Fragrance in Literature- Home Life in Colonial Days by Alice Morse Earle

Home Life in Colonial Days, by Alice Morse Earle

The pungent and unique scent of the bayberry, equally strong in leaf
and berry, is to me one of the elements of the purity and sweetness of
the air of our New England coast fields in autumn. It grows everywhere,
green and cheerful, in sun-withered shore pastures, in poor bits of
earth on our rocky coast, where it has few fellow field-tenants to crowd
the ground. It is said that the highest efforts of memory are stimulated
through our sense of smell, by the association of ideas with scents.
That of bayberry, whenever I pass it, seems to awaken in me an
hereditary memory, to recall a life of two centuries ago. I recall the
autumns of trial and of promise in our early history, and the bayberry
fields are peopled with children in Puritan garb, industriously
gathering the tiny waxen fruit. Equally full of sentiment is the scent
of my burning bayberry candles, which were made last autumn in an old
colony town.


In the Southern colonies beautiful isolated
pieces of porcelain, such as vast punch-bowls, often were found in the
homes of opulent planters; but there, as in the North, the first china
for general table use was the handleless tea-cups, usually of some
Canton ware, which crept with the fragrant herb into every woman's
heart--both welcome Oriental waifs.

What fragrances arose from that old garden, and were wafted out to
passers-by! The ever-present, pungent, dry aroma of box was overcome or
tempered, through the summer months, by a succession of delicate
flower-scents that hung over the garden-vale like an imperceptible mist;
perhaps the most perfect and clear among memory's retrospective
treasures was that of the pale fringed "snow-pink," and later, "sweet
william with its homely cottage smell." Phlox and ten-weeks stock were
there, as everywhere, the last sweet-scented flowers of autumn.

Though the old garden had many fragrant leaves and flowers, their
delicate perfume was sometimes fairly deadened by an almost mephitic
aroma that came from an ancient blossom, a favorite in Shakespeare's
day--the jewelled bell of the noxious crown-imperial. This stately
flower, with its rich color and pearly drops, has through its evil scent
been firmly banished from our garden borders.

While the walled garden of our old neighbors was sweet with blossoms,
my mother's garden bore a still fresher fragrance--that of green growing
things; of "posies," lemon-balm, rose geranium, mint, and sage. I always
associate with it in spring the scent of the strawberry bush, or
calycanthus, and in summer of the fraxinella, which, with its tall stem
of larkspur-like flowers, its still more graceful seed-vessels and its
shining ash-like leaves, grew there in rich profusion and gave forth
from leaf, stem, blossom, and seed a pure, a memory-sweet perfume half
like lavender, half like anise.

Truly, much of our tenderest love of flowers comes from association, and
many are lovingly recalled solely by their odors. Balmier breath than
was ever borne by blossom is to me the pure pungent perfume of ambrosia,
rightly named, as fit for the gods. Not the miserable weed ambrosia of
the botany, but a lowly herb that grew throughout the entire summer
everywhere in "our garden"; sowing its seeds broadcast from year to
year; springing up unchecked in every unoccupied corner, and under every
shrub and bushy plant; giving out from serrated leaf and irregular
raceme of tiny pale-green flowers, a spicy aromatic fragrance if we
brushed past it, or pulled a weed from amongst it as we strolled down
the garden walk. And it is our very own--I have never seen it elsewhere
than at my old home, and in the gardens of neighbors to whom its seeds
were given by the gentle hand that planted "our garden" and made it a
delight. Goethe says, "Some flowers are lovely to the eye, but others
are lovely to the heart." Ambrosia is lovely to my heart, for it was my
mother's favorite.


And as each "spring comes slowly up the way," I say in the words of
Solomon, "Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my
garden, that the spices thereof may flow out"--that the balm and mint,
the thyme and southernwood, the sweetbrier and ambrosia, may spring
afresh and shed their tender incense to the memory of my mother, who
planted them and loved their pure fragrance, and at whose presence, as
at that of Eve, flowers ever sprung--
"And touched by her fair tendance gladlier grew."

At no time was this old garden sweeter than in the twilight, the
eventide, when all the great clumps of snowy phlox, night-rockets, and
luminous evening primrose, and all the tangles of pale yellow and white
honeysuckle shone irradiated; when,

"In puffs of balm the night air blows
The burden which the day foregoes,"

and scents far richer than any of the day--the "spiced air of
night"--floated out in the dusky gloaming.

A favorite shrub in our garden, as in every country dooryard, was
southernwood, or lad's-love. A sprig of it was carried to meeting each
summer Sunday by many old ladies, and with its finely dissected,
bluish-green foliage, and clean pungent scent, it was pleasant to see in
the meeting-house, and pleasant to sniff at. The "virtues of flowers"
took a prominent place in the descriptions in old-time botanies. The
southernwood had strong medicinal qualities, and was used to cure
"vanityes of the head."
"Take a quantitye of Suthernwood and put it upon kindled coales to
burn and being made into powder mix it with the oyle of radishes
and anoynt a balde place and you shall see great experiences."

In New York, before the Revolution, were many beautiful gardens, such
as that of Madam Alexander on Broad Street, where in their proper season
grew "paus bloemen of all hues, laylocks and tall May roses and
snowballs intermixed with choice vegetables and herbs all bounded and
hemmed in by huge rows of neatly clipped box edgings." We have a pretty
picture also, in the letters of Catharine Rutherfurd, of an entire
company gathering rose-leaves in June in Madam Clark's garden, and
setting the rose-still at work to turn their sweet-scented spoils into
rose-water.