’ by John Ashton, for example, details the Vigo operation and its commercial aftermath but makes no reference to either Spanish snuff or the alleged abbreviation. (pages 158-159). In other words there is no evidence whatsoever to link the Vigo plunder with snuff abbreviated to SP: the claim only has a basis in myth, and repetition of that myth.
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