Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Colonial American Aromatherapy

Susan F. Craft
(Author of the award-winning Revolutionary War novel, The Chamomile.)

Considering unrefrigerated food, people’s infrequent full baths, chamber pots, odors from horses and other animals, and the fact that people wore shifts throughout several days and nights, can you imagine the odors that must have assaulted the noses of colonial Americans?

Or were they so acclimated to the smells that they didn’t notice? Apparently not.

Many colonists doused handkerchiefs with rosewater or other perfumes, or carried pomanders. A pomander, from the French pomme d'ambre, means apple of amber.
Pomander ball
A ball made of perfumes, such as ambergris, musk, or civet, pomanders were carried in a vase or worn in round containers hung from a neck chain or belt. For the wealthy, the containers were globular and usually perforated and made of gold or silver. Simpler pomanders were bags of fragrant herbs.
Venetian woman wearing a pomander chain around her waist.

Europeans carried nosegays, which were small, hand-held flower bouquets. They have existed in some form since at least medieval times.
A tussie-mussie, nosegay brooch

Posy brooches, or tussie-mussies as they were called in Victorian times, came in all shapes and sizes and enabled people to pin the flowers at the waist, the shoulder, or in the hair.

The term nosegay came about in fifteenth-century Middle English as a combination of nose and gay (gay meaning "ornament"). So, a nosegay was an ornament that appeals to the nose or nostrils.
How to make a pomander –
You will need:
• toothpick
• apple, orange, or lemon
• whole cloves
• ground cinnamon
• gallon-sized ziplock bag
• ribbon

• Prick holes in an apple, orange, or lemon using the toothpick. You can cover the fruit in rows or you can make the holes in a pattern.
• Push a whole clove into each of the holes you made, so that the top of the clove sits on the surface of the fruit.
• Put a tablespoon of ground cinnamon into a ziplock bag; place the fruit in the bag, and shake until the fruit is completely covered in cinnamon.
• Tie a ribbon around the fruit, making a knot or bow at the top of the fruit with a streamer.
• Hang the fruit in a cool, dry place for several weeks until the pomander is hard and dry.
• Hang the pomander in a room or fill a bowl with several of them and enjoy the sweet, fragrant arrangement.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, when people stepped out of their houses into the filthy, smelly streets, they would wear vinaigrettes, which were jewelry pieces that held vinegar-soaked sponges. If the odors of the streets were so strong that people felt faint, they would sniff the vinaigrette.


  1. I have made pomanders with cloves & oranges. Not a big fan of the smell of cloves though.

    I think I'd rather just take a shower.

    1. LOL, Mary. I'm right there with ya. I remember doing the cloves and oranges thing as a kid.

    2. Hi, Mary. When researching, I found that the colonials hung herbs and flowers from the beams in their homes to use for medicinal purposes. I'm sure the smell was pleasant.

  2. Very interesting, Susan. Poor sanitation not only assaulted the nose, but caused disease, which might be the reason lifespans were so great back then. Personally, I have a lot of sinus problems so can't stand perfume. I agree with Mary. Clean is the best smell.

    1. While researching, I ran across a recipe for castille soap that colonial women experimented with instead of purchasing the expensive soap. It was a luxury, but a nice thing to have.

  3. How neat! I'm going to have to make one of those. I bet they make lovely Christmas decorations.
    I wonder how the orange doesn't go rotten.

    1. My guess is all the citrus acid kept it from rotting. Though over time, I'm sure they probably did or molded. Just one more smell :)

    2. Hi Amber. I've made them before, and they last several weeks. Some people put decorative beads in between the cloves and tie the pomander with ornate ribbon. They do make nice presents.

  4. Mercy me! I knew things were odious, but I had no idea how pungent or to what lengths they went to to overcome it. Thanks for such an informative post, Susan.

  5. Great post. Can't imagine the smells of that time. And I'm with Elaine...some perfumes are as bad as the bad smells.

  6. I can't imagine the various odors! Thank you for sharing this interesting post and pomander instructions.