Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery - April 2016

Victorian scent bottle or vinaigrette

Victorian Perfume

April’s Object of the Month is a Victorian era scent bottle, otherwise known as a vinaigrette. This charming trinket has been chosen by Julie Hawksworth, the Museum’s Visitor Services Manager.  Julie has an Art History degree and the history of fashion and accessories has always appealed to her in the museum world.

This glass scent bottle has two ends: one is a screw top that opens to contain a glass vial for decanting scent, and the other is a flip top lid that opens to reveal a perforated top containing a small piece of cork that would have been soaked in aromatic substances, usually dissolved in vinegar - hence the term vinaigrette!

Scent bottles and vinaigrettes were often carried about on the person, and are usually a bit smaller than this one, often with a chain or clip to be attached to a belt or chatelaine.  It was important to have your vinaigrette to hand to combat the smells of the Victorian town and city.  Like this one, they often had flip top lids to allow the carrier to quickly open up and breathe in. 

Modern perfumery as we know and love it has its roots in the 1800s.  It was the clever Victorian chemists who came up with breakthroughs that took perfumery to a whole new level. The new synthetics were more reliable and stable – and sometimes enabled a perfumer to capture the smell of a flower whose own scent proves frustratingly elusive to extract naturally. Most fragrances in early to mid-Victorian times were delicate and floral. They were understated, and often simply conjured up the scent of a particular flower, such as jasmine, lavender, roses, honeysuckle.

This bottle would have allowed its owner to have easy access to pleasant smells, as well as top up her own fragrance whilst out and about. The bottle is very typical of its time, being highly decorative and ornate.  It was most likely to have been both a practical and aesthetic object on a Victorian lady’s dressing table.  There is still a faint aroma when you open the lid that wonderfully transports you back to a Victorian boudoir.

Julie says: “I chose this bottle as it’s a great example of the way Victorians liked to make everyday objects look beautiful. The legacy of decorative scent bottles is still with us today, with the likes of Chanel and Dior designing intricate cases of glass and crystal. There is also a real interest now in refilling collectable and vintage bottles, and scent is now often purchased separately to decant into them.”

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