The Museum’s Perfume Fountain was made in Paris from three different pieces of imported 17th-century porcelain. Due to the fragility of the material, imported wares often arrived damaged; European artisans salvaged or repurposed usable pieces. This process of appropriation removed the objects from their original context, prizing them as "exotic" and purely decorative. The Museum’s Perfume Fountain, however, took on a new, uniquely French function upon its reconstruction: the dispensing of perfume.
Fountains were one of many types of perfume dispensers found in the homes of the aristocracy, but they were by no means the most common. They were likely commissioned by a Parisian marchand-mercier (a merchant-entrepreneur who worked as an antiques dealer and interior decorator) for a particular client. The fountain would likely be filled with hot, fragrant water which could be dispensed through gilt-bronze spigots to freshen a room. Gilt-bronze additions to East Asian porcelain often served a function beyond their aesthetic value; for example, cassolettes (incense burners) and pots-pourris often included perforated gilt-bronze necks or covers through which evaporated perfume could escape.
Perfume dispensers played an important role in hygiene in 17th- and 18th-century France. During this time, it was widely thought that illness was caused by "malignancy of the atmosphere," or unpleasant scents; it was believed that perfume could improve the atmosphere to prevent even the most devastating diseases. Both perfumery and common hygiene incorporated aspects of alchemy, philosophy, and medicine, and recipe books for homemade perfumes and cosmetics became a booming industry. One such book, The Toilet of Flora (available in the Museum’s Clarence B. Hanson, Jr. Library) contains recipes for cosmetics such as hair dyes, skin cleansers, and weight-loss potions alongside "An excellent Preservative Balsam against the Plague," which offers protection against the deadly disease by means of overpowering its stench.
—Katherine Ladd and Tyler Pratt, Education-Visitor Engagement Interns 2013
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In many ways, the hygiene of 17th- and 18th-century France is not so different from today; in a chapter on the bathroom in Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France, and Holland (available in the Museum’s Clarence B. Hanson, Jr. Library), Peter Thornton argues that the only drastic difference between then and now is that we have running water. How do you see scent functioning in your day-to-day life? How large a role does smell play in modern hygiene? Look for the aforementioned books in the Museum’s library, explore the following articles, and join the conversation!comments powered by Disqus