It is difficult to comprehend that some of our smallest works of antique art took their inspiration from disease, foul odors and fleas, yet the facts are indisputable.
Imagine a typical overcrowded 18th- or 19th-century city without plumbing facilities, where refuse littered the streets and animals roamed freely. Consider the multiple layers of heavy clothing people wore year round and how rarely those same people bathed, if at all. There was little oral hygiene and no hygienic paper products. There were no washing machines and no routine garbage collection. It was a world where rodents ruled and both animals and humans carried fleas. There was Febreze, although it was certainly needed.
How would a person mitigate these circumstances enough to make life bearable? If you were poor, you could not. If you were well heeled, however, you could purchase a vinaigrette or fancy flea trap.
To the wealthy, flea traps were every bit as much an accessory as jewelry, hats, gloves or a fan. They were worn around the neck, tucked into clothing, stashed under a wig, or placed in a bed. Flea traps have been in use since the Middle Ages. They were made of silver or ornately carved ivory or bone, their beauty shrouding their unpleasant purpose.
Early flea traps, which are scarce to begin with, are even more difficult to find because they are often misidentified as vinaigrettes or even needle cases. As a result, comparative pricing can be tricky. Linear, cylinder and bulbous shapes are the most common forms and sell in the $250 to $300 range, although there is one 17th-century example currently listed online for $20,000, a highly inflated price.
An interesting fact to note is the origin of the color puce. “Puce” is the French word for “flea,” and by extension, the color of the stain remaining on a bedsheet after a sated flea has been crushed. You may never think of puce in quite the same way again.
Throughout history, foul odors were another unpleasant aspect of daily life. Although, of necessity, people became accustomed to the circumstances that caused the odors, they still attempted to alleviate them. During the Middle Ages people began to use pomanders to introduce a pleasant fragrance to the environment. Initially, pomanders were made at home, much like those we still make during the holidays. People used citrus fruit pierced with herbs like cloves or they saved the skin of an orange and stuffed it with a rag or sponge that had been soaked in vinegar. Oranges and vinegar were believed to have the power to ward off illness.
Pomanders were also made of silver and gold, often with enamel work or even mounted with gems. These would be filled with sponges or cloths infused with scents. They were worn around the neck, wrist or on a chatelaine. They could also be placed in a trunk or cabinet with clothing.
Another innovation that soon largely replaced the pomander was the pouncet box. Pouncet boxes emerged during the late 16th century in England and were used primarily by the wealthy. The pouncet box was flat and circular in shape with a perforated lid that held vinegar-soaked sponges or cloths. Both men and women carried pouncet boxes to overpower any foul odor and, more importantly, to offer protection from infected air, then considered to be the source of contagion.
By the late 18th century, the pouncet box evolved into a smaller silver container known as a vinaigrette, from the French word for vinegar – vinaigre. The vinaigrette worked on the same principle as the pomander and pouncet box. Aromatic substances dissolved in vinegar or concentrated scented oils were used to saturate sponges or fabric placed in the vinaigrette, which was carried in a pocket, worn around the neck or suspended from a chatelaine. The amount of detail silversmiths managed to apply to such small pieces is quite remarkable. These are truly artworks.
Novelty vinaigrettes in the form of musical instruments, shoes, wallets, satchels, hearts, eggs, nuts, and even books were very popular during the 19th century and are highly desirable today. The violin vinaigrette shown here is valued in the $500 to $600 range.
By the mid-19th century, the popularity of the vinaigrette was waning. Younger women viewed vinaigrettes as outdated accessories carried by older women who used them more for their invigorating effect than as a prophylaxis. During the early 20th century they were collected as curiosities and regarded as bjets d’art or bibelots. Chances are you have overlooked these treasures at an antique show or auction. They are usually exhibited in jewelry display cases and can be easy to overlook when they’re jumbled together with other items.
Knowing about flea traps, typically identified as pomanders, will afford you the opportunity to obtain an antique far scarcer than vinaigrettes – an antique not many people have in their collection.
While on the subject of fleas and flea markets, do you know the origin of the term “flea market?” The phrase is derived from the French name “marché aux puces” (market of fleas) that applied to a market in Paris specializing in secondhand goods, especially clothing of the sort that might contain fleas. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the date 1922 as the year when the phrase was first used in its English translated form.
By DR. ANTHONY J. CAVO
Our thanks to Antique Trader for sharing this article. Click to visit Antique Trader online.