What is a Vinaigrette?
Sterling silver vinaigrettes are small decorative boxes that were used during periods of travel, as a more accessible and practical alternative method of carrying perfume and scents than moving large glass bottles and vials. The perfume, or aromatic vinegar, would be contained within these boxes soaked in a sponge. The box would also have a grille to cover the sponge. Vinaigrette sizes tended to vary, with their widths spanning from half and inch to 4 inches. Silver examples would always be gilded at the point where the sponge would touch the metal. This was to avoid any corrosion.
During the 19th century vinaigrettes were a fashionable indication of social ranking, as those who were able to afford perfume or concern themselves with their outward appearance at all were among the elite. Sanitisation standards were low for all including the highest classes, but they were able to compensate with perfume which would distinguish them from the working class. Not only was the scent just a disguise; many also believed that pleasant smells would protect them from diseases. The association between illness and bad smells had been acknowledged. The solution to the problem however, not quite reached.
Perfume was also an exotic extravagance, so to be able to both afford perfume and then contain it within a decorative vinaigrette was the height of social distinction and a display of grandeur and wealth.
History of Perfume
Perfume is as old as civilized humanity itself, with the first mention of a perfumer being recorded in ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Egyptians employed the use of perfume in all aspects of life, and utilized scents in everything from religious ceremonies to burial preparations and even daily wear. The Egyptians with a high social ranking would wear a lily based perfume to communicate their social status to others.
The Persians then maintained the concept of fragrance as a signifier of political status, but it wasn’t produced on a large scale until the Ancient Romans and Greeks realised perfume’s power. Archaeologists recently discovered a perfume factory from 2,000 BC in Cyprus, which is thus far the earliest evidence of the mass production of perfume that we have found.
In Western Europe, perfume being considered a highly skilled art form practised by alchemists was first recorded in 1221 in monks' recipes of Santa Maria delle Vigne or Santa Maria Novella of Florence, Italy.
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- and at AC Silver we able to offer a wide selection of these traditional and unique Vinaigrettes, including delicate mussel shell and acorn pendants.
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.
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.