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.)