If we went back in time, say, to the Roman era, the Middle Ages or the Elizabethan era, the first thing that would strike us on arrival would be the smell. Streets were full of the smells of human sewerage, animal droppings, smoke and people generally. Markets had open stalls of meat, fish and animal skins, with no refrigeration to stop food from going rancid. In Rome, despite their public baths and sewerage systems, there was no real understanding of health and how disease spread. To drown out the smells, the wealthy used pot pourri and scented oils to perfume their houses, rubbed scented oil on their bodies and hair, and sprayed rosewater over dinner guests.
The Middle Ages were a grim time. Crusaders did bring back to Europe perfumes, oils and public bathing but the latter over time turned into brothels and in England were closed down by Henry VIII did not to open again until the early to mid 19th century. Perfume remained the best way to keep smelling nice, whether it was burning scented herbs or pastilles in the house, or sprinkling scented water on clothes and furnishings. The wealthy began to carry scented items, like the amber ball, comprised of ambergris, often with musk, herbs and spices added or an orange studded with cloves and rolled in cinnamon and spices. Sometimes, the orange was hollowed out and filled with a sponge soaked in vinegar. The scented balls became known as ‘pomanders’, from the old French Pomme d’embre, meaning apple or ball of amber. The word embre was a general term for perfume.
Rather than carrying an orange around or a scented amber ball, men began to have small silver boxes containing perfume fitted to the top of their ebony sticks or staff, and women began to wear silver pomanders as a part of their belt chatelaine, rather than attaching scent bags. Some were even worn as rings or bracelets. Jewellers devised charming little silver boxes and bottles that could be hung on a chain, some containing a sponge soaked with oil or aromatic vinegar, others just perfume and some with two compartments for both.
In my next post, I will talk about vinaigrettes.