A Minuet for Mignonette

If you’ve ever cruised through the Wrightsman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you notice one thing at once.

The colors are different, different from 21st century Pantone shades, strikingly so.

I used to think, because of age and grime and the fading so many trips around the sun leave on an object, that 18th century taste in color was for grayed off pastels.

Nope.  In those galleries you see porcelains with the brightest parrot greens and acid yellows paired with turquoise blues, they are all vivid, but without the harshness that aniline dyes gave to 20th century colors.  It’s a different color palette, natural, but bright.

This makes me wonder about the palette of smells.  Just as much as colors change from one era to the next (no mauve before 1858), so must smells.  Nowadays I can smell people’s fabric softener and detergent on them mixing with sweat (Tide is a favorite in America) but that smell is recent.  Twenty years ago it wasn’t prevalent on subways or in Penn Station the way that it is today. (By the way, what are we to make of the fact that I never smelled Tide in Grand Central Station when I used to come into the city by Metro North?)*

So, if there are smells that can demarcate an era like Iso Super E in the 80’s, or Dihydromercenol in the 90’s, what about two hundred and fifty years ago?  What was the smell of the 18th century?

Horse manure, for sure, wood smoke, certainly, bad breath, powder for wigs, and leather, there must have been a good deal of leather. Tobacco must have been there, and our old kitchen table familiars, coffee and tea, but outside in the garden, a new favorite flower for the fancy French, long before fine French fragrance, the Mignonette was all the rage.

Reseda odorata is a weed really, and not very impressive looking as you can see.  These flower spikes are small and don’t show up well in arrangements, but they have a wonderful, specific smell.  They are one of the great natural fruity florals, mixing a clear scent like cherry blossoms, with the scent of vanilla and raspberry and something a tiny bit like marzipan.  The result is lovely, extremely feminine, and completely without the indoles that weigh down so many white florals.

I know all this because I used to grow them.  They were one of my ways of getting through a winter in Vermont with the smell of flowers, and they were convenient because Mignonette only releases its perfume in sunlight, so I could grow them in a bedroom and nobody would complain.

That smell really was wonderful, and like heliotrope, which is another old fashioned favorite of mine, hard to describe but unforgettable once you have smelled it.  This was what all those French aristocrats were growing in little pots on balconies, or in small garden plots.  They were rare then, so unlike the Hawthorn in the French hedgerow, a delicate upper-class kind of a scent, not much encountered outside aristocratic gardens. The sort of thing that a lady or gentleman might want replicated for their scent bottles, to stifle the stench of urine at Versailles (“not enough conveniences” was the common Parisian warning to visitors headed out there).

Even that inveterate democrat Thomas Jefferson, seems to have taken to the little Mignonette.  It was grown at Monticello, and you can still buy the seeds from the garden store there (for 2.95$ a packet).  They evidently try to sell everything that the great amateur himself grew.

And that, unfortunately, is the best advice I can give to anyone who wants to smell it. Grow it.  You can also get the seeds from Swallowtail Seeds and Heirloom seeds and  Thompson and Morgan across the water, but they are getting rather hard to find.  Gardeners have not taken to the little Mignonette as much as they might.  It works beautifully to scent a patio tucked into a terracotta pot-which was my old trick.

Easy too, since you seed them directly, and only have to thin them out later; their only true requirement is full sun.  Voila, the smell of Mignonette, plus Louis XV, and  Benjamin Franklin chasing fancy French ladies around gardens in his fur hat, and other 18th century follies.

Despite the priceless chance at olfactory time travel, you get all this pretty cheap.  Heirloom sells the seeds 1.95$ a packet.  That’s the least expensive perfume experience you may have next year, and frankly, one of the best.

(The background on the Wrightsmans is a story worth reading in its own right, by the way.)

*(I should explain for the non-New Yorkers that Grand Central Station services  Metro North those from Westchester County and Connecticut via Metro-North;  Penn Station serves commuters from New Jersey.)



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8 Responses to A Minuet for Mignonette

  1. Liza says:

    I sought out and grew mignonette at one point because of curiosity arising from its appearance in O. Henry’s “The Furnished Room” (see http://www.literaturecollection.com/a/o_henry/47/), where a young man searching for a young woman suddenly experiences her scent in said room. (Oddly enough, he also unearths a handkerchief that he hopes may have been hers, only to discover that it smells “racy and insolent” with heliotrope.) A lovely scent.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Oh dear, mignonette as the scent of innocence lost and heliotrope as the scent of innocence long gone for presumably commercial reasons. But definitely agree with you Mignonette is a lovely smell, and will it come back into fashion one day I wonder? And now that I think of it, another one of those stories that affirm the power of scent to define us and our memories.

  2. Michael says:

    Blacknall, I just wanted to say how lovely your writing is, whether it is about flowers, plants, perfumes or anything else for that matter.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      What a very nice thing to say! Don’t know if the writing is anything out of the ordinary but do know I have an extremely good time doing it and talking to y’all.

  3. Meg says:

    I second Michael on the loveliness of your prose. As for reseda, it’s in two of my most favorite perfumes: Estee Lauder Private Collection and Norell. I just wore Norell the other night, as a matter of fact. We went to celebrate a friend’s birthday and I wanted a calming, familiar scent I could slip right into, as comfortable as a favorite leather jacket.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Coming from La Meg, past mistress of spot on descriptions always turned out in the loveliest lyrical turns of phrase, this is a real compliment. I’m blushing, but you can’t see that on WordPress.

      Old Private Collection, and old Norell, are there any better US perfumes? I didn’t realize that reseda was in them, but it makes sense. There was a soft cozy spot right in the middle of PC, and I bet it was the mignonette!

  4. Undina says:

    After reading (in early ninetieth) Suskind’s Perfume: The story of a Murderer I stopped romanticising past centuries and the first thing I think about, while reading about historical events (or watching movies), is: I can only imagine how they all stink!

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      And you’re probably right. The main sewer system in London for instance, wasn’t even operational until about 1865 and the only reason the English Parliament finally voted to instal one was the “Great Stink” of 1858 when the bacterial counts in the river Thames reached such high levels that everyone in the London area was holding their noses on a daily basis! Romantic-not so much.
      I did think the movie of Perfume sort of romantic though.

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