Cottage industry built up in bid to keep air fresh
NOBODY likes a nasty niff, do they? We are used to easily being able to clear away the bad aromas of daily life with deodorants and detergents, all readily available on shop shelves.
Sometimes, though, not to be indelicate, an air freshener is required.
It was more difficult in the days before washing machines, fridges, flushing toilets, shop-bought readymixed washing liquids and cleaners and so forth to expunge all the normal smells of daily living – so no surprise people were using air fresheners back then.
The Wilson holds a large collection of air fresheners from the 19th century which was amassed by Mrs Kingsnorth-nye of Charlton Kings and donated in two batches in 1954 and 1972.
These little ceramic pieces are called pastille burners because they would have held a pastille, made up of charcoal bound together with a kind of gum, with a fragrance such lavender, rose or sandalwood added for a nice smell, and often saltpetre to make it burn longer (saltpetre was also used in fireworks and gunpowder), all combined to make a little tablet very dissimilar to the incense cones we still use today.
A whole range of items were produced in which to burn the pastilles.
At first the containers were made of metal, but as porcelain became more common it Britain, that was used as well.
In large houses, in their public spaces such as the drawing room, this might be a set of highly decorated covered pots with holes in the lids through which the scented smoke could escape, but in their private rooms there was a fashion for the pastille burner to be shaped like a little house.
These little houses went on to become fashionable in all kinds of homes – often made of bone china from factories like Rockingham or from glazed earthenware by the Staffordshire potteries. The house shape was practical. The pastille was placed inside the house and the smoke could escape through the windows or chimney of the house.
These little houses were often very decorative. Many were cottages.
From the 18th century the cottage was considered a picturesque and healthy place to live – mostly by those who didn’t have to live in them.
It’s a belief that goes on today with people’s desire to escape to the country and live a simpler, healthier life close to the outdoors.
So if you thought country air was healthier than town air, it was obvious to shape an air freshener like a country cottage.
But these cottages are often unlike any real cottage.
They are idealised, with thatched roofs, verandahs made with rustic columns of wood (rather impractical in the British weather) and, of course, flowers around the door – and everywhere else.
It’s not just cottages, but mansions, castles and churches – and occasionally something more sinister.
Among our collection of pastille burners and other model houses, there are one or two pieces that show the houses where notorious murders took place.
Mostly, though, they are more whimsical, showing swans swimming in a brook under a cottage, a young girl sitting by her front door, lovers sneaking a kiss, and, my personal favourite, an elephant handing wood up to man high up on a building.
You can see some of collection in our WOW Gallery, our inclusive, audience-led gallery that uses the collection as a starting point for new ideas and responses.
The elephant is to be found elsewhere in our galleries – why not come and see if you can find him or her?
You can visit the gallery Tuesday to Saturday 9.30am to 5.15pm, with late night opening on Thursday evening, and on Sundays 11am to 4pm.