A MATCHBOX-SIZED ANTEDOTE FOR THE GREAT STINK
The proliferation of period dramas over recent years on television means that we are all quite familiar with the sights of 18th and 19th century life, or at least, a fictionalised and generally quite delightful version thereof. Similarly, the sounds of such times are also preserved in the musical scores and descriptive terms for styles of performance which have remained constant over the years, and the tastes of foodstuffs must remain at least passably similar to when their receipts were first recorded by Mrs Isabella Beeton – but what of the smells which pervaded every aspect of life some 200 years ago ? These are largely lost, and – for the most part – that would seem to be a very good thing indeed.
The new trend for social history which is also prevalent makes no bones about exposing the travails of everyday life in former times, particularly in urban areas, where the stench of large populations living in close proximity with non-existent sanitation meant that a fetid air, quite literally, pervaded every aspect of one’s day.
As always, there was a solution at hand, especially for those with the wherewithal to take steps to distance themselves from the great unwashed. We have already noted the range of ceramic pastille burners which were used to mask the obtrusive stench of ordure in the domestic environment, but what about when one was compelled to leave the confines of one’s abode and venture in to the not quite as fresh as you may have wished for air of the great outdoors ?
In simple terms, a portable solution was required and, from the latter part of the 18th century onwards, this was effected by the use of what came to be known as vinaigrettes – metallic, predominantly silver, boxes designed to hold squares of sponge or cloth which had been doused in some scented salve or unguent and which could be held under the nose to mask the worst excesses of effluvial stench as one took one’s promenade.
As ever, the fact that you were sufficiently seemly to demonstrate the need for such refinement, and had the spare cash to afford the utility to do so, became qualities that any polite member of society worth their salt was required to advertise. As a result, these vinaigrettes became indispensable status symbols, and the best made, the most finely chased, the most intricately pierced examples would be displayed without candour as a matter of import. Fortunately, little decorated silver boxes were relatively easy to produce, and the market was inundated with them which means that there are many examples which still exist, in the same manner as gin glasses. That said, with every silversmith keen to jump on the bandwagon, there is also a very wide range of styles from which today’s collector may choose, the majority of which can be picked up for a modest price.
They do seem to be really rather elegant, perhaps more like a relic from a dressing table or fine dining set, but please do not lose sight - or more properly scent - of the fact that they were actually required to mitigate against the truly appalling smell of late Georgian, Regency and Victorian life. Those prim and spritely sorts from Jane Austen’s novels may appear to trip lightly from one frightfully engaging escapade to another with their tittering and simpering, but off stage, left, there would have been much retching and gagging, and reaching for their little silver boxes of odorous allevation…