Vinaigrettes became extremely popular during the Georgian period as an attractive means
of disguising unpleasant smells and odours. These days they can make an attractive display on dressing tables, where they are a reminder of days when hygiene left much to
If we could be miraculously transported into the past, one of the things we would
probably find most unpleasant would be the smell. Our ancestors were little concerned with sanitation or personal hygiene and they coped with the daily assault on the nostrils by trying to cover a had smell with a good one.
To this end, ladies and gentlemen were in the habit of carrying with them various devices that could be sniffed whenever they were assailed by a particularly bad stench.
One such was the vinaigrette - a small box containing a sponge soaked in aromatic vinegar.
The lids of these boxes are always hinged, and inside is a second, perforated lid, underneath which the sponge was placed.
Vinaigrettes were most commonly made of silver and the inner container for the sponge was heavily gilded in order to prevent corrosion.
Although the name 'vinaigrette' sounds French, the device was in fact an English invention.
The earliest examples date from about 1720 and they were most common between 1780 and 1880.
They were often tiny, sometimes no bigger than 2.5cm (1 inch) square by 1cm/h inch deep.
Usually they were carried in a pocket or on a watch chain, but there are also examples designed to be worn on a chain around the neck or even incorporated into a ring.
The height of popularity for vinaigrettes was reached in the 1820s, when they were often exchanged as keepsakes and tokens of affection.
As hygiene improved in the 19th century, their function changed and ladies began to fill them with smelling salts to combat attacks of
'the vapours'. As their practical use diminished, vinaigrettes became increasingly decorative.
By about 1860, however, they began to be superseded by the double-ended scent bottle, although examples dating from the late 19th century can sometimes be found.
AROMATIC VINAIGRETTES COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Vinaigrettes are an attractive proposition for the would-be collector because of the enormous variety of styles and designs. They were usually made of silver, and the hallmark may appear on the lid or on the inside of the base.
However, some vinaigrettes were exempt from hall marking because of their extremely small size. Before about 1790 even the larger examples were rarely hallmarked.
Manufacturers' marks to look out for include those of Samuel Pemberton, Matthew Linwood, Nathaniel Mills, Joseph Willmore and Joseph Taylor.
They all worked in the Birmingham area (one of the principal centres of the silver trade) and produced vinaigrettes that are among the most highly prized by collectors today.
The most sought-after designs include those with pictorial designs such as portraits or identifiable views and those of unusual shape.
When vinaigrettes do not have a hallmark, dating can be problematic. Sometimes a date can be deduced or guessed from an allusion in the design to a contemporary event, such as the Battle of Trafalgar
(1805), or from an inscription, but often the collector will be thrown back on his knowledge of the changing fashions of the day.
The makers of vinaigrettes were greatly influenced in their designs by the current vogues in architecture, decoration and furniture.
Chinoiserie, neoclassical or rococo elements in the design, for example, may help to suggest a likely date of manufacture when these were fashionable.
Prices vary widely, from a modest amount for one of the plainest, rectangular examples from the late 18th century or an early
19th century machine-embossed floral design up to the high hundreds or even more for a portrait vinaigrette or one of the rare novelty items.
Most collectors find it wise to begin with the more common 19th-century machine embossed examples before investing large sums in rarer items.
Vinaigrettes are not objects that have been much faked, but you should be on your guard against later alterations aimed at increasing the value of an unremarkable piece.
Sometimes a new perforated inner lid is used to replace one that is missing or damaged, and engraving can be used to convert a plain vinaigrette into a much fancier one.
During the 19th century, vinaigrettes were often given as keepsakes; many could be bought embellished with general purpose expressions of regard or affection.
Many purchasers or owners of silver vinaigrettes liked to have personal words engraved on them. Names, initials and family mottoes were used in this way.
It is amazing how much fine detail the craftsmen of the time were able to create in such tiny objects.
Gilt grilles, beautifully worked with flowers and leaves are features of some, although most were made of silver with some
examples in pinchbeck (an alloy of copper and zinc), gold, glass, porcelain and semi-precious stones like agate and cornelian.