Artifact Corner: Urns and Potpurri

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at this lovely porcelain urn from the late 18th or early 19th Century. This piece is hand painted with reds, greys, and browns and also has some gold leaf applied to the decorations. It is adorned with flowers, leaves and birds. The urn is egg shaped with a solid cap, and a separate lid that fits under the cap. Upon opening the piece, we found that it is filled with dried rose petals, and an assortment of other dried flora, what we today call potpourri. Let’s learn a bit more about potpourri, and why we might have this in our home.

Potpourri is a mixture of dried, naturally fragrant plant materials, used to provide a gentle natural scent, commonly in residential settings. It is often placed in a decorative bowl. The word “potpourri” comes into English from the French word pot-pourri. This often was a mix of dried flower petals, herbs, and spices, that would provide a pleasant fragrance to the room in which it was placed. Potpourri has been used throughout human history, but really comes into common use in the Middle Ages in Europe. Homes were quite cold and drafty in the Middle Ages, and one way of combating that was to lay rushes on the floors. Whether you lived in a castle with stone floors or a small home with beaten earth floors, you would have rushes across them. The rushes provided insulation against the cold that permeated the Northern climates of Europe. These rushes were supposed to be changed seasonally, but sometimes, that simply didn’t happen. We have an account from 15th Century scholar Erasmus in regards to the changing and condition of rush floors in England. He states that;
“The doors are, in general, laid with white clay, and are covered with rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned.”
Clearly, Erasmus was not a fan of rush floors, and who can blame him?

One way to combat the mighty odor that could sometimes emanate from the floor covering was to scatter flower leaves, herbs, and spices throughout the rushes. This would provide a gentle scent that might just make being in these rooms covered in rush mats more bearable. The next big development for potpourri was the invention of potpourri holders in the 18th Century. It became all the rage for people to have pierced ceramic or porcelain jars in their rooms filled with sweet smelling dried plants and herbs. This practice continued through the Victorian period, and was popular even to this day. Modern potpourri is very different from what our predecessors would have used in their homes. Most modern potpourri are dried flower petals and plant matter that is scented now using natural or synthetic fragrances. This means that our potpourri is probably far more heavily scented than what they would have had in the Middle Ages.

Our beautiful Chinese urn was not designed to be a potpourri holder, but someone in our family decided that it would work just fine for that purpose. This piece is one of a matching pair we have in our collections. We are not sure who in the family purchased them, or if they were a gift. Henry Webb was a fine china and porcelain merchant, so it’s possible that these might have come through his store in Albany, but there is no way of determining this for sure. Regardless of how they came to our home, they are really lovely objects, and we are so lucky to have them in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,