Stopping to Smell The Roses: A George III Silver Vinaigrette

I am a firm believer that products made in the 1700s and 1800s, and during the first half of the 20th century, were, and are, of far better quality and were held to much higher standards of manufacture, than anything made today.

It is the chief reason why I love antiques.

Today, I’m here to talk about this:

This tiny little object (tiny? You could fit two of them in a matchbox!) is one of the half-dozen or so things which I purchased during my latest antiques-bargain-hunting scrounge-fest. It is a vinaigrette.

“…it’s a what??”

It is a vinaigrette.

A what…?”

A vinaigrette! It would’ve originally held a tiny sponge impregnated with perfume (to provide sweetness), and vinegar (for pungency), in order to mask offensive or unpleasant smells and odours – hence ‘vinaigrette’ – it has nothing to do with that salad you’re munching on!

Vinaigrettes were invented in the 1600s, but were not really made out of silver until the 1700s. They are largely considered an artifact of the Georgian era (1714-1837), although they were also made during the Victorian era, albeit in increasingly…uh…decreasing…numbers.

Why are you writing about it?

Chiefly because to me, vinaigrettes are one of the best examples (apart from watches) of the capabilities of mankind.

This thing is microscopically small – almost literally! It blows my mind that something as intricate as this was made BY HAND. The silver sheeting was pressed, shaped, punched, cast and filed by hand. The tiny, tiny hinges were rolled and folded by hand. The grille was measured and pierced by hand, with amazing precision, enough to include little flowers in it!

The flowers-and-leaves engraved decoration on the lid is eye-wateringly detailed, in a space smaller than a modern postage-stamp!

The skill, the patience, the experience, the steady-handedness, and the phenomenal artistry that went into something so unbelievably small, really takes my breath away.

“The inside’s gold!…I thought you said this thing was silver!?”

It is! But the inside is gilt (basically – gold-plated). This was to prevent the acid in the vinegar or perfume, from corroding the silver. For all its luster and glory, silver has surprising weak-points: it’s very susceptible to acid and salt, and various foodstuffs like meat, seafood, and certain vegetables. It’s one of the reasons why silver was gilt, or had glass liners inserted in various pieces of silver dinnerware – to protect the silver and prolong its life.

It’s also, by the way, why in those period drama TV shows, the servants are forever polishing silver – because the use it was put to 100, 200 years ago, meant that it tarnished very easily, especially when it was exposed to the heat and smoke and dust of gas-mantles, candles, and oil-fired table-lamps.

“Who Used Vinaigrettes?”

Everyone! Both men and women used vinaigrettes, although some models or sizes of vinaigrettes were aimed more, or less, at each gender. For example, a vinaigrette which had a built-in snuffbox would more likely have been used by a man. A vinaigrette with a heavy floral motif, or which was extremely small (yes, they do get even SMALLER than this, believe it or not!), would’ve been used by a woman.

They existed at a time when the world…and the people which inhabited it…smelled very different to how we do today. Standards of personal hygiene were questionable at best, and although the streets did not reek of petrol-fumes and exhaust smoke, they were nonetheless polluted with the stench emanating from a rather different kind of horsepower. In many ways, the story of the vinaigrette is the story of human hygiene.

As hot water became more readily available with coal-fired boilers, piped, running water, cast-iron cookstoves and soap became increasingly cheap (it had previously been taxed to the hilt in Georgian times), men and women found themselves much more able to bathe in comfort, and take bathing as a pleasure rather than as an unpleasant and shameful chore. As more and more people bathed, the need to mask unpleasant smells with your own personal scent-box declined, leading to the eventual end of vinaigrette-manufacturing at the turn of the 20th century.

“So really…how small are they?”

Well, this’ll give you some idea…

…here we’ve got two vinaigrettes on top of a standard box of matches. They were made bigger than this, but most were designed to be small, pocket-sized things, just large enough to hold under your nose and take a whiff from.

 

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