Monday, August 4, 2014

Jane Austen's Potpourri

by Susanne Dietze

Ah, the sweet smell of historical romance. When I open a romance novel set in America or Europe of the past, the scents are easy to imagine: fresh air, scythed grass, naturally musky heroes, and rose-scented ladies. Except in real life, our characters might not have smelled so, er, pleasant.
Thanks to poor waste management and infrequent bathing and clothes washing, our romantic heroes and heroines (and ancestors) were not Zestfully Clean by today’s standards, and were no doubt familiar with strong odors of the body, animal, and garbage varieties.
Ladies being ladies, however, our foremothers did something about it.
George Dunlop Leslie's "Pot-pourri" circa 1874. Public Domain. The gown is gorgeous, isn't it?
Potpourri, the blending of herbs, oils, and leaves to create a pleasant fragrance, was popular in Europe since the 1600’s. Anyone with access to fragrant plants could blend them in a bowl and keep them on hand to improve the fragrance of their homes. By the mid to late 1700’s, when Jane Austen's parents were young, the wealthy could show off their nice-smelling stuff in gorgeous bowls and lidded vases produced by some of the finest craftsmen in Europe, which, as you can see from the above painting, were still in use during the Victorian period--and are highly collectable today.
Here are a few fancier pieces.
The (wealthy) Regency characters  I create all seem to boast Sèvres porcelain pieces from France because such items were  found in English drawing rooms at the time, and I think they're lovely. The lidded potpourri vase below is on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles,California. It was crafted in a boat shape of paste porcelain about 1760 and painted pink and green with gilding.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.
I love the pink color and the detail. See the holes for the good smells to permeate through? Only a dozen of these were made (but English craftsmen copied them in other colors through the next hundred years).

Here's another Sèvres piece from the Getty, one of a pair found in the bedroom of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV. 

Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
This one is interesting to me because of the Chinese woodcut scene copied onto the side, and the unique structure of the vases. Divided into thirds, the vase's bottom housed flowering bulbs; the middle section held potpourri; and the pierced lid let the good smells escape.

For fans of the color blue, here is a pair of vases for you (also on display at the Getty). These came from the Vincennes Porcelain Factory in France, circa 1755.
Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
The lapis color had only been invented a few years previously and was difficult to get right.

England's porcelain factories created pretty vases, too. The ones below were made by Minton & Co. of Stoke-on-Trent in 1855 (displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum).
It's interesting to note that it was modeled on an earlier Sèvres piece, just as the boat-shaped vase at the top was copied in many colors as time went on.
Forgive the quality of the photo below, but I took it on my cell phone at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California. This fancy pink piece was made by the Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory in England in the 18th century.

by Susanne Dietze
The painting on the side is so detailed. What a pretty piece!

Whether or not you have your own porcelain potpourri vase, you can still pretend to be Jane Austen and make your own potpourri. You can search out old recipes, but the one on display at the Huntington Library is pretty simple:

Combine alternating layers of fragrant plants and salt until the container is full. Cover and place container in the sun, stirring every other day, for a year before use. (Yes, a year! Some recipes apparently "brewed" for nine years!)

And just what plants to use? Try rose petals, lavender, marjoram, thyme, laurel, cloves, nutmeg, carnations--just to name a few.

As for me, I'll go the quick route and light a scented candle. At least today.

Susanne Dietze covets these fancy vases, but would probably break one if she owned it. You can learn about her and her novels on her website.



  1. Nice subject :) Love the vases and imagining the pretty smells.

    1. Thanks, Dina! The vases are something else. Such craftsmanship. And they're a lot larger than today's tart burners.

  2. Mmmm. I can smell the yummy fragrances of rose and lavender. This is lovely, Susie. The pictures are gorgeous.

    1. I confess I'm curious what a year's worth of brewing would do to the scent. Today's potpourris generally contain essential oils and additional fragrances.

  3. Those are definitely a step up from the wicker baskets and random glass bowls I've used for potpourri. My MIL used to make a wonderful blend out of orange peels, clove, cinnamon, and old bits of vanilla-scented candle. Yummy.

    1. Mmm, that blend sounds wonderful, Niki. Makes me almost ready for autumn!

  4. Ah, another reason I love to read historicals but wouldn't want to live them. :D

    However, the potpourri containers are lovely.

    1. Bad smells, no antibiotics, no plumbing, limited handwashing--why wouldn't you want to live in a historical? lol. I could handle it for a few days, I suppose, depending on where I was (and how wealthy a person's life I was inhabiting!).


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