Georgian Scent-Box – My Antique Silver Vinaigrette

In going back over the hundreds of posts I’ve made in this blog since I started it in 2009, which is coming onto eight years ago (yikes!), I suddenly realised that I’d never done one about one of my most-prized antiques. My teeny little vinaigrette box. So that’s what we’re covering today! Here it is:

This thing is really small. I mean really, really, really small! You could pack four or five of these into a standard matchbox without much trouble at all. That’s how tiny it is! The entire thing is solid sterling silver, and it is indeed, very old. It is the oldest piece of antique silver which I currently own, and almost certainly the smallest. So, what is it?

Antique Vinaigrettes

Vinaigrette-boxes, or simply just vinaigrettes were very popular during the 17-and-1800s, from the early Georgian era up through the end of the Victorian era. They were almost always little silver boxes, with gilt interiors, with pierced grilles and little sponges inside.

The sponges held a mixture of perfume or essential oils mixed with a drop or two of vinegar. This mixture created a sweet-smelling but also pungent aroma, designed to mask the stench of unwashed bodies, horse-manure, coal-smoke and other nasal assaults common during the 18th and 19th centuries. Since vinegar is acidic, vinaigrettes were always gilt (gold-lined or gold-plated) to prevent the acid from burning through the silver with which the boxes were made.

Vinaigrettes came in various sizes, from minuscule ones like this, to much larger ones about the size of a matchbox. They also came in a wide array of shapes, styles and designs. Those with strange, interesting, rare or novel designs are especially collectible.

The Hallmarks

This particular vinaigrette has the hallmarks of Thomas Spicer, for Birmingham, in 1823, and the duty mark of George IV, who reigned from 1820-1830. It also has its original sponge inside it! It’s a bit dry and crusty, but I didn’t want to throw it out.

Hallmarks on silverware change over time. Not just in style, size and shape, but also in the number of hallmarks. Knowing when different hallmarks were introduced and when they were discontinued is one way of dating a piece. This can be important when the item is particularly old, and the original set of hallmarks might have been polished out or unreadable. The duty mark for British silver was introduced in the 1700s and discontinued in 1890.

And here’s the vinaigrette fully-opened, with the sponge removed. You can see the full set of hallmarks here. Five in total: Maker’s mark of TS (Thomas Spicer), assay mark of an anchor (Birmingham), fineness mark of a Lion Passant (Sterling Silver), the date-letter (Z) for 1823, and finally – a duty mark of a monarch’s head (George IV). The TS maker’s mark has been repeated on both sides of the box.

The Fall of the Vinaigrette

Vinaigrettes died out in the Victorian era. When the soap-tax was repealed in the…1850s, I believe it was…it suddenly became much easier to wash onself, and one’s clothing. This moderate improvement in personal hygiene and laundry meant that for once, people didn’t stink so much. And if they did, cologne, scent of perfume was used to mask the smell. By the end of the century, the vinaigrette had pretty much become a museum piece.

 

Late Victorian Dentifrice Pot (Ca. 1890)

“Why Did You Buy a Toothpaste Pot!?”

No, I mean…really! Like…y’know…um…why?

I like antiques which are quirky, interesting, unusual and useful. Emphasis on useful. I don’t like buying anything – even an antique – if I don’t either like it, or can use it, in one way or another. And ever since I discovered that they existed, I decided that I couldn’t wait to have a beautiful antique toothpaste jar on my bathroom counter.

Getting to see such an exquisitely decorated little vessel, which was only put on this earth to serve us toothpaste!…makes the act of brushing one’s teeth twice a day just so much more pleasant – brightened by the fact that you get to scoop your toothpaste out of such a cute little container. And even when you’re not using it, that decorated little pot just looks just so decorative and pretty, sitting there on the shelf, and doing what it does. This is why I wanted one!

Well, that, and I’d been selling a lot of things online lately and I decided to treat myself a bit. I found this at the local flea-market, and thought it’d look good siting on my bathroom counter…

I’ve seen a few of these in my time. Square, round…even rectangular! But this was the first one I’ve ever seen with the gold paint on it…and it just jumped out at me, all shiny in the sunlight. It just looked like such a happy, cheerful little toothpaste pot! I had to have it. Once I got it home, I cleaned it, washed it out, and filled it with fresh toothpaste. Just getting to look at this charming, Victorian antique every morning would be all the motivation that I’d need to brush my teeth every day!

The toothpaste pots of Victorian England were undoubtedly, the most elegant and refined solution ever created, to the answer the age-old problem of how to package effective dental hygiene products to a public plagued by halitosis. In this posting, I’ll take a brief look at the history of dental hygiene, and how mankind arrived at the manufacture of these little toothpaste pots, and the contents they once held.

“Taking a Powder…”

These days, we’re so used to things coming in liquid form.

Liquid soap. Liquid toothpaste. Liquid medicines. Liquid deodorants…the list goes on, and on, and on.

And yet, this obsession with all kinds of liquid products is actually a pretty recent one. It wasn’t that long ago that most products that people bought for themselves for private consumption were not sold in liquid form. Medicines were not sold in pill-form or even in syrup-form. They were sold in powder-form, with each dose in folded paper sachets. To ‘take a powder’ was to take a dose of medicine – usually by tipping the powder into a glass of water and stirring it. The resultant diluted powder was gulped down and the dose taken. All kinds of medicines were administered this way, including painkillers or settlers for joint-pain, fever, headaches and upset stomachs.

Soap was sold in soap-powder form or in a hard, chunky block, which you either lathered as-was, or shaved or cut off with a knife. Deodorants were limited to whatever talcum-powder you could smack onto your body to absorb the perspiration from your skin.

And last, but not least – the subject of this posting: Toothpaste!

A Biting History of Dental Care

Throughout history, people have known that if you don’t look after your teeth, all kinds of nasty things can happen to them. They turn black, they crust over, they get infected, they fall out, you get abscesses, and if you get really unlucky like my brother did – you get a root-canal operation (yikes!).

I’ve always been pretty fortunate with my teeth. Like most kids I never took very good care of them (who can ever claim they did?) but after one particularly nasty visit to the dentist, as a teenager, got fed up with the whole debacle, and started methodically scrubbing my teeth twice a day. Since then (apart from one very unpleasant incident a few years ago which I still don’t understand how it happened…), I’ve had pretty good teeth. Not perfect (nobody will have perfect teeth without outside help from a dentist), but pretty good. No major damage or problems in years, apart from the odd hiccup.

Our ancestors were just as aware of the importance of, and the dangers of the neglect of – cleaning one’s teeth properly and regularly. And to combat this problem, they devised a truly staggering array of methods and materials to clean their teeth, from brushing it with ash or fireplace soot, to gargling their mouths with stale urine (delicious!). This last one was a favourite of the Ancient Romans. Urine contains ammonia, which bleaches things white. Basically – piss was the world’s first extra-whitening mouthwash! Also, piss was used to clean linens back in the old days, too – bedsheets and clothing were all soaked in stale piss to let the raw ammonia remove and lift the stains out.

Aren’t you glad we have washing-detergents now?

Anyway, by the Victorian times, mankind had moved on from brushing his teeth with soot and gargling it out with stale urine. The effects of dental neglect were by now very well known, and the effects of dental neglect were not improved by the sudden availability to the public at large, of a large and cheap quantity of sugar!

Previous to the 1800s, all sugar came from sugar-canes – these only grow in tropical regions, which meant that for centuries, sugar was a priceless luxury – indulged in only by the richest people, who could afford the prices of sugar which had been processed, packed and shipped from thousands and thousands of miles away.

When it became known that sugar could be extracted from sugar-beets, which grow in more temperate climates, the price of sugar collapsed, and suddenly what once cost a king’s ransom, the average, workaday man could go out and buy.

The rise in sugar, and an increasing access to more food meant that for the first time in history, people’s teeth were under serious attack. And Victorian dentists and pharmacists came to the rescue – with specially-invented cleaning products!

Victorian Tooth Powders

Despite the labels on the tins (or in this case – pots!) – tooth-paste as we would recognise it, did not actually exist in Victorian times. The technology and science of the era did not permit the consistent manufacture of a paste or gel-like substance which kept well enough and which could be produced to a high-enough quality to clean the teeth on a regular basis. So what happened?

Pharmacists, apothecaries and dentists fell back on their old standby – powders!

The first commercially-produced tooth-cleaners, of a sort, were not tooth-pastes, they were tooth-powders. Often, these concoctions were homemade, using whatever materials could be found. The pharmacist would be constantly mixing, changing and testing, until the right combination of ingredients was reached. The recipe was written down and then repeated whenever a new order for tooth-powder came in.

Common ingredients in Victorian tooth-powders included crushed soap-flakes (for the lathering effect), baking soda, powdered plant-extracts of various kinds (for disinfection), and usually at least one abrasive – brick dust or even powdered china (you know, from broken plates? These were used to scrub off tartar and teeth-stains). All these ingredients were all crushed up in a mortar and pestle, ground up until they were as fine as talcum-powder. A flavouring (for example – oil of peppermint) was then added and mixed in, to give it a pleasant flavour. Then, the finished product was packed up and sold to the public!

For the apothecary or pharmacist, a solid brass mortar and pestle such as this one would’ve been indispensable in their work. Easily cleaned, and nigh indestructible, it would ensure the end product was pure and without contamination. 

Such tooth-powders, or ‘dentifrices’ as they’re called (a ‘dentifrice’ is something that cleans the teeth – it’s not necessarily a powder), while originally made by pharmacists and doctors doing their own, homemade experiments – but once a winning recipe had been discovered, they might well go into fullscale production!

The thing is – how do you sell something like this to the teeth-conscious public? You couldn’t very well sell tooth-powder in paper sachets, and since ‘toothpaste’ wasn’t actually a paste, you couldn’t sell it in a tube, either! And even if it was – the ability to make cheap, throwaway squeeze-tubes (of the kind we buy today) was not possible in Victorian times. The first ones were made of lead!

Because of this, the Victorians instead sold their tooth powders in little ceramic pots…

Victorian Dentifrice Pots

Exactly WHEN people started selling toothpaste in cute little pots is unknown. The earliest dates I can find seem to be the 1870s and 1880s, although this isn’t based on any really solid evidence.

These pots were pretty small – about the size of a modern tin of shoe-polish. They were very simple, too. A base, the sides, the hollow inside to hold the powder, an indented lip, and a lid, which simply sat on top – and that was it! They didn’t screw, latch or lock down like modern toothpaste tubes, or even modern screw-top jars! The lid simply sat on top of the pot – if you tipped it the wrong way, the lid would be in danger of falling off!

Tooth powders were simply dumped into these pots until they were full, and then the full pots were sold to the customers. The pots were likely secured either in throwaway paper boxes, to stop them rattling around, or were just taped shut.

Either way, these pots would’ve graced the dressing-tables, wash-stands and bathroom counters of thousands of people in the late Victorian era, when cost-effective and easy dental-care came into the reach of the masses. And as ever, the claims on the packaging were always the same. Over a century later and nothing has changed! They promised to whiten teeth, remove tartar, and freshen the breath!

I got interested in Victorian toothpaste jars from the moment I realised what they were, mostly because of the sort of novelty aspect of them – they’re so different from how we get our toothpaste today! I mean yes, we get them in nice, brightly-coloured tubes – but there’s something just so satisfying about storing it in a decorated little ceramic pot on the shelf, which you buy once, but clean and refill countless times!

And they look SO much more elegant than those tubes of AIM, PEPSODENT, COLGATE and McCLEANS!

That said, for all their elegance of presentation, and reusability of packaging, brushing your teeth with a tooth-powder was a bit more involved than squirting something onto a brush and stuffing it in your mouth!

To get the powder to stick to the toothbrush, it was necessary to moisten it first. Either by sticking it in your mouth, or by dipping it in water. This allowed the powder to stick to the bristles of the toothbrush (which in Victorian times, were made of wood, and bristled with pig-hair!) so that it wouldn’t fall off and go absolutely everywhere, when you lifted the brush from the pot to your mouth. It was only after you mixed the powder with water that it really ecame ‘tooth-paste’.

Thereafter, the process of cleaning is exactly the same today – except that the Victorians didn’t have fancy-schmancy battery-powered electric toothbrushes like we do!

Victorian toothpaste pots are highly collectible. Numerous manufacturers produced all kinds of styles and patterns, pictures and lettering on the lids of their toothpaste pots. I’ve even seen one or two with words like “Patronised by the Queen” printed on them!

Almost all the decorations, maker’s names, company addresses and printed advertising material on the lids of these pots was applied through a process called transfer-printing. Ceramics with this type of decoration are known as ‘transfer-ware’.

Transfer-Printing

Before the invention of transfer-printing – all the pretty pictures, the flowers, the idyllic scenes, the writing, the company-information…everything that went on every ceramic item ever sold – had to be laboriously painted onto it by hand, by some poor bastard sitting at a table with a brush in his hand! One mistake and the item would be rejected. And it took ages just to paint one tiny little cup, pot or bowl.

This all changed when the labour-intensive, but relatively-speaking – much faster – transfer-printing process was invented in the 1750s. It took a while, but by the 1800s, transfer-printed ceramics was a way of life for many people.

Transfer-printing works pretty simply – You get a copper plate. You engrave the design of whatever it is you want, onto the plate. You warm up the plate and paint on a special mixture of ink. You then laid down a sheet of paper over the inked plate and ran it through a press. This printed the image engraved on the copper onto the sheet of paper. The paper was then trimmed and cut to gain access to the various parts of the design, and then the paper was pressed onto the ceramic object being decorated.

In this way, the print was transferred from the copper to the ceramic. Transfer-printing!

To make it last, the printed ceramic item was then fired in a kiln to set the colours and inks; this dried them permanently and stopped them fading or running. It was a fiddly process, but it was a lot faster than painting or drawing on each individual pot by hand, and then sitting around all day waiting for it to dry! On top of all this, the results were far more consistent – important, when a company’s reputation was at stake!

Yes, you had to engrave the plate, yes you had to print each cup or bowl or plate or saucer one at a time – but in the time it used to take to paint one plate or bowl, dozens of such items could be transfer-printed! It was a fast, cheap, effective way of decorating ceramics, and it made actual sets of ceramics, all featuring the same pattern – a possibility. It was this process which printed all the pretty details on antique pots, like the ones used to sell tooth-powders in. It finally died out in the 1910s and 20s, when faster decoration processes were invented, such as premade decals which could simply be pressed on and then made permanent by painting them in with a clear-coat glaze.

The End of Transfer-Printed Tooth-Powder Pots

Pots like these for all their beauty, did not last especially long. By the early 20th century, they were already dying out. The First World War really saw their end. It wasn’t practical to send thousands of little ceramic jars to the front lines for the troops, all filled with powder. Advances in medicine meant that proper toothpastes were now available, and these could be stored in thin, metal tubes which could be squeezed to release the paste onto a brush in a measured amount. And the tooth-powder pot was relegated to the bathroom of history…

Where Can I Buy a Dentifrice Pot? 

Dentifrice pots are pretty common as far as antiques go. They’re usually dug out of old rubbish-tips and stuff. Complete pots with their lids and bases, without damage or loss of artwork on the lid can go for a pretty penny, especially if the pot is of an odd shape, size, or from a famous company, or if the artwork is particularly fantastic. Most bog-standard toothpaste pots are pretty cheap, though.

You can probably find them easily at most flea-markets and antiques shops (although they’ll cost more in antiques shops). But they are small, common, and pretty – and that does make them highly desirable as a collectible – some people even collect the lids on their own, without looking for the entire pot!

 

Mid-Victorian Mahogany-Sleeved Naval Telescope. Ca. 1860.

“Cap’n! Presents off the larboard bow!” 
“I see ’em! Ready the launch! You there – come about into the wind! We’ll not let them escape us now! Bring up the harpoons!” 

The greatest thing about collecting antiques is that you always find the best birthday presents for yourself, if you search hard enough! I picked up this stunning beauty for my birthday! Yes, I’m officially…29. Oh, the horror, shame, and disgrace of it all…!


Up Close and Personal!

Aaaaanyway… 

What we have here is an old-fashioned nautical telescope, as was used on the sailing-ships of old. And boy is it ever a monster! It’s 11in. closed, extends to 39in drawn out, and weighs a substantial 1lb 10oz (approx 750g)! A lightweight, it ain’t!

Features of Construction

This stunning antique features entirely brass construction, with the exception of the wooden sleeve around the barrel, and of course, the glass in the lenses. It is possessed of four, brass draw-tubes, as you can see in the photograph below:


All Drawn Out… 

A four-tube telescope means that it has four tubular extensions which collapse into each other, and which then all slide into the main barrel at the front of the telescope.

I’m not sure how old this telescope is, to be honest. It’s of a style that was widely manufactured from the 1700s right up to the 1900s, but the fellow I got it from believed it to be from around 1850 or 1860. For something roughly 150 years old — after extensive cleaning — it does work pretty well! The threaded brass coupling-rings hold well (or they do, after a minor adjustment), and the tubes slide in and out smoothly, if a bit more firmly than I’m used to!

The telescope has a two-piece achromatic lens at the front, a two-lens relay system inside the smallest draw-tube, and an eyepiece lens at the far end – so four (or five, depending on how you count it), lenses in all!


Here it is, next to my solid brass, pocket telescope from the 1890s. As you can see, there’s a huge size difference! 

As one would probably expect from something like this, it’s got a GREAT range, and surprisingly clear optics for a piece that’s obviously seen quite a hard life. There’s one small blemish on an interior lens which, try as I might, I couldn’t remove, but other than that – the clarity is impressive.

Using the Telescope

Since it is 150 years old, I expected the telescope to be dirty. I didn’t expect it to be THIS dirty! It required EXTENSIVE cleaning to get it to function even halfway decent! And I’m still cleaning it! But despite that, it’s beginning to show signs of the smoothness of function it once had.

To draw the telescope, I’ve found it’s best to hold it at the near end of the barrel (away from the lens) and to pull firmly, but smoothly, to get the draw tubes out, and to hold the barrel in the middle, when snapping the tubes shut again.

As I said, this telescope is quite chunky, so using it can be a bit of a challenge. I generally hold the largest, or second-largest draw-tube in order to balance this beast, and then adjust the focus by sliding the smallest draw-tube in and out, until clarity is achieved.

The good thing is that this is done relatively easily. The bad thing is that it’s surprisingly tiring on the arms! A telescope that weighs about a pound and a half doesn’t sound like much to carry around (and it isn’t), but when you’ve held it up in one hand for any length of time while trying to look through it, the weight does start to pull on your shoulders a bit! One wonders how the sailors of old ever managed to use this thing on the rocking, rolling deck of a sailing ship!

Cleaning the Telescope

The one saving grace about this telescope – and most telescopes of this design – is that they’re extraordinarily easy to clean. All the draw-tubes, lenses and coupling-rings screw together. All you need is a box of tissues, some oil, and a firm grip to screw and unscrew, and you can pull apart the entire telescope to clean it. There aren’t that many parts, and there’s no way you can confuse one part for another, so they’re very easy to put back together again.

You don’t need any special tools or equipment – just a few basic cleaning supplies and a spare afternoon. I think it’s amazing how something which is so easily assembled is at the same time, so incredibly powerful, and yet, so simply constructed. Even a child could do this. I love the thoughtfulness of the design in that the manufacturer imagined that the owner might want to disassemble his own telescope for cleaning and maintenance. I don’t know many consumer products today which are this user-friendly!

Repairing the Telescope

As much fun as this telescope is to use and to clean and polish, when I bought it, the telescope also had one significant flaw – It wouldn’t stay together.

As I said above, the telescope’s components quite literally just screw, one-into-the-other, in a set sequence of construction. Easily followed and impossible to screw up. A few good twists would be all that’d be needed to pull the thing apart, clean it, and reassemble it. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with this telescope.

Probably due to overzealous cleaning in the past, or possibly a manufacturing fault, or simply just 150-years’ worth of wear and tear, the thread that held in the largest draw-tube (the one which connects to the barrel) was not gripping properly. It simply refused to hold. After screwing it in as hard as possible, it’d simply pop right out again after one good pull! Hardly ideal!

I pulled the telescope apart and cleaned the threads, and then to fix this problem, I wrapped ordinary paper masking-tape around the threads on the coupling-ring. Just once.


Group Shot! My big telescope, my small telescope, and my field glasses all together. All brass, all antique. What a pretty trio they make.

I trimmed off the excess tape with a pocket-knife, and then screwed the two components back together. No oil, no graphite powder, nothing. Just a simple layer of sticky tape. It cost me literally nothing! and yet…the repair worked!

Just one layer of tape was all I needed to build up the necessary thickness, friction and ‘bite’ necessary for the threads to screw in smoothly, and for the connection to hold! it took me less than five minutes to repair. Don’t be daunted by broken antiques – sometimes all it takes is a bit of creativity to return them to full functionality.

Video

Last but not least, here’s a short video I made about the telescope:

 

Victorian Aide Memoires

Used most commonly in the Victorian era, the Aide Memoire (French for ‘Memory Aid’) is one of the quirkiest antiques that you could find today. Most people who come across them have no idea what they are, and frankly I’m not surprised. So, here we go…

Aide memoires were riveted booklets made of very thin slices of ivory, usually numbering between five to eight pages in length, and usually having the days of the week on the pages (usually Monday through to Saturday, and sometimes Sunday).

More elaborate versions had covers of pierced silver, mother-of-pearl, or tortoise-shell as decoration, while others had simple ivory covers, sometimes with silver edgings or cartouches riveted on.

Aide memoires were popular during the 1700s and 1800s, slowly dying out in the early 20th century, and their existence is directly linked to the evolution of writing instruments during this period.

The Function of an Aide Memoire

In an age when the dip-pen ruled supreme, and the only portable writing instrument was the propelling pencil made of sterling silver, or the humble, wood-cased pencil which more often than not, was sharpened with the blade of a pocket-knife, writing notes on the move was a tricky and messy process. Paper was expensive, ink was prone to leaks, and small, pocket notepads had not yet been conceived. So how did you keep reminders of what you needed to do that week?

You bought an aide memoire.

On an aide memoire, you wrote in pencil the things you needed to remember for that week. The dates of doctor’s appointments, nights at the theatre, dinner with friends, shopping that had to be done, and so on. At the end of each week, the ivory sheets were wiped clean with a damp cloth, and the details for the next week’s engagements were written down.

Like an iPad or personal organiser today, the original expenditure on an aide memoire was likely to be fairly high, but the money saved in paper was probably considered to be worth the expense.

Aide memoires varied in size and intricacy, from tiny little ones not much larger than matchboxes, to significantly larger ones almost the size of a modern iPhone (which is about as big as they get).

They usually resided in a gentleman’s coat pocket, on a watch-chain, in a lady’s handbag, or else hung from a chain on her chatelaine. Aide memoires designed for chatelaines and pocketwatch chains came with a ring, swing-toggle or hook on the end so that they could be clipped on safely without fear of loss or breakage.

Due to their extremely thin sheets of ivory, aide memoires are pretty fragile. They need to be handled with care, and cleaned gently. Any old marks or stains can generally be polished off with warm water. If there are heavier stains, then a microscopic amount of Brasso metal-polish will also do the trick; a drop will suffice.

Aide memoires did exist in other formats; versions of them were included in higher-quality writing boxes, and these ranged from cheap waxed cardboard, to ivory, to the new wonder-material of the 1800s: Celluloid. Portable, pocket aide memoires were also made of celluloid, but ivory was always the preferred material.