Recently, before Covid, on an Irish holiday of track, trace and view my wife’s relatives, the evening meal found her reminiscing long hot summers (we never seem to remember short cold summers) on the farm and the smell of silage that no one in the farmhouse seemed to notice. I said a vinaigrette would have proved useful, just as they were to the Georgian ladies as they traversed the smelly city streets.

At the end of the 18th century a combination of poor personal hygiene and disastrous sewage control made walking through streets a rather smelly business. Enter the vinaigrette. Used by many in polite society, it was a tiny hinged box which opened to reveal a decorative grill trapping a perfume soaked sponge. When held close to the nostrils the smell was considerably more pleasant than the surrounding odours.

The earliest vinaigrettes were simply the tiny boxes already described. The interior of the box was gilt lined to prevent the acidic liquid from destroying the metal. A side ring would be added, which enabled the owner to wear it as a pendant on a necklace or as part of a bracelet.

As the earliest vinaigrettes were so small their decoration was little more than simple engraving or bright cut patterns. However by the early 19th century vinaigrettes had grown somewhat and now at an enormous 4cms there was room for much more elaborate decoration. They were decorated with intricate scrollwork, flowers and foliage and figural and animal designs. The borders were often cast raised with flowers and shells and the lids could sometimes be engraved with initials or personal Coats of Arms.

The basic rectangular form was eventually abandoned in favour of more exciting shapes and designs. These varied widely from tiny purses and fob watches to books, flowers, fish, animals and shells. These are the details that make the collecting of vinaigrettes such an exciting and vibrant hobby for today’s collector and why they always sell so well in the saleroom.

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

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