In 1370, Queen Elizabeth of Hungary ordered a perfume to be created which would be referred to as ‘Hungary Water', and the popularity of perfume travelled across Renaissance Italy during the 16th century via Catherine Medici’s personal perfumer Rene le Florentine, and then on to his homeland of France. These connections with royalty secured perfume as an object of desire for those wishing to emulate the higher classes within the European psyche.
When considering the ancient history and traditions behind perfume, it continued to be an exclusive product until relatively recently, with it being available at an affordable price and to the mass market being a fairly new development.
The perfume market changed dramatically at the end of the 19th century when scientific advances in synthetic scents made it possible for scents to be mass produced without the extraordinary costs and labour involved in natural extraction methods.
History of the Vinaigrette
By the 19th century, a variety of perfume containers were evident, the vinaigrette, a gilded metal box with a pierced, decorated interior grille, was used to hold sponges soaked in scented vinaigres de toilette (aromatic vinegar). The interiors were gilded to prevent the silver from staining. From 1800 – 1850 these boxes were manufactured in vast quantities in various shapes and forms. Often the shapes were delicate and tasteful, reflecting the sophistication of the owner.
As with many personal items of sterling silver antiques, the novelty of unusual shapes and designs proved to be popular, with designs like mussel shells and acorns becoming very valuable to collectors today.
During their initial years, vinaigrettes were used by both men and women, but around the early 1800s, their user base was predominantly female. Strong fragrances were used as a timely remedy for those women whose corsetry was bound too tight for comfort, keeping them alert and acting as a smelling salt of sorts should they faint.
These were worn around the neck for convenience- being able to quickly douse one’s self in scent or raise the preferred scent to your nose while travelling. However, they were also a fashionable statement as well as having been incredibly practical in the 18th century. Typically, vinaigrettes were plain and unembellished, although monograms of the user's initials were a popular choice in terms of customisation.
Examples crafted in the Georgian and Regency periods tend to be the most sought after, with the quality declining slightly with the advent of the Victorian age. The pieces that were made in the Victorian era were also almost exclusively used by women. If you are looking for perhaps the finest examples from around this era, the work of Nathanial Mills (who worked from 1826 -1850) would be an excellent place to start.
Presently, these trinkets still make for wonderful gifts or personal treasures. Their diminutive size and charming detail allow them to be worn as pendants or to be transported easily as first intended. These vinaigrettes are the first incarnation of the travel size perfume decanters which have consistently been used since the 18th century, and remain as popular as ever to this day.