Vinaigrettes, popular from the late Eighteenth Century through to the end of the Nineteenth Century, were small containers used for holding various aromatic substances, usually dissolved in vinegar. By the Nineteenth Century, a variety of these perfume containers were on the market. The vinaigrette, a gilded metal box with a pierced, decorated interior grille, was used to hold sponges soaked in scented vinaigres de toilette (aromatic vinegar). The interiors were gilded to prevent the silver from staining. From 1800-1850 the boxes were manufactured in vast quantities and in various shapes and forms, many of the monogrammed, sometimes with the initials of the giver and recipient in a presentation inscription. The lids were sometimes decorated to commemorate important events, e.g. the death of Lord Nelson in 1805. Later they might depict specific houses or churches. Often the shapes were delicate and tasteful, reflecting the sophistication of the owner.
As with many personal antique items, the more novel the design and the more unusual the shape, the more desirable the vinaigrette. This development in design away from the standard rectangular and oval box to experimental shapes including books, wallets & satchels, nuts, eggs, watches, crowns and hearts to name a few, showcased the manufacturers’ skills and the owner’s or giver’s taste and status. These more unusual designs such as muscle shells and acorns have become very valuable to the collectors of today.
As designs became more experimental, so too did decorative features. During the Regency Period the grilles became more and more elaborate with intricate scrollwork, flowers and foliage. Other materials began to be used in addition to silver including gold, and many of the most desirable vinaigrettes had lids decorated with jewels or made out of polished agate, carnelian, onyx or other stones of interest.
Vinaigrettes were mostly worn around the neck by women for convenience – being able to quickly douse one’s self with scent or raise the preferred scents to the nose whilst travelling! They also proved useful in combatting ladies’ frequent fainting episodes caused by the wearing of tightly laced corsets. However, they were as much a fashionable statement as they were a practical necessity. Some of the finest examples from the era are demonstrated in the work of Nathanial Mills.