So – what a timely announcement of festive glee – there will be a degree of cuddlesome cosiness over yuletide after all, with families allowed to mingle and spend some extended time in close proximity to their nearest and dearest – how delightful!


Viral transmission, bickering, sniping and backstabbing notwithstanding, it will – at least – be a relatively fragrant festive period, after a fashion – certainly when compared to the sort of extended close encounters ‘enjoyed’ by our forebears. Although the archetypal Dickensian Christmasses of yore were – obviously – blessed with almost guaranteed snow, cheery carol-singers, endless hearty feasting and general bonhomie, there would have been an underlying and all-pervading stench of humanity underpinning the heady scent of roasting chestnuts and mulled wine. Life in the 19th century, when it came to the smells of daily existence, was lived very much in the raw.


We’ve addressed in the not too distant past the means by which this was dealt with by seemly gentlefolk when out and about in public, by the acquisition of vinaigrettes. These small scent-laden boxes could be deftly deployed under one’s nose at moments of maximum malodorousness to mask any number of noisome niffs, but what if the source of the fetor was, well, a little closer to home?


Domestic life, as we all know, has the propensity to generate any number of smells; blocked drains, improperly stored food, the daily travails of the great unwashed – but to a greater or lesser extent these can be easily masked by deodorant sprays, a swift squirt of bleach, or increased mechanical ventilation. None of these remedies were, however, available a couple of hundred or so years ago, so a more practical approach was taken on board – much like the current use of incense sticks.


For several hundred years, the problem of foul breath had been addressed by chewing cachous – small lozenges of herbs, scented extracts, sweeteners and binding agents which acted as masking agents. It was but a short step to extend the use of such technologies to impart pleasing odours to ones otherwise fetid living space, by burning tablets of similarly smell-laden material in order to suffuse your home with delightful aromas. Rather than sweeteners to make the pilules more palatable, however, they included charcoal and saltpetre to extend their burn time and prolong the infusive effect. At first, the things were simply placed on mantle shelves or tabletops in shallow wooden bowls to protect the surface on which they stood, but inevitably metalworkers realised that there was a niche market to be exploited, and these dishes became more decorated and complicated – recumbent lions under oak trees bearing acorns in which the pastilles could be housed, perforated urns adorned with squirrels and trailing vines – anything which evoked the open countryside and fresh air. 


The use of these scented pastilles accelerated during the Regency period, when the all-encompassing fancy for the artistic representation of bucolic, pastoral life was also at its height. With porcelain becoming readily available as a material for domestic wares, it was a propitious dovetailing of these two elements which saw a sudden proliferation of miniature china cottages, byres and farmhouses in which your pastille could be placed as it burned – and so much the better if the smoke could swirl up through a scaled down chimney for added effect! 


Any number of types of these ‘pastille burners’ as they were to become known were produced, with all the leading porcelain makers of the day getting in on the act, so they are eminently collectible from a number of perspectives. It’s worth remembering, therefore, that when you furtively reach for a jasmine and patchouli joss stick to shrive the sprout-laden atmosphere of your home this Christmas, you are – at least in part – replicating the means by which similar pungencies have been mitigated against for hundreds of years.

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