Times past were not always fragrant, and our ancestors employed various methods to cover the plethora of noxious odors with which they often found themselves surrounded. Scent vinaigrettes, pomanders and perfumed handkerchiefs were effective enough while out and about in the streets of the city. However, by Tudor times, a special device had been developed to release a pleasant scent into the air in the home. These devices, called pastille burners, had become quite popular in aristocratic homes during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. By the time the Regency began, most upper class homes with any pretension to civility had at least one pastille burner. The very best houses usually had more than one.
When smoke was used to freshen a room …
The word pastille dates back to at least the fifteenth century and takes its name from the Latin, pastillus, which meant a small roll or little loaf of bread. Initially, they were tiny lozenges compounded of aromatic herbs blended with a sweetener which were used to freshen breath. They were also used as pills to deliver medicine, though they were chewed rather than swallowed whole at that time. Since they were often made with sugar, it was not long before pastilles were also made simply as candies, for a sweet treat. A new form of pastille was introduced in the mid-sixteenth century, but these pastilles were not made to be eaten, though they were still, in a sense, a sweet treat. These new pastilles were made to be burned in order to release pleasant scents into the air of an upper class home.
The pastilles which were made to release a pleasant scent when burned were not made commercially until well into the reign of Queen Victoria. During the Regency, as they had been for the previous century and a half, these scent pastilles were one of the products of the still rooms of the homes of the aristocracy and the gentry. Their production was usually made in accordance with a recipe or formula provided by the lady of the house, if not under her direct supervision. Scent pastilles were compounded of very finely ground charcoal, saltpetre, a binder and a fragrance. Charcoal made of willow wood was preferred, because it could be finely powdered and burned evenly without an abundance of smoke. Saltpetre was blended with the powdered charcoal, because it ensured the charcoal would continue to burn once it was set alight. In most cases, the proportions were one part of powdered saltpetre to about fifteen parts of powdered charcoal, though there are a number of formulas which use slightly more or less saltpetre. The binder was most often gum arabic or gum tragacanth, either of which was added to the powdered charcoal and saltpetre mixture in the amount necessary to create a stiff dough. The addition of either of these gums would ensure the pastilles remained firm once they had dried. The fragrance was usually added last, in the form of an essential oil, which had been distilled in the still room at some time prior to the making of the scent pastilles. Among the most popular scents were lavender, rose, jasmine, sandalwood and cedar, though there were a few recipes which included more expensive fragrances, such as myrrh, frankincense and orris.
After the fragrance oil was fully blended into the pastille dough, it was pressed into a number of small, conical molds. In most cases, these molds would produce scent pastilles which were about a half inch in diameter and about one and a half inches tall, though there were some which were larger. The scent pastilles would be left in the molds to dry for at least two days, though for larger pastilles, a number of recipes advise drying them for three to four days. Once the scent pastilles were fully dry, the small, hardened cones could be removed from the molds. They would then be ready for use, though there were a few recipes which directed that they should be allowed to continue to dry for a few more days to a week before they were considered ready for use. The fully dry scent pastilles were most often stored in air-tight containers to keep them dry and to help retain their fragrance until they were needed.
The earliest pastille burners were most often made of metal, usually brass or bronze, though quite a few were made of silver. However, by the latter half of the eighteenth century, porcelain had usurped the popularity of metal in the making of pastille burners. Porcelain, and its European variants, such as soft-paste porcelain and English bone china were just as resistant to flame as metal, with the added benefit that the ceramic body more readily spread and released the heat so that the porcelain pastille burners were not as hot to the touch when a pastille was burning. Porcelain could also be easily molded, allowing a much wider range of shapes to be made. The growing palette of glaze colors made it possible to produce very colorful and highly decorative pastille burners.
Initially, many porcelain pastille burners were made in shapes similar to those of the early metal burners, but it was not long before porcelain manufacturers were receiving requests from their wealthier patrons. Some wanted pastille burners which would blend with the other porcelain garniture in their public rooms, in order to camouflage their purpose and maintain the harmony of their decor. Others wanted something pretty and decorative for their more private rooms, the more eye-catching the better. By the 1760s, there were a growing number of porcelain manufactories which were producing diverse shapes molded to represent things of every day life. Sundry fruits and vegetables, animals and flowers were being made in porcelain, as were different types of buildings, from rural cottages to ancient castles. A number of wealthy landowners commissioned porcelain copies of some of the more interesting buildings on their properties to ornament their homes. Within a few years, the idea of using these porcelain structures as pastille burners gradually emerged.
The general shape of most buildings was ideal for the design of a pastille burner. Lots of open windows enabled a good flow of air through the burner to keep the pastille itself burning steadily. A building with a chimney had an obvious and appropriate outlet for the thin white smoke given off by the pastille as it burned. The irregular shape of many buildings which were used as models enabled the production of pastille burners in which it was easy to secrete the opening by which the pastille was inserted into the burner. As the concept of the picturesque emerged and expanded as the eighteenth century drew to a close, rustic buildings such as the cottage orné became a popular form of pastille burners. Cottages orné were typically rustic cottages set in an attractive and secluded rural setting. And at that time, the country was perceived to be a place of abundant and healthful clean air, free of all noxious smells. What more perfect combination for introducing a pleasant scent into one’s home than a pastille burner in the shape of a cottage orné, the quintessential source of health and fresh air?
By the Regency, there were two general types of pastille burners, those made to blend with existing garniture, usually found in public rooms, and those made in the shapes of cottages and other rural buildings, which were most often placed in more private family spaces. An example of the type made in the style of existing garniture can be seen here. This pair of pastille burners with matching spill vases, made at the Derby porcelain works in 1810, would have looked quite elegant on the mantlepiece of a tastefully furnished Regency drawing room or library. This set, made at Chamberlain’s Worcester porcelain manufactory in 1815, is equally elegant and sophisticated. For those who preferred more specifically classical ornament, Josiah Wedgwood produced a selection of pastille burners in his famous basaltware and jasperware, many of which were based on well-known objects from classical Greece and Rome. In the private family rooms, those who wanted a more relaxed and cozy space would favor a pastille burner in the shape of a rural cottage.
As was often done in the latter half of the eighteenth century, in the Regency many wealthy estate owners had pastille burners made in the shapes of some of their more attractive and decorative outbuildings. Favorite outbuildings for this purpose were dove cotes, gate-keeper’s lodges, dairy houses and intricate, flower-covered summer houses. Sometimes these custom-made pastille burners were displayed in their owner’s country homes, but more often they were taken to the family’s London house to be used for scenting the private rooms there. For those homesick for the country while in London, it was a small reminder of home. Other country building types which were popular for pastille burners were toll houses, churches and castles, real or fanciful. Many were covered with vines and brightly colored flowers. There were a number of methods by which the pastille could be placed inside the burner. In some cases, the roof of the building could be removed, in others the entire building could be lifted off the base, while in others a small section with a flat tray for the pastille could be pulled out of one side of the building. These small slides were often concealed as a bow window, an external chimney breast, or the gable wall side of a building.
The usual method for using a pastille burner was to place a pastille inside the burner, situated so that it was in the correct position to allow its smoke to escape through the appropriate opening. Since matches as we know them had not yet been developed in the Regency, pastilles were most often lit by the use of a spill. A spill was a long, thin sliver of wood or a twisted length of scrap paper. Due to the high cost of paper, spills during the Regency were more often long slivers of wood than they were twisted lengths of paper. Spills were typically stored in small vases made for the purpose and were kept on the mantlepiece, or near the pastille burner. The spill would be lit, from the fire in the room, or by use of a tinderbox, and then it would be held to the tip of the pastille cone until it caught fire. The cover would be placed on the burner, or, if it was the type with a slide, that part of the burner would be slid into place. A one and one half inch tall pastille cone would usually burn for about twenty minutes, giving off its scent along with a thin white smoke. The scent could linger in the room for another twenty or thirty minutes more once the pastille had burned out.
A few pastille burners were made to serve multiple purposes. Some pastille burners were made in the form of castles in which a circular opening was left in one tower. A watch could be placed in that circular opening, turning that castle tower into a clock tower. Churches, lodges, dove cotes and summer houses might have a depression molded into them which could hold a small bottle of ink and/or pen tray. Such pastille burners were most often used on desks and writing tables. In some households, pastille burners might be used as pot pourri holders, either when there were no pastilles available, or if there was some reason not to burn them. During the latter years of the Regency, the molds used for pastille burners were sometimes also used to make money boxes. The slot into which the money could be deposited was usually at the back of the porcelain building. After 1825, when self-consuming wicks for candles were developed, many pastille burners doubled as night-lights.
From the latter decades of the eighteenth century, right through the Regency, it is estimated that close to two-thirds of the porcelain pastille burners made during those years were custom work. These were usually commissioned by wealthy members of the aristocracy and the gentry, often to match garniture in their best public rooms or as replicas of buildings on their own properties. The remainder of porcelain pastille burner production was made for sale to those of the lower gentry and the upper middle classes who were striving to imitate their betters. As the Regency progressed, a number of porcelain manufacturers began producing an increasing number of pastille burners for the burgeoning middle classes who were seeking a fashionable and decorative means by which to "purify" the air in their homes. By 1820, the production of porcelain pastille burners, especially those in the form of whimsical buildings, had become a thriving business which continued through the rest of the nineteenth century.
There are a few antique dealers which handle pastille burners and have web pages at their sites. The links below will take you to a selection of dealer pages which have pictures of a wide range of these charming porcelain structures:
- Andrew Dando
- Live Auctioneers
- Richard Gould Antiques, Ltd.
- Ray and Diane Ginns
- John Taylors
- Google Image Search: pastille burner cottage
During the Regency, pastille burners seem to have been used most often in urban dwellings, such as a London town house, to protect against the noxious fumes prevalent in the city. However, there were a number of people who so enjoyed the fragrance provided by pastille burners that they used them in both their city and country houses. In the Regency, pastille burners were sometimes used to freshen the air in a sickroom. This practice became much more common after about 1820, when the production and use of pastille burners significantly expanded. Some records suggest that pastilles were occasionally made with the inclusion of certain medicinal compounds which were supposedly released into the sickroom when the pastille was burned. However, there is very little detail available on this use of pastilles. There is also no evidence to suggest that pastille burners were made available in the rooms of servants or other household staff. However, many hostesses would make sure that pastille burners were placed in any rooms used by guests to fully ensure their comfort.
Dear Regency Authors, might there be a place in one of your stories for a pastille burner? Perhaps some eccentric character has a horror of the air in London, or even Bath, and keeps pastilles burning in her room at all times. On the other hand, a character might have a pastille burner in her room, yet seldom, if ever, burns any pastilles in it, and becomes quite cross if anyone else tries to do so. What might she be hiding in that pastille burner? Mayhap the heroine, the companion to an elderly lady, is knowledgeable about various herbs and makes special pastilles for her employer which release a sleep-inducing fragrance when burned. When the elderly lady and the heroine are taken captive by the villain, will the heroine use her special pastilles to drug the thug who is minding them so that she can escape and get help? Are there other ways in which you can envision as pastille burner serving a purpose in one of your tales?