At Home with the Austens: Receipts for “Milk of Roses” and “Pot-pourri” from Martha Lloyd’s Household Book
Visitors to the Museum often comment favourably on the small and entirely appropriate flower arrangements which adorn most of the rooms and add life to them, adding to the impression that this was once a well-loved home.
During the summer months the vases can be filled with the same type of flowers that were grown in the garden when Jane Austen lived there. Celia, our gardener, has taken great care to ensure that old varieties of roses which Jane Austen might have known are still grown in the garden that surrounds the house.
Roses of this era were generally of the type that flowered only once a year, at midsummer, unlike modern varieties of roses which can repeat flower from May to October. The roses grown in the garden now include the ancient varieties Rosa gallica var. officinalis, also known as The Apothecary’s Rose due to its use, from the 13th century, in medicines and ointments, and Rosa Mundi ( Rosa gallica “Versicolour”) which, with its distinctive pink and white striped petals, was developed from a sport from the Apothecary’s Rose. Historically these roses were prized for their form and for their strong fragrance and were used not only to adorn rooms but also for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. Rosewater was, at this time, often used as an ingredient in balsams and ointments designed to protect the complexion from the effects of the wind (redness/sunburn) and also to prevent the appearance of freckles. In Martha Lloyd’s Household Book, which is currently on display at the Museum, there is a receipt for Milk of Roses, a concoction which could be applied to the skin to protect one’s “bloom”:
Milk of Roses
½ pint of rosewater- ½ an oz. of Sweet Almonds- 12 grains of Salt of Tartar. To be mixed well all together.
It was given to Martha for inclusion in her book by Charles Austen, Jane Austen’s youngest brother who was, of course, a serving officer in the navy and eventually became an Admiral. He would certainly have known, from his active service at sea, of the effect that exposure to strong winds and blazing sun could have on the skin. Can we assume therefore that his complexion was probably in a better condition than the companion of Admiral Baldwin in Persuasion who had, according to the disapproving of Sir Walter Elliot ,
..a face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree; all lines and wrinkles
Persuasion, Chapter 3.
Perhaps we can. It is interesting to note that this product was so popular in the early 19th century that it was also available commercially, and was produced by Richard Warren and Richard Rosser of Bond Street in London. Charles Austen’s mixture has every chance of having had a good effect on the complexion due to the ingredients used. Rosewater and almond oil are still used by the cosmetics industry today because they have moisturising and calming properties. Do note that the Cream of Tartar was used in the mixture only as a preservative. In view of the benign ingredients in this mixture, it might have been wiser for Mrs Clay in Persuasion to have used it on her face in preference to Sir Walter Elliot’s choice, Gowland’s Lotion, for that lotion contained some ingredients, most prominently mercuric chloride, a derivative of sulphuric acid, which could and did have harmful effects.
Another recipe in Martha’s book concerns the use of roses. When the summer was over, then, provided the Austen ladies had been prudent and diligent when their roses were in bloom, they could still enjoy their fragrance by making their own Pot-Pourri. Pot-Pourri was a mixture of dried flower petals, which were preserved by adding orris powder (made from the root of Iris x germanica var florentina,) This mixture could be placed in open jars or bowls to scent a room, or in bags to scent linen and clothes stored in drawers. Martha Lloyd’s receipt is a simple but effective version, and one that you might like to try yourselves:
Gather your roses free from wet and dry them in a shady room, and lavender when quite ripe the same. When they are perfectly dry they must be put in a jar with ¼ to ½ lb of orris powder, according to the quantity of roses. Half an oz of Bergamun, some cloves pounded, some cinnamon. Cover it and stir, now and then. Put any perfume you like on a bit of cotton and when dry put it with the rest into sweet bags.
Then two large handfuls of salt thrown at the bottom of the pot. Then a layer of flowers, and continue one layer upon another till all the flowers are in. The flowers may be put in as they are fit so as salt is always thrown in with them. The ingredients should be stirred every day with a wooden spoon, and when the jar is full the spices should be put in and the whole stirred up. It does best when put in to a large jar with a good deal of salt and the jar stopp’t close for two or three months.