Of Vinaigrettes: Necessities or Toys?

Even before the Regency began, these redolent objects were carried by a great many ladies, and even a few gentlemen. Fortunately, by the beginning of our favorite decade, they had become much smaller than had been necessary in previous centuries. Even better, a number of clever craftsmen had also developed the skill to create some truly unique and distinctive objects which often hid other delightful and charming features, beyond the obvious purpose of these little boxes. There are many ways in which a Regency author might use a vinaigrette to add a hint of sweetness or spice to a story of romance set in our favorite decade.

Vinaigrettes though the Regency . . .

Though vinaigrettes came into their own during the Regency, they had their roots in the pomanders which were popular in the Middle Ages and the pouncet boxes which succeeded them in England, in the later sixteenth century. Life in those early centuries was seldom fragrant and those who could afford to do so made use of various aromatic substances by which to mask the many foul odors they encountered throughout their day. Since bad smells were believed to transmit disease, it logically followed, in the minds of most people at that time, that good smells would ward off disease. Therefore, many people considered it a necessity to carry something which could provide them with a pleasant fragrance whenever they wanted it, or thought they needed it.

The earliest pomanders were whole oranges, studded with cloves or other fragrant spices. Over time, some people preferred to carry just the skin of an orange, inside of which they placed a small sponge or a pad of cloth, soaked with aromatic vinegar. This had to be carried in the hand, as the moisture made it impractical to be carried in a pocket. Therefore, it is not surprising that this practice was gradually replaced in the sixteenth century by the pouncet box, which could be carried in the large pockets of the clothing of the era, or suspended on a chain or silken cord from the neck or waist. Such boxes were typically made of metal, usually silver or gold. Each box had a double-lid, the outer one solid, while the inner lid was "pounced," or pierced, to enable the fumes of the aromatic vinegar to be inhaled, as desired. These boxes tended to be rather large and heavy, since the vinegars available at the time were rather weak, and a relatively large quantity was required in order to maintain the scent within the pouncet box over the course of a day.

Vinegar has been known and used since ancient times. However, by the eighteenth century, newer and more efficient methods of fermentation and distillation made it possible to produce vinegars with a higher concentration of acetic acid. Though acetic acid is considered a relatively weak acid, vinegars with a higher percentage of acetic acid in the eighteenth century were significantly stronger than had been most of the vinegars made in previous centuries. As had been the practice since at least the sixteenth century, these stronger vinegars could be "sweetened" with various essential perfume oils. Even better, the higher levels of acetic acid meant that they could hold those scents for a much longer time, from weeks to months.

Through the seventeenth century, and well into the eighteenth century, the containers which held these aromatic vinegars were known as pouncet boxes. It was not until the last couple of decades of the eighteenth century that they came to be called "vinaigrettes." The word vinaigrette had been in use in England since the last decade of the seventeenth century. But at that time, the word was originally used for a condiment prepared with vinegar and usually served over vegetables. A few years later, the term was used for a small two-wheeled carriage, rather like a rickshaw, which was common in France. The vehicle seated one person and was pulled by one person in front, and pushed by one in back. These small vehicles were usually powered by a couple of boys, though adults, both men and women, were also known to power them. The online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary reports that the first instance in which the term "vinaigrette" was used, in print, to refer to one of these small boxes which contained aromatic vinegar, was in 1811. However, the OED also notes that many words were often in use in common speech for as much as twenty to thirty years before they made it into print. Which suggests that the term vinaigrette was probably first applied to these small boxes sometime around 1780. It was certainly in wide use by 1811, the year in which the Prince of Wales became Regent.

Just before the turn of the nineteenth century, it became clear that, using the new, stronger vinegars, a smaller sponge could be used in vinaigrettes. Most vinaigrettes contained a small piece of natural sea sponge, the best sponges being those which were harvested in the waters off the coast of Turkey and imported into Britain, along with other exotic products of the Levant. Sea sponges were also harvested off the coast of Greece at this time. But the higher quality Turkish sponges were greatly preferred for use in vinaigrettes, as they had a much finer texture than other sponges, and were also able to absorb and hold more fluid. Naturally, since a smaller sponge would serve the purpose, it also became possible to reduce the size of the box which contained it. Before the early nineteenth century, most vinaigrettes could be three to four inches in width and an inch or more in depth. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, and right though the Regency, vinaigrette boxes were made that measured no more than three-quarters of inch across and a half inch in height. There were larger boxes made, but the general range in the size of vinaigrette boxes during the Regency was between one to three inches in width and one half to three-quarters of an inch in height.

Though the stronger, more acidic vinegars made it possible to create much smaller vinaigrette boxes, those same vinegars also made it necessary to alter the process of creating those tiny boxes. Early pouncet boxes were often made of silver, which was not a problem, since the weaker early vinegars were much less of a threat to that metal. However, the higher levels of acetic acid in the new vinegars were much more corrosive to silver, as well as to most other metals. The only metal which was not affected by the caustic properties of acetic acid was gold. Therefore, though some vinaigrettes were made completely of gold, many more were made of silver, but the interiors, the surfaces which were exposed to the vinegar-soaked sponge, were all gilt. In fact, in the better vinaigrettes, the interiors were double and sometimes, even triple, gilt, in order to ensure they would not be damaged by the acidic aromatic vinegar they contained.

It was also known that glass was impervious to the acetic acid in the stronger vinegars. Therefore, some vinaigrettes were made with glass linings, while others had interiors of vitreous enamel, which was essentially a thin layer of powdered glass fused to the metal by intense heat. Certain precious gem stones were also impervious to the corrosive effects of the acetic acid in the stronger vinegars, and though they were not used to line the inside of vinaigrettes, they were sometimes used to ornament the lids, inside and out. However, there were certain gemstones which were vulnerable to acetic acid, so it was imperative that the gold and silversmiths who made vinaigrettes studded with gems used the right stones.

Most vinaigrettes were made in the shape of square or rectangular boxes, since it was much easier to produce a double-lid with a single hinge on a square box. It was also essential that the external lid of the box fit very tightly, in order to contain the volatile aromatic vinegars. The second lid was typically decorated with some kind of fretwork or grille though which the aromatic vapors could be inhaled. The inner grille also had to be hinged, in order to add additional aromatic vinegar to the tiny sponge, or to replace the sponge, should that become necessary. The early pouncet boxes usually had a plain grille made of rows of holes pounced into the metal. But even before the nineteenth century began, a number of silver and goldsmiths began to employ their skills to create very elegant and decorative grilles. When a Regency lady opened her vinaigrette, she might see a graceful spray of flowers and foliage, a pair of love birds sharing a branch or even the rolling hills of a rural landscape, all executed in delicate filigree. In some cases, both the outer and inner lids were made to match, with the same design on each, the outer lid solid, the inner lid in fine filigree. However, there were also quite a few vinaigrettes made with a relatively plain design on the external lid, which opened to reveal a much more creative and detailed design on the grille beneath.

Near the turn of the nineteenth century, a few talented metal craftsmen developed new vinaigrette forms which were neither square nor rectangular, yet did have tight-fitting lids. Round, and even oval vinaigrettes, were produced, many of which were made by watch-makers, who had the necessary skill working with such shapes requiring tight tolerances. These round and oval vinaigrettes were also usually double-hinged, for the solid external lid and the perforated internal lid. Gradually, other vinaigrette shapes began to appear, such as tiny books, hearts, fish, nuts and eggs. The nut and egg-shaped vinaigrettes typically had a domed grille which arched up inside the external domed lid, thereby making it possible for the vinaigrette to hold a larger sponge. Though most square and rectangular vinaigrettes were carried in a lady’s reticule, some of the other shapes were so pretty that they were fitted with a small metal ring. The attached ring made it possible to wear them on a chain, as the pendant of a necklace, or as a charm on a bracelet. Some vinaigrettes were so small that they were set into a ring, a seal, a thimble or the handle of a quizzing glass. Many of these were set with multiple small gems.

Quite a number of vinaigrettes were made as mementos of people or events. Even during the Regency, vinaigrettes were made which memorialized Admiral Lord Nelson and/or the Battle of Trafalgar. The Duke of Wellington and some of his best-known generals also graced the tops of many vinaigrettes. Quite a few vinaigrettes were made as souvenirs of the peace celebrations in London in the summer of 1814, and even more for the victory at the Battle of Waterloo, the following year. Vinaigrettes also became popular souvenir items for visitors to many places throughout Britain. There are vinaigrettes which survive from our favorite decade which depict a number of grand manor houses, like Newstead Abbey and Abbotsford. Others show spa towns like Tunbridge Wells, in addition to well-known places like Windsor Castle and even the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Regardless of the design of the box, many vinaigrettes which were given as gifts or keepsakes were engraved with the recipient’s initials and/or some special sentiment which was important to the giver, the recipient, or both.

The cases of some vinaigrettes, even the very small ones, concealed other features which may have given great delight to their owners, rather like the most expensive snuff boxes. Quite a few special vinaigrettes were fitted with a tiny music box, enabling them to play a short tune for the pleasure of their owners when the small apparatus was wound up. Others concealed a mechanism which powered tiny automatons, often miniature figures of animals. Birds were the most popular of these miniscule mechanisms, and often included a music box which enabled the bird to appear to sing as it flapped its wings. Other vinaigrettes had a small hidden cavity built into them, which might be used to secrete a small note, carefully and tightly folded. These secret compartments could also be used to conceal other very small items, such as a few comfits or perhaps the diminutive key to the lock on a very personal diary.

The aromatic vinegars which were used to moisten the small sponge inside a vinaigrette could be purchased, generally from an apothecary. Some of the standard scents available were rose, lavender, mint, lemon, rosemary, juniper, mace, cinnamon and cloves. Four Thieves’ Vinegar, which had been used for centuries to ward off disease, was sometimes used, while those who wanted an even more bracing scent might chose camphor or rue. In addition, most apothecaries would create special blends for those among their customers who wished them and could afford to pay the higher prices. Of course, some people preferred to create their own scented aromatic vinegars, particularly those ladies who had an active still room available to them. In such cases, essential oils might be made in the still room, using the lady’s favorite flowers. Those home-made oils would then be blended into a strong vinegar for use in vinaigrettes. By so doing, a lady could have any scent she liked in her vinaigrette, at any strength.

Though vinaigrettes often appear in a Regency story when someone, usually a woman, is feeling faint, most vinaigrettes during that period did not contain smelling salts. Unlike aromatic vinegars, smelling salts were made from ammonia, typically known as hartshorn, from which ammonia had been derived for centuries. It appears that it was not until the reign of Queen Victoria that women, in particular, began to moisten the small sponges in their vinaigrettes with ammonia/smelling salts, instead of aromatic vinegars. Some scholars believe that this trend originated when women began to wear more restrictive corsets, which could interfere with their breathing and cause them to feel faint, especially in warm and crowded rooms.

During the Regency, it appears that most ladies wanted their vinaigrettes handy to protect them from unpleasant odors, rather than because they were afraid of succumbing to a fainting spell. One of the more common odors they wanted to avoid was the disagreeable smell given off when cheap tallow candles were burned to illuminate an evening social event. Even the best tallow candles gave off a faint odor of the animal carcasses from which they were made. It must also be noted that, though personal hygiene was beginning to improve during the Regency, there were still people, even those among the upper classes, who did not bathe regularly. In addition, the first deodorant would not be introduced until 1888. Therefore, even people who did bathe or wash regularly during the Regency might still have some body odor after a strenuous evening of dancing in a warm ballroom. Many a lady may have reached for her vinaigrette as the evening progressed.

Dear Regency Authors, will your characters, at least the ladies, carry a vinaigrette in their reticule to ward off unpleasant smells? Perhaps the heroine finds hers very useful when she is forced to spend time conversing with a potential suitor who seems to have little familiarity with soap and water. Mayhap the heroine uses her special vinaigrette, with a built-in music box, to soothe the nerves of the shy young lady whose debut she is handling, when that young woman is overwhelmed by the social crush. Then again, might a pair of lovers, or conspirators, use a vinaigrette with a secret compartment to pass messages to one another during social occasions? Are there other ways in which a vinaigrette might add some sweetness or spice to a tale of romance in the Regency?

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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