November 22nd, 2019
The Fragrant Art of Pomanders
When I was young, I spent a large part of my childhood with my best friend and her family. Her parents were historic reenactors and they would take us on trips to various forts dotted along the East Coast and Great Lakes region. There, we would set up tents and trading posts and educate tourists about everyday life in the early 18th century. It was on these trips that I learned many old crafts and one such craft was the pomander.
The pomander is a curious object. The name comes from the French pomme d’andre, which translates to ‘apple of amber.’ The earliest mentions of the pomander come from the 13th Century and they were used throughout the Middle Ages into the early colonial area. During these centuries, pomanders were usually round perforated vessels filled with herbs, resins and oils. They were often strung on a chain or ribbon to be worn as an aromatic aid to ward off illness, which was thought to be caused by bad smells.
While simple wooden or woven pomanders were enjoyed by many, a fancy pomander made with expensive scents like ambergris and musk was often beyond the average person’s means. Thus, pomanders became a status symbol. They could be made of brass, silver and gold in intricate shapes and designs. Acorns, hearts and ships became popular styles resulting in complex tiny works of art, some of which can be found in museums.
No one wears a pomander anymore. Between our modern hygiene and widely available perfumes, pomanders seem to be obsolete. Perhaps that is why the pomander evolved. Today you will see recipes for pomanders made with oranges and cloves, and instead of being worn they are used as fragrant decorations during the holidays.
Pomanders are not difficult to make and they can be a great activity for kids. All you really need is a freshly washed orange and whole cloves. However, I do recommend using rubber bands or masking tape to make straight lines and I like to add ribbons and other spices for decoration. I usually start with an orange girdled by a thick rubber band. Then I poke the pointy ends of whole cloves in a line along either side of the rubber band to create two straight lines dividing the orange into halves (you can also use a tooth pick to help poke holes if your cloves aren’t pointy enough.) Then continue to cover the orange in cloves. Here’s where you can get creative with the design. Common patterns include diamonds and stars, but I’ve also seen pomanders with silly faces, too. Once you are satisfied with your clove designs, you can either display them immediately or try to preserve them. If you wish to display your pomander for only a short period of time, you can tie a ribbon around the middle (replacing the rubber band) and hang it, or you could assemble a center piece using multiple pomanders. Hot gluing buttons and star anise to your pomander can also look lovely.
A properly preserved pomander can last for years. As a pomander ages, it will dry out and shrink to approximately half it’s original size. It will also feel very light. The key is to get the pomander to dry out before it starts to mold. We have a few allies in this effort, the first being the cloves themselves. Cloves are naturally anti-microbial and can help preserve the pomander; it is sometimes recommended that the orange be completely covered in studded cloves to keep it from rotting. Other spices can act as preservatives, too. Combine ground cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg and place the mixture in a brown paper bag with the pomander. Shake until the pomander is spicy. These spices will also add to the pomander’s aroma. Then either leave the pomander in the bag for a few weeks or take it out and hang it somewhere cool, dry, and dark to dry out.
The pomander is a reminder of our changing pasts. It’s hard to say if a noble woman from the middle ages would recognize my clove covered oranges as pomanders. Even today, orange pomanders are falling out of fashion. We do not yet know if the pomander will be laid to rest in history or if it will evolve again for future generations, but I have a suspicion that it will come back in fashion again. With all the gaudy mass-produced holiday decorations clogging our grocery stores, it’s nice to know that homemade decorations live on.