Vinaigrettes

Scent as a Status Symbol

This c. 1870 tintype captures the woman on the left wearing a combination
perfume bottle and vinaigrette on her waist.

Picture yourself as a well-to-do lady or gentleman strolling down a street in 18th or 19th century England. Becoming faint due to the unpleasant odors of raw sewage wafting from the gutters at your feet (or perhaps being suffocated by a too-tight corset), you reach for the small decorative box around your neck or in your pocket, spring it open, and inhale the fragrantly perfumed vinegar- or oil-soaked sponge inside, reviving your senses. Such was the primary purpose of vinaigrettes, which rose to popularity primarily in England, during a time well before indoor plumbing or sewers when baths were believed to be dangerous and it was thought that cholera could be kept at bay by perfume or vinegar. These diminutive works not only served a practical purpose, they were also status symbols; made of precious metal and often elaborately decorated, vinaigrettes could only be afforded by the elite and served to distinguish them while out in public. They most often took the form of a rectangle or square, but novelty shapes such as flowers, purses or urns were also popular. By the end of the 19th century they fell out of style, in part because of scientific advances in synthetic scents which allowed them to be mass-produced and offered at a more reasonable, and accessible, price. These intricate and unique relics are now highly collectible and are a fascinating visual reminder of the evolution of sanitation and personal hygiene.