Before Vanilla:   Rose Water in the Regency

Some time ago, I wrote an article about the uses and applications of orange flower water during the Regency. It was one of the most popular ingredients used in cooking, medicines and perfumes in that decade, second only to rose water. So, it seems it is about time that the focus was turned on the uses of rose water during our favorite period. As with a number of other things which have been discussed in articles here, the Regency was something of a watershed between the popularity of rose water as a flavoring in food, and the just emerging, and much more exotic flavoring, vanilla.

Rose water during the Regency . . .

It is generally believed that rose water first originated in Persia, possibly as early as 300 A.D. Even before that time, roses were used in the making of medicinal and cosmetic preparations and in a number of foods, in addition to their use in perfumes. By the Middle Ages, rose water was also being used across Europe for a wide array of purposes. The majority of perfumes based on roses were made with attar of roses, or rose oil. Rose water was a by-product of the process by which attar of roses was produced. There were two primary species of roses which were used in the making of attar of roses. Rosa damascena, commonly known as the Damask rose, has a strong, fine fragrance and was grown in the near and far east as well as in southern and eastern Europe. Rosa centifolia, known commonly as the cabbage rose, is believed to be a descendant of the Damask rose. Cultivated widely in Egypt, Morocco and France, cabbage roses also posses a rich, sweet scent that survives the distilling process as well as Damask roses. Though these two species of roses were the most widely used in the making of attar of roses, other rose species were sometimes also used. However, Damask and cabbage rose petals typically yielded the most rose oil.

For centuries, the very valuable attar of roses was produced through a process of double steam distillation of freshly picked rose petals. It was generally understood that the best attar of roses was made from rose petals which had been hand picked from new, fully expanded rose blooms, early in the morning, preferably before full sunrise. In fact, most first-rate attar of rose distillers would refuse to use any rose petals which had been picked after the sun had risen. Less demanding rose distillers would accept petals which had been picked before mid-day. It was believed that extended exposure to sunlight would diminish the oil, and thus, the power of the fragrance in the rose petals. Some rose distillers went so far as to hire only women to harvest their rose petals in the pre-dawn hours. This was done under the assumption that women had a more delicate touch and therefore would cause less damage to the fragile petals, thereby retaining more of the precious oil in the petals until they could undergo the distilling process.

Within an hour or so after they were picked, the fresh rose petals were placed in the vat of a still, typically made of copper or tinned iron. The petals were covered with clean water and stirred by hand to ensure they were separated and suspended in the fluid. A low fire was set under the vat, and as soon as it began to gently boil, the domed cover of the still was clamped down on the vat. As the water boiled, the steam rose into the cover and would condense in the pipe system attached to it, slowly draining off into a separate container. The heat would be gradually reduced as the distillation process continued, until at least half of the water in the vat had been captured in the second container. This process usually took from four to six hours, depending upon the amount of water which had been placed in the vat with the rose petals. The newly distilled rose water would then be poured into a clean vat, into which would be added another batch of freshly picked rose petals. The distilling process was then repeated.

While still warm, the doubly distilled rose water was then poured into large shallow dishes, typically of stoneware or tin, and left to cool overnight. By morning, the precious rose oil would have congealed and risen to the surface of the cooled distilled water. The clear or pale yellow rose oil was carefully skimmed off and bottled. In addition to the very labor-intensive distilling process, it took at least ten kilograms of fresh rose petals to make a single gram of attar of roses, which is why the final product was so rare and extremely expensive. That high cost may well be why attar of roses was sometimes known as scented gold. Once the rose oil was skimmed off, the remaining rose water was also drained from the cooling dishes and bottled. Though rose water was essentially a by-product of the making of attar of roses, it also had a high value and its sale substantially bolstered the income realized by most attar of rose distillers.

The distillation and use of attar of roses and rose water gradually moved north across the Continent from the Mediterranean countries through the Middle Ages, where it became very popular in France. Its use then essentially halted at the southern edge of the English Channel. For well over a century, attar of roses and rose water were seldom used in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. It appears that attar of roses and rose water finally began making some inroads into the royal court of Great Britain in the seventeenth century, probably after some of the British royal princes married French princesses. Attar of roses, known in England as otto of roses, became a popular ingredient in many perfumes, while rose water found its way into a number of medicinal and cosmetic preparations, along with a wide array of gourmet dishes and even some beverages. By the end of the seventeenth century, rose water was not only used by many people in Britain, it was also being distilled there, though in much smaller quantities than it was in Europe. In particular, apothecaries distilled small quantities of rose water for use in their medicinal preparations. From at least the beginning of the eighteenth century, London apothecaries preferred rose water made from red roses, which were believed to have greater healing power.

The Romans were among the first people to record the healing properties of rose water. They had formulas for treating more than thirty different ailments, all of which called for the inclusion of rose water. By the Middle Ages, there were hundreds of medical preparations which included rose water and additional formulas were developed during subsequent centuries. Rose water has anti-bacterial properties, which helped to speed the healing of cuts and other wounds to which it was applied. Since it also kept the skin soft and moist, topical ointments made from rose water had the added benefit of reducing any scarring. Rose water was used to reduce irritation of the skin and also of the eyes. By the eighteenth century, rose water was thought to be the best treatment for blood-shot eyes. However, medical preparations made of rose water were not only applied externally, they were also taken internally. Rose water, either on its own, or sometimes blended with other ingredients, was believed to strengthen the organs, protect the heart and relieve indigestion. It was an important ingredient in preparations which were used to ease menstrual pain. Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, rose water was an important ingredient in preparations intended to relieve sore throats and ease coughing. By the eighteenth century, it was known that the fragrance of rose water could soothe a headache and calm upset nerves. Even today, aroma therapy which incorporates rose water has been found to promote more relaxed breathing, dispell stress and even help to reduce blood pressure. During the Regency rose water was commonly used in many medicinal preparations, including skin ointments, eye drops, cough syrups and throat lozenges.

Though she was certainly not the first, Cleopatra was one of the most famous women in ancient times to employ rose water as part of her beauty regimen. She regularly washed her face, and even bathed in rose water. It is known today that rose water helps to maintain the PH level of the skin, thus reducing oils, which makes it an effective skin toner and cleanser. It also aids in the stimulation of the circulation in the tiny blood vessels of the skin, which reduces disfiguring broken veins and capillaries. Rose water tones, smooths and moisturizes the skin and its anti-oxidant properties help to strengthen the skin cells and regenerate the tissues, which can also aid in the prevention of fine lines and wrinkles. The same properties which made rose water ideal for skin care also made it very effective for hair care. Shampoo which included rose water would gently clean the hair and scalp of grease and oil as well as dirt. Since it would also moisturize the scalp, rose water shampoo would reduce or even prevent dandruff. A conditioner made of rose water and glycerin would moisture the hair, reducing dryness and frizziness. It would also increase circulation in the scalp which would strengthen the hair thereby reducing split ends and other breakage. Many people also believed that regular applications of rose water to the hair and scalp would stimulate increased hair growth. As part of their regular toilet, some Regency women, who preferred a lighter fragrance, splashed on a little rose water in preference to wearing heavy perfumes.

From ancient times, rose water had been considered a luxury and, in addition to medicinal and cosmetic preparations, this fragrant flower water had become a very popular flavoring for a number of foods. The Persians are believed to be the first people who used rose water as a flavoring in a vast array of dishes, both sweet and savory. This cooking practice was carried to Spain during the Moorish conquest, then gradually spread across Europe during the Middle Ages. By the eighteenth century, the use of rose water as a flavoring had been adopted in Britain and it continued to be used as such right into the Regency. However, in Britain, rose water was seldom used in savory dishes, it was most often used to flavor sweet dishes and beverages. In fact, rose water and orange flower water were often used interchangeably as a flavoring in English cooking from the eighteenth century right through the Regency.

By the Regency, rose water was used to flavor a host of custards, possets, cakes, biscuits and pastries, as well as icings, flavored butters and clotted creams. It was also used as a flavoring in sweet syrups, desserts like jellies, meringues and syllabubs, in addition to a host of conserves, jams and candies. Both Elizabeth Raffald and Hannah Glasse included several recipes using rose water for a host of different dishes and beverages in their cookbooks. In some of those recipes, it was noted that either rose water or orange flower water could be used interchangeably, at the cook’s preference. Rose water, as with orange flower water, could also be sprinkled over puddings or cakes, just before serving, to increase their flavor.

Vanilla, like chocolate, was first discovered, cultivated and used by the ancient peoples of Mexico. The first Europeans to enjoy vanilla were the Spanish, who conquered those lands in the sixteenth century. For many decades thereafter, the Spanish were able to control vanilla production and restrict it to Mexico. However, in 1819, some determined Frenchmen were able to smuggle some of the fruits of the vanilla plant out of Mexico. They transported them to islands under French dominion in the Indian Ocean. With care and perseverance, they were able to successfully propagate vanilla plants there and grow them on a commercial scale. Though vanilla was known in Regency England, it was an extremely rare, expensive and seldom-used flavoring. It would not be until the middle of the nineteenth century that vanilla became so readily available that it was more commonly used in English cooking. It was only then that vanilla gradually usurped the position held by rose water in the making of many English desserts and other sweet dishes. But during the Regency, desserts and other sweets were much more likely to be flavored with rose water than with vanilla.

Though rose water could be purchased in England ready-made by the eighteenth century, as were other ingredients used in cooking, medicinal preparations and beauty compounds, it could also be made at home. Elizabeth Raffald, among other authors of household recipe books, included instructions for distilling rose water, along with other popular flower waters. This was something which ladies, or their servants, routinely did in the still rooms of many country houses each year when the roses in their gardens were in bloom. However, these home-made rose waters could vary in strength and potency depending upon the species from which the rose petals were gathered and the volume of petals used in a given batch. These home distilled rose waters also differed from those which were commercially available at that time, since they seldom included the production of attar, or otto, of roses. Though some rose oil might have been distilled from the rose petals, the amounts were negligible and were seldom, if ever, separated from the distilled rose water. Therefore, home distilled rose waters, even if they were not made from Damask or cabbage roses, might have a stronger scent, if they contained that small bit of otto of roses which had not been skimmed away. The fragrance of home-made rose waters could also vary widely, since the species of roses from which they were made could also vary.

Dear Regency Authors, now that you know more about the uses of rose water during our favorite period, might you allow one or more of your characters to make use of it in an upcoming romance? Perhaps the heroine uses rose water shampoo , and compliments it with a splash of rose water in preference to heavy perfumes. Will the hero be attracted to her light, fresh, yet delicate scent over that of the more heavily perfumed young ladies of his acquaintance? On the other hand, perhaps the heroine, who keeps house for her father, regularly distills a number of flower waters, including rose water, from which she makes a host of medicinal preparations. When the hero is injured in a carriage accident and is taken into her home for care, will he complain about the feminine fragrance of the ointment which she uses to dress his wounds, even though he is healing quickly and with little scarring? Yet, will that same hero find the heroine’s possets, cakes and puddings, all flavored with her own home-distilled rose water, particularly delicious? Are there other ways in which rose water might heal, scent or flavor a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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13 Responses to Before Vanilla:   Rose Water in the Regency

  1. Funnily enough, the heroine with lacklustre hair and skin in a WIP made up of spin off novellas has been recommended the use of rose water! I used it in the dressing of my mother’s leg ulcers, and found it very effective.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your real-life experiences. My grandmother swore by rose water and glycerin as the best skin lotion when I was growing up. I always loved it, partly for the fragrance and partly because Grandma recommended it. It used to be readily available in most stores when I was young. I wish I could still find it these days, it would be great to be able to use it again.



      • I confess to getting it on Amazon, but you have to check it’s distilled rose water not something called rose water used just for flavouring. Mine’s from one of the Stans, I forget which. I must try it with glycerin now I am suffering the vicissitudes of menopausal dry skin. My rose petals go into rose petal wine, because I can buy rose water, and you can’t buy rose petal wine. Life’s about choices …
        and I need to replace my huge ancient Papa Meilland which upped and died a couple of years back having travelled over about 60 years over most of the east of England because the scent and flavour are the best.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          You certainly have more options on that side of the pond. I have never used Amazon and never will, so that is not an option for me. However, I had not thought of looking for rosewater and glycerin online. It just seemed something old-fashioned from my childhood which I did not even think to connect with modern technology.

          My condolences on the passing of your rose. One can grow attached to them. I had an antique rose which grew in my yard for many decades and I was crushed when it died. The only saving grace was that one of my friends had taken cuttings many years ago and was able to get them to grow in her yard. So, even if the parent rose is dead, the child rose lives on.


  2. Summer says:

    Well, mine’s kind of anti-romantic… my heroine does a lot of distilling and tea-blending and this guy she likes catches her mid-rose-harvest, only to be whisked away on a mysterious errand that the heroine is positive involves another woman. She decides to sneak after him, and as a less awful proxy for the heartbreak she expects, worries about the roses she’s left to molder.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Well, she certainly should worry, since those rose petals will be lost to her if she cannot harvest and distill them fairly quickly, since roses in those days had a rather short growing season. I do hope the mysterious errand is worthwhile and will not lead to heartbreak!



  3. chasbaz says:

    In UK the real distilled stuff can be found at which is run by the son of my school-friend John Scarman, the rose-breeder.

  4. chasbaz says:

    Maybe this would do, Kat?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Oooohhh!!! Not only is that company in the US, they are in Massachusetts. In fact, they are based in Andover, which is just north of Boston, and near where one of my best friends lives.

      Thank you very much!!!!


  5. Pingback: Liquid Magic:   Lavender Water Through the Regency | The Regency Redingote

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