Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Mistress Babbitt's Closet Unlock'd - The Scent of Fresh Linen


I have a habit of referring to Het Babbitt as "the fragrant Het" - and I'm not sure that I'm joking.
 
Now Hollie, as anyone who has followed his fortunes from Edgehill onwards will be aware, is probably not a young man whose linen bears too close investigation. It is possible to identify eau de cavalry officer as a combination of hot horse and well-worn leather, woodsmoke, black powder, with a slight overlay of warm metal and sweat. (It must be said in his defence that Hollie probably wouldn't care less if you did put your nose in his armpit and give him a good sniffing, as I imagine with two young daughters, several affectionate horses and a wife who's a good foot shorter than he is, he's used to it.)
 
No, Het is a very cleanly little body. 
 
For all but the poorest women in the seventeenth century, a household possessed sufficient linen for shirts, or shifts, to be changed regularly, and washed, without the necessity of a weekly wash. Most clothes worn next to the skin were plain linen and perfectly capable of withstanding what was effectively a soak in lye bleach followed by a good batting or trampling. Soaking in lye was normally done in a piece of kit called a bucking-tub, as per Gervase Markham's instructions for bleaching yarn:
.....cover the uppermost yarn with a bucking cloth, and lay therein a peck [about 16 pints] or two (according to the bigness of the tub) of ashes more; then pour into all through the uppermost cloth so much warm water, till the tub can receive no more; and so let it stand all night: the next morning you shall pull out the spigot [peg used to stop hole] of the bucking tub, and let the water therein run into another clean vessel, and as the bucking tub wasteth, so shall you fill it up again with the lye which cometh from the bucking tub, ever observing to make the lye hotter and hotter till it seethe [boil].....
Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, 1615 
 
"Chamber lye" is pretty much what you would expect.... wee. Anyone who has ever had the joy of potty-training will probably be nodding in remembrance of that very distinctive ammoniac smell... and, also, possibly of the bleaching effect of wee on little pants after undisclosed "accidents"! (And yes, stale urine does smell. I wish there was some way of romanticising that but no, it smells undeniably of stale wee, I have had the misfortune of collecting a pot for bleaching, and you can understand why they might not have done the "buck wash" very often.)  The elegant collars and falling-bands were intentionally detachable so that they didn't have to go in with the heavy-duty everyday wash, but could be carefully washed and then starched separately. 
 
Finally, your body-linen would be dried, not on a washing-line, but by spreading over bushes to dry - Het uses the rosemary bushes in the herb garden at White Notley, like many other country women,  but lavender bushes were equally popular, being both sturdy and fragrant. It's still believed quite widely that both frost and moonlight will bleach white linen if you leave your laundry out overnight!
 
This, of course, is an aside. Het would not be in the business of doing her own laundry - although if I know Mistress B she wouldn't entirely trust the household staff to do it unsupervised, either. Markham gives assorted recipes for distilled, perfumed waters to be added to the rinsing water for the laundry - something like our own scented ironing water - although perfumed smocks, like those referred to in John Marston's revenge play "The Malcontent", were a definite sign of a loose woman. It was acceptable to put sachets in your linen press, because that served the perfectly respectable purpose of keeping malignant bugs and beasties from nibbling on your underclothes, but they tended to be made from good sensible English lavender or medicinal orris.
 
Sweet-bags like these ( http://collections.glasgowmuseums.com/cld.html?cid=534416 ) were also popular amongst the nobility, often given as gifts at New Year because they were small and quick to embroider. A little sachet like this would be filled with fragrant powder or a sachet mixture, and would then be worn hanging amongst your skirts on a cord or a chain as part of a chatelaine, fragrancing your steps. 
 
Should you care to have your laundry smell like a seventeenth-century lady's, 'Take half a pound of Cypress Roots, a pound of Orris, 3 quarter of a pound of Calamus, 3 Orange stick with Cloves, 2 ounces of Benjamin, 3 quarters of a pound of Rhodium, a pound of Coriander seed, and an ounce of Storax and 4 pecks of Damask Rose leaves, a peck of dryed sweet Marjerum, a pretty stick of Juniper shaved very thin, some lemon pele dryed and a stick of Brasill; let all these be powdered very grosely for ye first year and immediately put into your baggs; the next year pound and work it and it will be very good again.'
(- from Mary Doggett's Book of Receipts, 1682)
 
However. You know, and I know, Het Babbitt's rather plain country-housewife linen would be nowhere near as exotic as to smell of rosewood and balsam. Should you choose to smell like the distaff side of the Babbitt household, here are one or two recipes with which to do it:
 
An Herball Wash-ball  - melt the ingredients together over a double boiler, stir in herbs, and pour into a mould
2 bars unscented soap
25g/ 1oz finely chopped herbs (rosemary was recommended as a complexion herb, to make the face fair and shining)
A few drops of essential oil
A tablespoon of fine oatmeal or bran
 
Spicy sachet mixture
Six parts dried red rose petals
Four parts dried crushed thyme
Two parts dried lavender
Two parts crushed coriander seed
Two parts powdered calamus root (sweet flag)
One part powdered cinnamon
One part powdered cloves
One part powdered mace.

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Awarded for Excellence in Research by 17th-Century Specialists

Awarded for Excellence in Research by 17th-Century Specialists