When I get past the the overall sumptousness of the Georgian period with its lush embroidered fabrics, exquisite flourishes of gilt and marble and precious imports, I inevitably think of the stench. It’s not a pleasant topic and one we–thank ye gods to modernity–can avoid when romantizing the past, but let’s face it, London was a sty. Even before the industrial age, the Thames was a gurgling pot of indelicacy, the streets teeming with what we shall call the ever present eau de malodorous monkey. In short, not good.
Mary Denton by George Gower – 1573
Pomander and Chain – 1526-1575
While men might have straightened their shoulders and suffered through the miasma (though they, too, had stench-ridding weapons), ladies and their sensitive sniffers required relief. They found it in the form of pomanders which first came to the rescue in the 14th century. Carried over from Arabia, these scented objects take the name from the French “pomme d’ambre“, referring to the pomme or apple shape of the container, and ambergris, the waxy resin substance used as the recipe’s base from which perfumes are then added.
Pomanders became popular in plague years when physicians theorized disease was trasmitted through befouled air. Alas, woefully untrue, as physicians would later discover, but pomanders still had plenty of practical uses. Worn around the neck or the waist for immediate access, their form was as varied as their bearer. Aristocrats carried perforated miniature globes made of fine metals and decorated with precious stones and/or intricate designs. These globes were the predecessors of the vinaigrette, used around the early 1700s throughout the mid 19th century. Similar to the popular orange and clove pomanders of today, the lower classes might fashion a ball of aromatic gum pounded with rose water and blended with wax. Occassionally the recipe included apple pulp. Sometimes a lanced bag filled with aromatics such as herbs and dried flowers would also be used.
Pomander – a very literal interpretation – late 16th -17th centuries
Although pragmatic, as stench has a way of emanating without proper sanitation, the vinaigrette box was first and foremost an object of pretension. Used almost exclusively by women by the 1820s, every female aspiring to the gentility wore one at her waist or stashed one in her reticule. They were mostly made of silver, sometimes gold, and were necessary accoutrements to improve a lady’s sense of comfort and grace. Their composition was slightly different than the pomander, having a hinged lid on the box and beneath that, a grill. As the vinegar was corrosive, the grill was often gilded to prevent deterioration to the silver from ascetic acid.
During this period only the finest vinagrettes sported grillwork in relief or ornamentation (the Victorians preferred their boxes to appear much like jewelry–examples of these are very pretty). Most had a simple punched grill. Novelty shapes did exist, mostly as wallet, satchels, and shells, although they could come in any shape one desired. Many of the surviving Georgian vinaigrettes bear the Birmingham stamp as 90% of English made vinaigrettes were manufactured there.
The basic recipe for the substance within the vinaigrette was exactly as we define vinaigrette today: vinegar with herbs and spices. The liquid was then added to the sponge that sat beneath the grill. Vinegar emits a strong odor, albeit not as splendiforous as violets or roses, but as anyone who has visited the circus and battled dung with a scented wrist can attest, shit covered in perfume is still shit. Vinegar, at least, wages the battle admirably.