Monday, August 8, 2011

Seventeenth Century Aromatherapy

In the seventeenth century
many grander houses in England had a "still-room". This was originally a brewing chamber, but was soon taken over by women for alternative uses - drying herbs or spices, making sweet vinegars for cosmetic or medicinal use, particularly perfumed waters to ward off disease and scent the air.

Most perfumes were imported from the Netherlands and France where they had been made popular by Catherine de Medici in Tudor times. These ingredients were on sale at the apothecaries, the spicers, and the florists, so home-made perfumes were popular too.

Common ingredients were flowers such as lavender or pinks, called gillyflowers in those days, and imported spices such as cloves and nutmeg. If the lady was able to afford it, she would have small quantities of musk or civet oil to bind the perfume into a paste.

For makinge a sweet parfume.

Take jasmine, lavender and orange flowres and mixe well in a quart of aqua vitae and rosewater.

Put into it crushed root of labdanum, sweet flag, cloves, cinnamon, amber and storax. Add a few graines of oil of musk and civet mixed with honey for its sweetnesse.
Set to soake for three days in the sun until the flowers have lost their scent. Straine well. Use to sweeten a smellinge box.

A 'smellinge box' is what we might call a pomander. In England there was another word for it, a Pouncet box. The word 'pouncet' is from the french 'pounce' or pierce, because of the pierced metalwork, usually silver, which held a small rag or sponge soaked in perfume. These were usually strung from the waist by a silk cord or a silver chain. Later they became known as vinaigrettes and were used to contain "smelling salts" a powerful mixture of wormwood, sage, mint and rue in vinegar, which supposedly revived fainting ladies, and disinfected the room.

We are used to seeing pomanders at christmas where we can make a simple one, (similar to one carried by Henry v111 to ward off disease), by sticking cloves into an orange. Below is an example of a 17th century pouncet boxes.

I remember making perfume at home as a child by gathering rose petals and squashing them into a jam jar to make rose-water. The results were more often than not - floating brown mush at the bottom of the jar and a pale liquid that smelt only vaguely of roses. Has anyone else made perfume at home?

My next novel "The Gilded Lily" features an emporium devoted to women's cosmetics in the fashionable Restoration London, and a rogue up to no good.

My current novel, "The Lady's Slipper" is an adventure and romance and features a flower used medicinally. It's out now and you can read an extract here RT Book reviews Top Pick.


Debra Brown said...

Wonderful information. If only life were simple enough to spend time on those things, but if we could keep the good things of our time. I would think ladies had no time for making perfumes unless they had maids to do the laborious laundry, slaughter the animals and cook everything from scratch.

Deborah Swift said...

Hi Debra,
I guess we prioritize our time differently now too, spending more time with technology such as the internet and TV. And the evening activities would have been dominated by how much light (ie candles) you could afford to buy!

Stephanie Burkhart said...

Oh my gosh, I would love to try to make this in my home. It smells heavenly just reading about it!