Liquid Magic:   Lavender Water Through the Regency

Last month, I posted an article here about rose water, which, like orange flower water, was a popular ingredient in a plethora of concoctions created through the centuries, including during the Regency. Another popular, and even more ancient flower water, which was widely used during the Regency, was lavender water. Like the other flower waters, lavender water was an essential element in a number of foods, medicines and cosmetics during our favorite decade. In addition, even during the Regency, lavender was believed to have a flock of powerful magical properties.

Lavender and lavender water through the Regency . . .

Lavender is an aromatic herb that has been know and used by many cultures for more than two and a half millenia. It is a member of the mint family, and despite the modern assumption that it is a quintessentially English plant, lavender is actually native to the area around the Mediterranean basin. The Ancient Egyptians are known to have used it in their mummification rituals and also distilled the oil for use as a component of cosmetics and fragrances. The Ancient Greeks and Romans both found a wide array of uses for lavender. In fact, it is believed that the name lavender is derived from the Latin word lavare, meaning to wash, since the Romans put lavender flowers in their baths, as well as in the water used to wash their clothes. The Romans had also discovered that extracts of lavender had healing properties, so many Roman soldiers carried lavender oil with them as they marched across Europe. By the Middle Ages, lavender was known and cultivated across most of the Continent and had an increasing number of uses. Unlike the Ancient Romans, many medieval laundresses did not add lavender flowers to their wash water. Rather, they spread their wet laundry on lavender bushes to dry. As the cloth dried in the sun, it would absorb the fragrance of the lavender, imparting a fresh, clean scent to the newly-washed linens.

Some scholars are of the opinion that the Ancient Romans introduced lavender into Britain, but it is now more commonly believed that lavender was initially imported into the British Isles from France in the late Middle Ages. The plant was first mentioned in twelfth-century English books on gardening and medicine as "Lavyndull." It does not appear that lavender was actually cultivated in England until the mid-sixteenth century. William Shakespeare mentioned lavender in his writings. For example, in his play, The Winter’s Tale, he wrote, "Here’s flowers for you; hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram; the marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun, . . . " Queen Elizabeth I was known to be particularly partial to lavender and enjoyed both a special tea and a conserve which were made from lavender flowers. With Queen Elizabeth setting the trend, many people in her realm became interested in using lavender for a wide range of applications. It must be noted that during that period, some people believed that weaving sprigs of lavender in their hair enabled them to see ghosts, and while others thought lavender was useful for taming lions and tigers.

The most hardy lavender varieties did best under cultivation in England. They flourished in the southern counties, since most varieties wanted a warm, sunny place to grow. In addition to a generous percentage of sunshine, lavender plants did not like to have their roots drowned in water, they preferred well drained soil. Lavender could even endure some period of drought and fairly warm temperatures. However, they needed to be protected from extreme cold and the risk of frost to their roots. Though lavender plants liked to have some distance from one another in order to enjoy good air circulation, they needed to be sheltered from strong, heavy winds. Lavender plants were easily able to thrive in rocky and quite alkaline soil, in which other crops might fail. Remarkably, little fertilization was necessary to grow lavender. The best extracts for both fragrance and oil production came from lavender plants that were grown in soil which would be thought too poor in nutrients for other crops. Most lavender varieties attracted bees and other pollinating insects, so a number of farmers planted lavender around their fruit trees and other fruit-bearing plants for which they wanted to ensure thorough pollination. By so doing, they could not only increase their fruit crop yields, but they could also sell their lavender crop to further increase their profits. Lavender flowers are known to yield a high volume of nectar. For that reason, some farmers who kept bees grew only lavender to ensure their honey was made primarily from lavender nectar. Lavender honey was another product which could supplement a farmer’s income.

The center of lavender cultivation in England, since at least the seventeenth century, was in the area around the village of Mitcham, which, during the Regency, was located several miles southwest of London, in the county of Surrey. There were also many lavender fields under cultivation around the nearby village of Carshalton, both of which were situated in the watershed of the River Wandle. The sandy soils of that section of the county of Surrey would not support many crops, but such soil was ideal for the cultivation of lavender plants. Acres of fields surrounding both villages were purple with lavender during Regency summers. At that time, as it still is today, lavender was harvested by hand. Though much of the lavender crop was harvested in the month of June, lavender could be harvested at other times of the year, depending upon the purpose to which the crop would be put. To make essential oil, lavender buds gave better results than fully open flowers. However, flowers to be dried would be allowed to fully open, so they would be harvested some weeks later. Lavender flowers intended for drying might be removed from their stems, or the full flower spikes were left on the stem and both were harvested and dried together.

Like attar (oil) of rose, the essential oil of lavender was produced by distillation using steam. But unlike rose petals, partially open lavender buds were compacted into a still dry and were not immersed in water. The tighter they were compacted, with the minimum of air pockets, the greater would be the yield of the precious oil. Once the lavender buds were tightly packed into the still, the boiler beneath was filled with water and set to boil, by which the steam would heat the lavender buds. The heat from the steam would cause the tiny pockets in the buds to break open and release the oil within them. A pipe filled with cold water ran though the center of the still and the hot oil vapor condensed on the cold pipe, then flowed down into a holding basin where it was collected. Since the water used in the distillation of lavender oil never came into contact with the lavender buds, unlike rose water, it never acquired the scent or flavor of lavender. Therefore, lavender "water" had to be made using a different method than that which produced rose water. And during the Regency, there were multiple methods of making lavender water, not all of them using actual water.

In many still rooms across Regency Britain, there were ladies who made their own lavender water at home, using just lavender buds and water. In that process, fresh lavender buds were immersed in clean, cool water in a still. Typically, the ratio was about a cup of lavender buds per one quart of water. Once the bud and water mixture was prepared and placed in the still, a small fire was lit under the boiler to bring the contents to a slow boil. The lavender bud and water mixture was allowed to boil slowly, with the lowest heat, until all of the fluid was distilled away. The still was then emptied and thoroughly cleaned. The lavender remains were discarded, as there would be no residual fragrance left after distillation. Once the still was emptied and cleaned, the distilled lavender water was returned to the still for a second distillation that would reduce the water volume, and thereby concentrate the fragrance to a stronger level. This home-made lavender water was then poured into clean glass jars or bottles, tightly sealed and stored in a cool place.

A second, less complicated method of making water-based lavender water at home could be accomplished with just a large pot and a sieve. Fresh or dried lavender flower buds or petals were immersed in cool water, generally the ratio was a cup of lavender flowers to a quart of water. Dried lavender buds or flowers usually produced lavender water with a stronger scent, so fewer dried buds could be used in this process if a stronger scent was not needed. The water and lavender flower mixture was brought to a steady boil for about a half hour, heat was then reduced and the pot was covered and left to simmer for about an hour and a half. The covered pot was then removed from the heat and left to cool, usually overnight. Once it had cooled, the mixture was poured through a fine sieve, or cheesecloth, in order to remove the lavender flower bits. The resulting lavender water was poured into a glass or ceramic jar, sealed tightly and stored in a cool place. Regency ladies knew that any home-made lavender water would be spoiled if it were stored in metal or wooden vessels, or if the vessel was not kept tightly sealed when it was stored. Therefore, they were very careful when bottling their lavender water.

A third, very simple method of making a special type of lavender water was to suspend fresh spikes of lavender flowers in clean water inside a tightly sealed clear glass bottle. The bottle was then exposed to direct sunlight for several days, after which the lavender spikes were removed and the lavender water was ready for use. This type of lavender water was typically made specifically for use in cleansing wounds and treating insect bites. All types of water-based lavender water were generally only made at home during the Regency. It was not the type of lavender water which could easily be purchased commercially. It must also be noted that home-made, water-based lavender water did not have the same scent and was not as strong as that made commercially by other methods, but it had essentially the same properties.

The more common recipes for making "lavender water," which were in use from the early eighteenth century, often did not include any water at all. A typical recipe for this version of lavender water included a quart of "rectified spirits" (a highly concentrated alcohol) and an ounce of essential lavender oil. In many formulas, a "tea spoonful" of ambergris was added to the mixture. Since lavender oil was used in this version, the alcohol was necessary to dissolve the oil and emulsify the solution. The inclusion of the ambergris would add an additional layer of scent, but it also helped to fix and extend the life of the fragrance of the lavender oil. Martha Lloyd, a close friend of Jane and Cassandra Austen, was an inveterate collector of recipes. Her simple recipe for "English Lavender Water" was an alcohol-based version:

To one quart of the best rectified spirits of wine put 3/4 ounce of essence of Lavender and 1/2 a scruple of ambergris; shake it together and it is fit to use in a few days.

[Author’s Note:   A "scruple" was a very small amount, about 1/3 of a dram.]

Rose water was sometimes added to alcohol-based lavender water, in place of, or in addition to, ambergris. A combination of brandy and white wine was sometimes substituted for the rectified spirits. In most recipes, the directions specified that the blended mixture was to be placed in a glass bottle, tightly corked. That bottle was then to be placed near the fire for at least a week, and should be shaken vigorously at least three or four times a day. At the end of that period, the lavender water would be ready to use. In some cases, this mixture could be blended with water in order to increase the volume of lavender water produced, though the fragrance would not be as strong in the diluted versions. Lavender water made with lavender oil and rectified spirits had a stronger, but somewhat different, scent than did lavender water made using just water and lavender flowers. During the Regency, lavender water with an alcohol base was the type that was usually sold commercially, most often by apothecaries.

As had the Ancient Greeks and Romans, in later times, Europeans found that extracts of lavender made pleasant and effective additives to their bathing and laundry water. They noticed that garments and bed linens which had been washed with lavender were resistant to moths, bed bugs, fleas, lice and a number of other insects. Lavender was typically one of the main ingredients of traditional Four Thieves Vinegar, also known as Marseilles Vinegar. According to legend, during the Black Plague, four thieves in the French city of Marseilles regularly doused themselves with this curious concoction for protection against disease while robbing the bodies of plague victims. Since they did not succumb to the plague, the vinegar mixture they reportedly used was highly revered for centuries after. By the Regency, "Thieves Vinegar," often made with lavender, was still used as a type of smelling salts. Even before the turn of the eighteenth century, lavender had been shown to be a powerful insect repellent and it was an ingredient in a number of recipes included in The Complete Vermin-killer, the fourth edition of which was published in London, in 1777. An extensively revised edition was published in 1818.

Even before the Regency, lavender water was often sprinkled on bed linens and under-garments to keep them smelling fresh. In addition, dried lavender flowers were used to make sachets which were stored with clean linens and garments in order to repel insects. Another practice was to plait three or more fresh spikes of lavender buds or flowers together, sometimes with ribbons, then allow them to dry into "lavender wands." These lavender wands were used much like sachets, being tucked in with clean linens or clothing to keep them smelling fresh and ward off insects. They were sometimes put inside pillows and mattresses for the same purposes. Lavender water or oil was often added to furniture polish made of beeswax in order to leave a fresh scent in the room after the furniture was polished. Another household use of dried or fresh lavender stalks was to strew them on the floor of rooms like the kitchen and pantry, because their scent would mask the unpleasant smells of cooking. In addition, the lavender stalks would also repel insects and other vermin, since mice and rats did not like lavender either. Some dogs were given beds stuffed with lavender stalks, which would ward off fleas.

Since ancient times, lavender was an important ingredient in a number of medicinal preparations. Lavender oil, and to a slightly lesser degree, lavender water, had antibiotic properties which killed a wide range of bacteria. As noted above, lavender water was used to cleanse wounds, as it was known to prevent infection. Lavender oil made an excellent treatment for burns, since it not only relieved the pain and prevented infection, it shortened healing time and reduced scaring. When taken internally, lavender was a common remedy for dizziness, nerves, headaches, sore throats, jaundice, insect bites, dropsy, convulsions, palsy, nausea, indigestion, colic, tooth aches, coughs, and even worms. It was also given as a treatment for the bites of snakes and mad dogs. Through the nineteenth century, lavender was thought to prompt menstruation in women and relieve pain during childbirth. Lavender water was used to moisten cloths for cold compresses to help to bring down a fever. The fragrance of lavender brought on a sense of calm and helped to induce sleep, which were added benefits for the patient. Many Regency ladies carried a small vial of lavender water with them which they might sniff if they felt faint or weak. They might also rub a few drops on their temples if they were aware of the onset of a headache. Those with a great fear of contagion might hold a sponge moistened with lavender water to their nose while breathing to help prevent infection. In addition to a host of home-made medicines made with lavender water, most British apothecaries used alcohol-based lavender water as an ingredient in a number of their medicinal preparations.

Lavender water was an important component of a number of cosmetic formulas during the Regency. On its own, it was an ideal light fragrance than many women enjoyed. It was also used to soothe skin irritation and relive rashes and itching, including that caused by acne and eczema. Lavender water was also an effective treatment for sunburn. Many women used lavender water as a facial cleanser and some men used lavender water as an after-shave. Regular application of lavender water would both moisturize and nourish the skin. The vitamins and minerals it contained were easily absorbed by the skin, making it soft and smooth, with a youthful appearance. Used as a hair rinse, lavender water added shine and softness while reducing oiliness and frizziness. It also had the added benefit of repelling head lice, while imparting a clean and gentle fragrance. Lavender water was used as a mouthwash to ease sore gums and to eliminate bad breath. A combination of lavender water and epsom salts added to bath water induced relaxation and significantly eased muscle aches. Lavender oil was added to many shampoos/soaps and beauty cremes during the Regency, since it had a strong association with cleanliness and the fragrance was favored by nearly everyone.

Like other flower waters, lavender water had many culinary uses, primarily as a flavoring. It was used to add an intriguing floral taste to sweet deserts dishes like jellies, custards and ice creams. It could also be added to sweet cakes, breads, scones and biscuits. Some people liked to add a splash of lavender water to their beverages, particularly lemonade, coffee and tea. Though dried lavender flowers were used to make a medicinal tea, some people enjoyed such teas simply for the taste. In addition to its use for flavoring sweet dishes, lavender was used to flavor sugar itself. Sugar lumps were nipped from a sugar loaf and then crushed until the consistency was similar to that of modern-day granulated sugar. This crushed sugar was then placed in glass or ceramic jar in thin layers, alternating with layers of dried lavender buds. The jar was tightly sealed and stored in a cool dark place for about a month. The lavender buds could then be sifted out, leaving a lovely lavender-flavored sugar which could be sprinkled on sweet dishes as a garnish, used to make confectionery or stirred into beverages or foods as desired. Lavender has ancient associations with love and fertility, which may explain why it was a traditional flavoring for at least some of the dishes served at a wedding breakfast. Lavender was a particularly prevalent flavoring in wedding cakes, which were made to bring good luck to the couple, and their guests. Even a wedding cake which was not flavored with lavender often had lavender flavored icing, along with decoration or a garnish of fresh lavender flowers and/or was sprinkled with lavender sugar.

Lavender was regularly used to flavor savory dishes as well, usually in the form of powdered dried flowers rather than lavender water. This form of lavender was very potent, so it had to be used sparingly so as not to overwhelm the flavor of the food it was used to season. Lavender greens were also used as a flavoring in savory foods and if a recipe did not specifically call for lavender, dried lavender greens could substituted for rosemary in many recipes, especially those for meats and vegetables. Powdered lavender could be added to flavor herbed vinegars and oils which were used in the preparation of a wide range of dishes and/or as condiments. Sprigs of fresh lavender were sometimes tossed into salads for a distinctive flavor, or were used to garnish dishes which had been prepared using lavender. In addition, from at least the mid-eighteenth century, lavender was used as a flavoring in several mixtures of snuff. Typically, the dried flowers were pulverized and blended with the powdered tobacco. However, in some instances, lavender water was also used to moisten these snuff mixtures to further enhance their flavor.

By the Regency, though most people no longer believed that lavender could be used to tame lions and tigers, there were still a few who believed it could enable a person to see ghosts. Beyond its more practical applications in the preparation of medicines, cosmetics and food, lavender had ancient associations with magical powers, many of which were still held during our favorite decade. In addition to being able to see ghosts if one carried or wore a sprig of lavender, some also believed that carrying a few sprigs of lavender flowers was a crucial accouterment in order to make contact with Fairie Folk. Some people even planted one or more lavender plants in their garden in order to encourage fairies to frequent their property. On a perhaps less magical note, lavender plant attracted several species of butterflies. Though it would attract fairies, lavender was also thought to be a powerful repellent against evil spirits. Mothers pinned a sprig of lavender to their children’s clothes to avert the evil eye, or plaited a cross of lavender stalks to hang at their door or above their beds in order to protect their little ones from harm. A lavender sachet or lavender wand tucked into a pillow was thought to bring good dreams and attract benevolent spirits. In some households, a candle was coated with oil, then rolled in powdered lavender. That candle could then be burned for protection in any room, as needed. Another curious magical practice using lavender water involved tassels or fringe. Some people believed that lavender had greater power when it was in motion. For that reason, they moistened a tassel or a length of fringe which they wore for protection during the day, or attached to their bedding during the night.

Even more prevalent than its power to attract fairies and provide protection from evil spirits, Regency romance authors may be especially interested in the presumed magical link between lavender and love. Before retiring on St. Luke’s Day (18 October), young maidens drank lavender tea and chanted the following verse:

St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me,
In my dreams, let me my true love see.

Those young ladies could then expect to catch a of glimpse of their future husband while they dreamed that night. To further ensure their fated spouse would become known to them, many young women also put a lavender wand or a lavender sachet beneath or inside their pillow. It is not clear if lavender could convey this same romantic information in a girl’s dream on any night other than that of St. Luke’s Day. It was widely believed that most men were quite partial to the fragrance of lavender, so many women in search of a husband splashed on lavender water regularly, in addition to using lavender-scented soaps and other lavender-based cosmetics. When a couple married, lavender typically had a place at their wedding breakfast, as a flavoring as well as a decoration for the event, since it was believed that lavender would ensure marital harmony, deepen true love and encourage fertility. Well into the nineteenth century, it was generally assumed that lavender acted as an aphrodisiac on men. In fact, scientific research in recent years has shown that to be true. Though Regency wives were not aware of that research, many of them did slip lavender wands or sachets into their mattresses in order to ensure passion in the marital bed. Yet, one of the conundrums of the magical lore of lavender is that a few drops of lavender water regularly sprinkled on a person’s head was believed to ensure their chastity.

Lavender held a meaningful place in Regency England. It was a valuable cash crop which would grow in even poor, dry soil, and could attract insects which would pollinate other profitable crops. It could also add beauty to a pleasure garden. It was an essential active ingredient in a number of effective medical preparations and a host of cosmetic compounds. Lavender was also used to flavor a profusion of foods and beverages, both sweet and savory. And along with its practical applications, lavender was also believed to have potent magical powers, particularly with regard to love and romance.

Dear Regency Authors, might lavender add fragrance to one of your upcoming stories of romance? Perhaps a family living near Mitcham or Carshalton is growing lavender. Will the heroine encounter the hero when she is out in the field harvesting lavender buds or flowers and he is fishing or hunting in the area? Or, might he be swarmed by bees pollinating the lavender and need the young lady’s assistance to escape? Mayhap the heroine, a girl just up from the country, has found a position as companion to the hero’s mother. When she discovers the older woman suffers from migraines and brews up a lavender tea as a remedy, will she gain the hero’s gratitude and closer attention? Perchance a very shy and imaginative little girl, who has been told tales of how lavender attracts fairies, mistakes butterflies alighting on a lavender bush in the garden of the nearby estate for those mystical creatures. When she confides that fact to her governess, the heroine, will that compassionate young woman humor the little girl and slip into that garden with her to see the "fairies," only to be caught out by the hero, the owner of the estate? A pushy mother might constantly douse her daughter in lavender water, hoping to attract a husband for the young woman. How might the young lady deal with that and still find her true love? Then, on the other hand, might an insecure and newly-married young woman splash a few drops of lavender water on her husband each night as he is sleeping, in the hope of keeping him faithful. What will happen if he wakes in the night and catches her? Are there other ways in which lavender might 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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4 Responses to Liquid Magic:   Lavender Water Through the Regency

  1. having the warped imagination that you know me to possess, I have a vision of a rather forward girl, absolutely drenched in lavender water to attract the hero, who happens to be allergic to it …

    I have made my own fortified wine by freeze-distilling it, the laws on owning stills being what they are. I should, of course, have used lavender wine, but we’d drunk it all and I didn’t think of it! it makes a very successful eau de cologne with lavender, rosemary and clove oil in it. just a smidgeon of the last [I think a smidgeon is about the same as a scruple lol] which is very nice for headaches.

    with regards to lavender honey, perhaps the heroine follows the custom of telling the bees everything that happens, and, being very shy, confesses to them her regard for the hero, who of course overhears and knows that his suit is not in vain!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Though I had considered a young lady who wore a bit too much lavender water, I absolutely love the twist that she is drenched and her target is allergic to the very thing with which she is trying to attract him! 🙂

      Not sure about the laws in the UK, but here in the States, it is legal to own a still, but you have to have a license and must provide details on the purposes to which you put it. But it is illegal here to use it to make any alcoholic beverage. From what I understand, most people use theirs to make essential oils and other herbal products. While I was doing research, I found several recipes which combined lavender and rosemary, but the addition of oil of clove is a new one. Even though all the big pharma companies would have us believe their products are the only available medications, I think many of the old herbal ones are still quite effective.

      Never heard of talking to bees, but it sounds like a wonderful plot bunny! Just so long as no one is stung in the process! Unless it is the villain! 😉



      • I think you can get a licence but unless you are doing it commercially or are super rich it ain’t worth it.
        Talking to the bees is an old custom; as they are said to be God’s messengers, it is imperative that you tell the bees all that goes on, births, deaths, troubles and joys or else they will not make honey

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I love that custom about talking to the bees. A nice way to see they are included in the family and hopefully, will be treated well. We need them more and more in this world.


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