Vinegar has had a long and noble history of uses for mankind. Since ancient times it has been used as a preservative. Delicate fruits and berries were ripe for such a short season that vinegar, with its acetic acid content, was used to to preserve them. (Blackberry vinegar recipe)
Add sugar and water, to the mixture and one had created a tart and pleasing beverage. Mix it with alcohol, and this sweet concoction became a tasty mixer! Vinegar Cocktails Are Making the Rounds
As vinegar is so necessary an article in a family, and one on which so great a profit is made, a barrel or two might always be kept preparing, according to what suited.” – A new system of domestic cookery: formed upon principles of economy, and adapted to the use of private families (Google eBook), Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell, Printed by Norris & Sawyer, 1808.
18th century French faience oil and vinegar set
Vinegar is made from many sources: grapes, apples, sugar cane, or malted barley or oats.
In foods it is used for its antibacterial properties, as an acidity stabiliser, diluting colourings, as a flavouring agent and for inhibiting mould growth in bread. In brewing it is used to reduce excess losses of carbohydrate from the germinated barley and to compensate for production variations, so producing a consistent quality beer.
It can be found in beer, bread, cheese, chutney, horseradish cream, pickles, salad cream, brown sauce, fruit sauce, mint sauce and jelly and tinned baby food, sardines and tomatoes.” - La Leva di Archimede
Herbs, fruits and spices have long been added to vinegar for flavor, and recipes for infused vinegars were handed down for generations. ‘Sugars of lead,’ a sweet tasting substance, was made by pouring vinegar over lead. This liquid would be used to sweeten harsh cider, but as every self-respecting 21st century reader knows, this substance was quite poisonous. One can only conclude that sugars of lead must have been quite deadly to Europeans addicted to drinking cider. – Enzyme facts, vinegar history
Recipes for vinegar are found as early as the 17th century. In the Delightes for Ladies (1602), Sir Hugh Plats offers this recipe for distilling and purifying vinegar. Notice his caution of the use of lead.
How to distill wine vinegar or good Aligar that it may be both cleare and sharpe
I Know it is an usuall manner among the Novices of our time to put a quart or two of good vinegar into an ordinay leaden stil, and so to distill it as they doe all other waters. But this way I do utterly dislike, both for that heere is no separation made at all, and also because I feare that the Vinegar doth carry an ill touch with it, either fro the leaden botto or the pewter head or both. And therefore I could wish rather that the same were distilledin a large bodie of glasse with a head or receiver, the same beeing placed in sand or ashes. Note that the best part of the vinegar is the middle part that ariseth, for the first is fainte and phlegmatick, and the last will taste of adustion, because it groweth heavie toward the latter end, and must be urged up with a great fire, and therefore you must now and then taste of that which commeth both in the beginning & towardes the latter end, that you may receive the best by it selfe.
18th C. French vinaigrette bottle
Aromatic vinegar in the minds of 17th-19th century users had many medicinal purposes for preventing infections and megrims (headaches), reviving a fainting person, and covering bad odors. It was used to treat dropsy, croup, stomach aches, as well as sore throats. Vinegar teas were consumed by diabetics, and the liquid was used to heal wounds and fight infections. (Bragg, Health Information.) Vinegar was also a well-known cleaning agent and furniture polish, although it was not recommended for polishing marble, since the acid would eat into the smooth surface, leaving it pockmarked over time.
Vinegar was considered an indispensable item in the 18th century for arousing a fainting person or masking foul odors. When the sponge was soaked only in vinegar, its original use, it could help prevent the wearer from fainting. A person stepping outside a crowded London street might carry aromatic soaked sponges to hold close to the nose to mask the odor of raw sewage and rotting garbage.
19th c. Victorian silver vinaigrette
In the early 19th century, there wasn’t garbage men that carted away the trash. People threw the stuff out the window. Slop pails went out the window in the 18th century. And when you left your house, you would encounter odors that made you just choke. So they invented a device called the vinaigrette. And it was a box or a little trinket carried to revive oneself if one felt faint.
So now they can’t breathe, they go outside, they smell the rotten garbage and the sewage, and they think they’re going to faint. They opened up their vinaigrette, which they held in their hand, and inside is a gold-pierced grill with beautiful decoration. But underneath the grill is a sponge. They would soak that sponge in an aromatic solution, sort of a mixture of perfume and ammonia, like smelling salts.” - Barry Weber, Antiques Road Show
Vinaigrette and train holder. Image @Antiques Road Show
That was the concept of the vinaigrette. But the other end of this, you seldom see these all together. This is called a train holder. And this is shaped like a shell. When you squeeze it, it opens. The train was the long part of the ball gown. And they didn’t want it to drag in the dirt and be soiled. So they would hook the train holder onto the edge of the train, and then they would hold the vinaigrette in their hand, and this kept the train from dragging behind them.” Barry Weber, Antiques Road Show
Vinaigrettes were small decorative containers that held the vinegar-soaked sponges. The inside of the vinaigrette would be gilded to protect the silver from staining.
Used by both men and women, vinaigrettes were suspended from chatelaines, placed in pockets, hung from long chains, bracelets or finger rings. Often designed in the shape of a rectangular box, the more spectacular vinaigrettes took on the look of a vase of flowers, a purse, an urn, almost any contemporary theme. Made from multicolored gold or silver and sometimes silver-gilt, many were decorated with Italian mosaics, mother-of-pearl or other gem materials. – Antique Jewelry University
18th century French ladies carrying canes
The soaked sponges were also carried in a compartment in the head of walking canes.
…many ladies of the 18th and 19th centuries carried a “vinaigrette” cane to protect them from a variety of ailments. Throughout history, vinegar has been heralded for its medicinal qualities. A sponge soaked in the healing liquid was placed in a small container with holes in it on the handle of the cane. Should a lady’s tight corset cause her to faint or should she encounter someone with a dreaded illness, her vinaigrette tucked into her cane was close at hand to protect her.” – Collecting Antique Walking Sticks or Canes
Often spices such as cinnamon, lavender, roses, or orange were added to sweeten the smell.
The vinaigrette was a most necessary adjunct to the toilette in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when it was considered the correct thing for a lady to show symptoms of fainting on occasion. The little boxes with a grating inside—through which the essence contained in a saturated sponge could be inhaled— are of all sorts and conditions. Some are quite plain, others have delicately chased or monogrammed tops, or views engraved on the lids; others, again, are of fantastic shapes. The vinaigrette was the descendant of the old pomander, and the forerunner of the midVictorian smelling bottle; but whereas the vinaigrette is accessible to the most modest purse for a very small sum, the real old genuine pomander is very scarce indeed, and it means a lot of money to come by one at all. The pomander was round, and often of china, and contained a wonderfully strong-smelling ball, compounded of spices and pungent scents which could hardly fail to bring round the most upset of ladies. – Byways of Collecting, 1908, Ethel Deane, Pp 170-172.
The small containers known as vinaigrettes were actually an English invention. The French called them “boite de perfum”. They came in many shapes and sizes, and eventually became decorative items that lovers exchanged as tokens of affection. (Limoges Boxes: A Complete Guide)
The vapours from a vinaigrette caused the person to inhale sharply and then breathe more rapidly. Restoratives carried different names and were made from various recipes, not just with vinegar: In addition to vinaigrettes, there are smelling-salts, hartshorn, and Hungary water or lavender water. Ladies prone to fainting would also keep a bottle of laudanum nearby. Laudanum, a painkiller, was an alcoholic herbal preparation that containing approximately 10% powdered opium. Smelling-salts were an infusion made with ammonium carbonate and alcohol and scented with lemon or lavender oil. Hartshorn (aqueous ammonia)was made from carbonate of ammonia distilled from the shaved or powdered horns of a male deer. Hartshorn and smelling salts or sal volatile could be mixed with water and drunk as a restorative. Hungary water was a perfumed restorative made with distilled water and sweet-smelling herbs and flowers. This was dabbed on the skin of a person suffering from “nerves.”- Jennifer Kloester, Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, 157-58
Pauline Bonaparte transformed into a goddes of antiquity on her day couch. Neoclassical statue by Canova, 1805-1808, @ Borghese Gallery
And so we finally come to the fainting couch or a chaise longue, or a reclining chair with a long seat that supported the legs of the fainting person. These couches were placed in drawing rooms and dressing rooms, and were used for relaxation as well.
Early 19th century Recamier day bed. Image @Victoria & Albert Museum
This post will not go into the myriad reasons why women of this era fainted with such regularity. Tightly laced corsets certainly had something to do with the condition, but with so few rights and options open to them in their life’s choices, one cannot blame women of that time for reacting to the child-like treatment their husbands and fathers accorded them with fits, vapours, nerves, and fainting spells.
The Bennet family is well acquainted with Mrs. Bennet's nerves. Pride and Prejudice 1995
A character like Mrs. Bennet, who had her origins in Jane Austen’s real life observations, did not have many opportunities for maturing or turning into a well-educated and sensible woman. Mr. Bennet had given up on her and her childish behavior was enabled by her caring daughters and siblings.
Scene from 1995 Pride and Prejudice. Mrs. Bennet is overcome from the thought of Lydia's elopement. Note that she is not using the day bed but has a chair propped under her feet.
Vinegar had many other uses:
A recipe for black dye
Let one pound of chopped logwood remain all night in one gallon of vinegar. Then boil them, and put in a piece of copperas, as large as a hen’s egg. Wet the articles in warm water, and put them in the dye, boiling and stirring them for fifteen minutes. Dry them, then wet them in warm water, and dip them again. Repeat the process, till the articles are black enough. Wash them in suds, and rinse them till the water comes off clear. Iron nails, boiled in vinegar, make a black dye, which is good for restoring rusty black silks. – A Treatise on domestic economy for the use of young ladies at home and at school, by Catharine Esther Beecher, 1849, p. 299-303
For whitening scorched articles of clothing
Scorched articles can often be whitened again by laying them in the sun wet with suds. Where this does not answer, put a pound of white soap in a gallon of milk and boil the article in it. Another method is to chop and extract the juice from two onions and boil this with half a pint of vinegar, an ounce of white soap, and two ounces of fuller’s earth. Spread this when cool on the scorched part, and when dry, wash it off in fair water. Mildew may be removed by dipping the article in sour buttermilk, laying it in the sun, and after it is white, rinsing it in fair water. Soap and chalk are also good, also soap and starch, adding half as much salt as there is starch, together with the juice of a lemon. Stains in linen can often be removed by rubbing on soft soap, then putting on a starch paste, and drying in the sun, renewing it several times. Wash off all the soap and starch in cold fair water. - A Treatise on domestic economy for the use of young ladies at home and at school, by Catharine Esther Beecher, 1849 p 296.
Reviving a person overcome with fumes:
In case of stupefaction from the fumes of charcoal or from entering a well, limekiln, or coal mine, expose the person to cold air; lying on his back, dash cold water on the head and breast, and rub the body with spirits of camphor vinegar or Cologne water. Apply mustard paste to the pit of the stomach, and use friction on the hands feet and whole length of the back bone. Give some acid drink, and when the person revives, place him in a warm bed in fresh air. Be prompt and persevering. - A Treatise on domestic economy for the use of young ladies at home and at school, by Catharine Esther Beecher, 1849 p. 243.
This late 19th century poem by Edith Willis Linn talks nostalgically about vinaigrettes as a thing of the past. At this time, lovers gave each other these small decorative items as tokens of affection:
AN OLD VINAIGRETTE – Poem by Edith Willis Linn, C. W. Moulton, 1892.
LITTLE gleaming box of silver
Wrought in flowery design;
Drifted down the silent ages
To this humble hand of mine;
From the days of kingly France,
From the days of minuet dance,
From the days of stately graces,
Powdered hair and painted faces;
Bring a shining thread of story
To this all-prosaic hour;
From those castles proud and olden,
Those salons of wit and power.
You have known the love and woe
Of fair dames of long ago;
Round you like a love-tale wreathing
Is the perfume of their breathing.
Silent! Not a word to give me!
See, I raise your flowery lid;
Whisper in your heart my secret
Knowing you will keep it hid.
An Old Vinaigrette.
One more life now leaves its trace;
One more love has lent its grace;
Keep it sacred down the ages
On your shining silver pages.
Now my imprint I have given
Though you never bear my name:
Graven with your silver roses
Are all lives of praise or blame.
All things that we touch or wear
Must the spirit’s impress bear.
Every hand that ever won you
Left a fadeless mark upon you.
Love and hate and jealous passion,—
All I feel have been your own;
Shall my life not breathe about you
Purer love than you have known?
Nobler grows this life with years,
Grander grow earth’s hopes and fears;
May the traces of my living
Make this heirloom worthier giving.
Whence and Whither.
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