“Choosing” (Portrait of Ellen Terry) George Frederick Watts, 1864
In the centuries that followed, potpourri-making altered significantly. Dried flowers and herbal ingredients, and oils could all be purchased at an apothecary store. Along with the introduction of the steam distillation process for producing essential oils, pure essential oils also became more affordable and were readily available commercially.
Potpourri in the Victorian era was made by combining favorite dried flowers and herbs with natural fixatives (like orris root) and fragrant essential oils. Rather than grey masses of unrecognizable ingredients resulting from the moist potpourri-making method, individual flowers were now recognizable and colors were more vivid in these dry-method blends. Scents were pure and enlivening. With the right ingredients, potpourri could be made with ease, with beautiful elements could be grown in the garden or bought at the local herb shop.
19th Century Potpourri Vase
A Victorian Sachet
Check back next week for post six, “Potpourri Into the 21st Century,” in the series “A History of Potpourri.”
Potpourri in the 17th Century This post is the fourth in a seven-part series, A History of Potpourri.
Painting of a woman making potpourri, 1867
We arrive in France. It’s the 17th century and the crafting of potpourri, the “rotten pot,” provides a popular accessory for home decor. Potpourri-making was a process of layering fresh flowers and herbs with coarse salt which acted as a preservative and drying agent, in covered ceramic vessels. More flowers, herbs and salt were added to the original mixture throughout Spring and Summer as the garden became more abundant, and were layered and tossed with additional salt. The result was a not-so-pretty somewhat sweet-scented (and sometimes moldy) mass of grey botanicals. After the Autumn harvest additional spices and botanicals, like orange peel and cinnamon stick, were added to pretty the mixture up and add more scent, and essential oils or perfumes were added as a final touch to create a long-lasting mixture that would bring beautiful scent to the home. This fermented blend was then placed in bowls or baskets and set around the abode, whether it be castle or cottage. Additional fresh flowers, when available, were placed atop the mixture.
17th Century potpourri vessel
Check back next week for post five, “Potpourri in the Victorian Era, “in the series, “A History of Potpourri.”
Potpourri in Ancient Egypt, Middle Ages, and Early Renaissance [Part 3 of 7]
This post is the third in a seven-part series on potpourri throughout history. In this session, we’ll cover potpourri in Ancient Egypt, as well as during the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance.
Fragrant lavender, thyme and chamomile were all used during the mummification process when preparing bodies for the afterlife, making mummies smell better. The remains of flowers, bouquets, and garlands strung with flowers and herbs have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. With their comforting powers of beauty and fragrance these botanicals were meant to accompany the dead into the afterlife. How amazing those tombs must have smelled as the flowers and herbs, airtight and enclosed in pitch darkness, withered and dried and the fragrances changed and faded over the months, years, and eons.
The Middle Ages to Early Renaissance
A Medieval Garden
During the Middle Ages in Europe, cloth bags filled with fragrant dried flowers and herbs were placed in closets and drawers, and with bedding and linens. These were quite practical in their use for adding good scent and covering up bad scent, especially when laundering clothing was so infrequent. Bathing, too, was not done on a regular basis, and women tucked sachets, and even specially made small wooden vessels filled with sweet-smelling dried herbs, into their underclothes while they were worn.
It was common practice for peasants to hang bunches of wild herbs used for medicinal and other practical purposes to dry around their cottages. The combination of scents of these herbs added pleasant aroma and brightened their environment. Many of these dried herbs acted as insect repellents, too.
Getting the Strewing Herbs Ready
From the Middle Ages through the early Renaissance rushes and straw provided a refreshing, soft, thick cushion to floors, adding insulation and warmth, and absorbing moisture. This flooring was also host to debris from the family and their household pets, spilled beverages, and to a variety of insect pests. This natural flooring was changed twice yearly, and over time, of course, became intensely “pungent.” To remedy unpleasant smells from the flooring, the practice of strewing herbs came about. Fresh herbs were tossed and strewn onto the floor to create a top layer which when walked upon were crushed, releasing the essential oils of the herbs and adding much-needed pleasant aromas to the home. Strewing herbs were chosen for their wonderful fragrance, or for their insect-repelling qualities. Strewing fresh layers of these herbs was a regular chore, since the fragrances faded over time and would need to be renewed with a new batch of botanicals to be added to the flooring. Roses, lavender, marjoram, tansy, daisies, sage, violets, mints, chamomile, and basil were just some of the materials used for strewing.
Check back next week for post four, “Potpourri in the 17th Century” in the series, “”A History of Potpourri.”
This is the second blog post in a seven-part series on the history of potpourri.
Cave Painting of Flowers
Though the remains of floral bouquets have been found in burial graves along with the bones of prehistoric people, we can only speculate about early Man’s use of preserved flowers and herbs to add or mask scent in caves or primitive structures. It’s more than likely that prehistoric people had some unpleasant smells lingering around the old cave homestead, from foul-smelling food scraps to unwashed bodies. Just because their surroundings were austere does not mean that good scents did not appeal to them. It’s likely that our early ancestors were as attracted to good-smelling things as we are nowadays, especially considering how connected they were to the natural world.
Wild herbs and flowers used for medicinal purposes or for their fascinating beauty were probably brought into the cave, dried naturally on their own in the cave over time, and in their dried state, especially when crushed, were found to release subtle aromas making various areas of the domicile smell great. Maybe our enchantment with herbal and floral fragrances in the home began here.
Potpourri has been around since the beginning, satisfying our inner desire to decorate and make our shelter “home.” Join The Herb Lady on an adventure through time, and tune in weekly for the new series “A History of Potpourri.”
Painting of a woman making potpourri, 1867
“Potpourri,” from the French word for “rotten pot“ (“pot-” meaning “pot” and “-pourri“ meaning “rotten“), is commonly used to describe “a collection of dried flower petals, leaves, herbs, and spices that is used to scent the air.” It was common practice for the French in the early 17th century to use these mixtures to scent their homes.
Surely they were not the first to use botanicals to scent their dwellings, so before we get to specifics about France and its rotten pots, let‘s explore the use of dried flowers and herb mixtures to scent interiors throughout the ages.
In the coming weeks, these posts will cover an elaborate timeline of potpourri throughout history. Check back next week, starting right at the beginning with “Scenting the Cave.”
To The Herb Lady, Just wanted you to know how much I love your products. I ordered extra Wooly Bully because I have an infestation of moths and I know it will at least chase them away if not kill them (I hope). It’s done so well in the past.… Read more “To The Herb Lady…”
I have been purchasing potpourri
I have been purchasing potpourri and oils from you since the mid 1980’s at the Sugar Loaf Craft Festival and the one at Harpers Ferrry. The quality is so divine, I would never purchase any where else. Thank you for being in business so long.
Over 20 yrs. ago, my sister (living in VA) gave me (living in CA) a Meow Wow! catnip bag. My cats STILL use/fight over it (not even refreshed!) & I just ordered 2 new ones. They’ll be so excited! If your info wasn’t printed on the linen bag, I never… Read more “KS”
KS - Tega Cay, SC 7/21/19
Received my first order from you. Your potpourri is fantastic. I operate a small candle and soap business out of my home and wanted to add potpourri to my product line. I found you through a Google search for “Potpourri Supplies”, and I’m glad I did. I’ve been attempting to… Read more “MZ”
MZ Johnstown, PA 3/19/19
Just wanted to let you know how pleased I am with the potpourri, it is one of the VERY best scents ever!! My family loves the Mountain River.
VB - Sharon, Vermont 1/25/19
Hi, Just wanted to say thanks for the very quick shipment. I am so crazy about this lilac scent and I forgot how much I missed it. Your products are so superior to anything else on the market and I am sorry I tried the other brand, it was… Read more “CH”
C.H. Stow, Ohio 12/11/18
I just received my MAMA’S SWEET VANILLA potpourri and it smells wonderful! I just wish I had ordered a bigger bag. I will be ordering again. Thank you.
Just wanted to thank you, I received my order today, that was really fast!! I appreciated the rush and the product is just amazing, I have been looking for this for a long time..so glad to do business with you and look forward to the future.
Hiya, Happy to say that the order arrived – utterly stellar…Will be back to reorder. Many, many thanks…simply heavenly… Huzzah for your products!
I just wanted to let you know I received my order and everything, from packaging to the potpourri itself, was just beautiful. I am a first time customer and am really pleased that I found you on-line. Thank you!
Amy W., 4/14/18
Thanks for the quick shipment of the ‘meow wow’ catnip – I bought it so the cats would investigate the new cat tree and to refill existing bags. The cats are busy with it now and I thank you!
Alice K. 4/11/18
Thank you for such prompt service. I love the scents, it was so hard to choose. I can’t wait to share them with my family. We used to visit the store in Harpers Ferry so very long ago, and I was thrilled to find you again. I loved the smell… Read more “Lori”
Lori C. 3/15/18
I am in Europe planning a brief home visit in a week. I will buy your big bag of Wooly Bully, and just want the plain little linen bags to fill over here. They do not air condition in Belgium and the humidity is a problem. My family loves this… Read more “Nancy”
Nancy F., 2/2/18
We received the huge box yesterday and my mother spent today smelling each of them!! Thanks so much !! Even the Post Office smelled Delicious!! ?? Have a great holiday season, Melissa!
Suzanne, Dennis & Mother Marian 10/27/17
Melissa, Oh my goodness! I received my reorder today and couldn’t believe the many different bags and scents! I can never use all of this so being a salesperson, I’m keeping a couple that I just can’t part with and giving a couple to some of my friends, who are… Read more “Sharon”
Sharon M, 10/18/17
I received my order today! Beautifully packaged, arrived quickly and I am AMAZED! I wish my house LOOKED as beautiful as it smells! I absolutely LOVE Gentleman’s Blend and have it in my livingroom. Lavender wood in the downstairs bedroom smells DIVINE, I simply cannot say enough about SLEEP other… Read more “Kimberly”
Kimberly, Bristol, NY 7/20/17
Thank you for sending my order out so fast! The postman didn’t want to deliver it because it smelled so good!
MS, Mertztown PA 7/3/17
Hi Melissa, I received the lovely potpourri and refresher. Thank you for sending so promptly. It is very nice and will make lovely sachets.
Jane C. 5/27/17
I must say, I put the Wooly Bully into my linen closet (where I’m actually keeping yarn) yesterday, and the entire back of the house smells just heavenly. I’m beyond happy with it, and will probably be exploring your other mixes in the future.
Dear Herb Lady, I just opened my potpourri. Thank you Thank you Thank you. I have been looking for a product like this for months. I love it. Not only does it smell great, but it looks beautiful. So pleased. I will recommend this product to many people.
Connie (Schaumburg, IL, 10/20/16)
Oh my, the sachet bags I received are gorgeous! I am so excited to fill them and give as gifts! Sincerely,
“I received my package a few days ago and i can’t tell you how happy i am with my purchase!!! for some reason, it’s really hard to find potpourri anywhere, let alone one that has a nice fragrance. i went to google and tried my chances with your company. after… Read more “Carol”
Carol C, Poughkeepsie, NY October, 2016
“Thanks once again for your help for my daughter’s bridal shower last June. People still tell me how nice the Lavender sachets were that we had as favors. I kept a couple for myself and they still carry the scent. It really was so helpful and kept the stress to… Read more “Linda”
Linda C, January 8, 2016
“Oh my! I received the package this afternoon and I can’t tell you how much I love it! The smell is heavenly! (Morning rose) I believe I’m hooked, no other potpourri on the market compares. I will be ordering in the future for sure. Thank you, I am so glad… Read more “Nanci”
“I just received the blue lilac potpourri and oil. I love it!!!!! Can not tell you how this takes me back to my childhood. Your oil and potpourri are exceptional and I am so happy I tried them. I will be back for more.”
Carol, Ohio 6/18/2015
“Thank you for the beautiful potpourri! It just arrived yesterday, and our office already smells amazing! I don’t know if I can pick a favorite from the 4 varieties we ordered, each is so unique and full of fragrance that doesn’t overwhelm but just is so pleasant. Thanks! We will… Read more “Carissa”
Carissa from Eden Prairie, MN 9/30/2014
Hello, It’s late and I should be getting to bed, but I just unpacked my delivery and had to e-mail you straight away. Smell is such an amazing sense, isn’t it? I’m so beside myself with joy my eyes are tearing (and I was the only one dry-eyed in… Read more “Kelley”
Kelley (Tempe, Arizona, 9/16/2014)
“Dear Herb Lady, I am writing to thank you for the wonderful quality and variety of potpourri that you carry. Each time I open another package, the fragrances are wonderful. I now have a total of 8 different fragrances and am pleased with each of them. The contents are fresh,… Read more “Betty”
Betty from Pasadena, California 8/12/2014
Donna G. Henrico
“Dear Herb Lady, In June I ordered about 10 of your very lovely potpourris of Forest Path and Lavender scents. I went to a Retreat where I gave away the 10 I bought from you to women I knew that lived far away, some even in other countries. Everyone I… Read more “Donna G. Henrico”
Donna G. Henrico, VA July, 2014
“Just wanted to thank you for expediting my order. It arrived Tues just as you said, and it smells wonderful! Pretty pretty colors & mix of textures too. I will recommend you to anyone I know looking for potpourri made the right way. Thanks again!”
Vicki, web customer, September 2013
“Just wanted to say thank you for getting the potpourri here so fast. It smelled simply amazing – the Apple Pie is a perfect mood setter for this chilly weather that is coming. I really love it and I will definitely be ordering again in the future – I even told… Read more “CK”
“Several years ago, I purchased one of your Wooly Bully drawstring sachets (I believe it was at an annual Scottish Games in Fair Hill, Maryland) and fell in love with it. I recently found it amongst my clothes, still doing a great job, and I remembered that I had wanted… Read more “AJB”
“Thank you — the order arrived in snowy Vermont today. The cats knew what was in the carton — they remembered the catnip from their lives in Maryland. And it was so wonderful to smell the pot pourri from the Herb Lady — took me back to attending the Sugarloaf… Read more “MW”
“…I received my shipment yesterday and am thrilled to have my “Joy of Life” back by our bed linens. I love it so much I use it as a personal fragrance about once a week as well.”