The antique silver heart container the photo above is known as a hovedvandsoeg in Denmark. Other Scandinavian countries and some North European countries have different names for them but they have traditionally been associated with Denmark. The word means ‘head water egg’ but it was usually translated into English as being vinaigrette. However, hovedvandsoeg first evolved before vinaigrettes and have distinctive shapes. They were first used in the 15th century against the plague, once thought to be caused by ‘bad air’, and were used by the wealthy. Early forms of them had a number of compartments for holding aromatic oils, vinegars and spices and were constructed from a range of materials such as silver, wood, brass, bone and ivory, and sometimes gold.
The move from being an item only available to the rich to something used by the urban bourgeoisie occurred during the 18th century, and they gradually filtered down to the peasant class towards the middle of the 1800s where they became associated with betrothal customs.
The shape of hovedvandsoegs varied over the centuries. Despite the fact that the name implies an ovoid shape, few have survived. Generally, older ones were covered vessels or bottles but other recognisable shapes are hearts, hearts with a foot, fish, lions, boxes, vases and watches. One shape that remained constant throughout was the heart-shape. It is hard to date them because of this, although footed hearts are generally more recent than heart shapes without a foot. All hovedvandsoegs had a closed compartment with a lid, usually gilded inside because of the corrosive nature of the liquids in which the sponge carried inside had been dipped.
From around the 1820s, hovedvandsoegs are usually referred to as betrothal gifts. Often the initials of the couple were pin pricked onto the container or engraved. This one also has a bale so it could be worn as a pendant or as part of a chatelaine.
Anyone interested in finding out more about hovedvandsoeg should read the following thesis, available online:
The social and artistic development of hovedvandsoeg in Denmark, 1720-1860
Madson, Michelle Audrey, Ph.D.
University of Minnesota, 1990