Fragrance in Literature-Puritan New England, by Alice Morse Earle

Puritan New England, by Alice Morse Earle


Through the pillared top-rail a restless child in olden days often received, on a hot summer Sabbath from a farmer's wife or daughter in an adjoining pew, friendly and quieting gifts of sprigs of dill, or fennel, or caraway, famous anti-soporifics; and on this herbivorous food he would contentedly browse as long as it lasted. An uneasy, sermon-tired little girl was once given through the pew-rail several stalks of caraway, and with them a large bunch of aromatic southernwood, or "lad's-love" which had been brought to meeting by the matron in the next pew, with a crudely and unconsciously aesthetic sense that where eye and ear found so little to delight them, there the pungent and spicy fragrance of the southernwood would be doubly grateful to the nostrils. Little Missy sat down delightedly to nibble the caraway-seed, and her mother seeing her so quietly and absorbingly occupied, at once fell contentedly and placidly asleep in her corner of the pew. But five heads of caraway, though each contain many score of seeds, and the whole number be slowly nibbled and eaten one seed at a time, will not last through the child's eternity of a long doctrinal sermon; and when the umbels were all devoured, the young experimentalist began upon the stalks and stems, and they, too, slowly disappeared. She then attacked the sprays of southernwood, and in spite of its bitter, wormwoody flavor, having nothing else to do, she finished it, all but the tough stems, just as the long sermon was brought to a close. Her waking mother, discovering no signs of green verdure in the pew, quickly drew forth a whispered confession of the time-killing Nebuchadnezzar-like feast, and frightened and horrified, at once bore the leaf-gorged child from the church, signalling in her retreat to the village doctor, who quickly followed and administered to the omnivorous young New Englander a bolus which made her loathe to her dying day, through a sympathetic association and memory, the taste of caraway, and the scent of southernwood.

And traditions of mysterious powers, dream-influencing, spirit-exorcising, virtue-awakening, health-giving properties, hung vaguely around the southernwood and made it specially fit to be a Sabbath-day posy. These traditions are softened by the influence of years into simply idealizing, in the mind of every country-bred New Englander, the peculiar refreshing scent of the southernwood as a typical Sabbath-day fragrance. Half a century ago, the pretty feathery pale-green shrub grew in every country door-yard, humble or great, throughout New England; and every church-going woman picked a branch or spray of it when she left her home on Sabbath morn. To this day, on hot summer Sundays, many a staid old daughter of the Puritans may be seen entering the village meeting-house, clad in a lilac-sprigged lawn or a green-striped barège,--a scanty-skirted, surplice-waisted relic of past summers,--with a lace-bordered silk cape or a delicate, time-yellowed, purple and white cashmere scarf on her bent shoulders, wearing on her gray head a shirred-silk or leghorn bonnet, and carrying in her lace-mitted hand a fresh handkerchief, her spectacle-case and well-worn Bible, and a great sprig of the sweet, old-fashioned "lad's-love." A rose, a bunch of mignonette would be to her too gay a posy for the Lord's House and the Lord's Day. And balmier breath than was ever borne by blossom is the pure fragrance of green growing things,--southernwood, mint, sweet fern, bayberry, sweetbrier. No rose is half so fresh, so countrified, so memory-sweet.

The whole family gathered in large quantities from roadsides and pastures the oily bayberries, and from them the thrifty and capable wife made scores of candles for winter use, patiently filling and refilling her few moulds, or "dipping" the candles again and again until large enough to use. These pale-green bayberry tallow candles, when lighted in the early winter evening, sent forth a faint spicy fragrance--a true New England incense--that fairly perfumed and Orientalized the atmosphere of the parsonage kitchen. They were very saving, however, even of these home-made candles, blowing them out during the long family prayers.

There lies now before me a copy of one of the early editions of "The Bay Psalm-Book." As I open the little dingy octavo volume, with its worn and torn edges, I am conscious of that distinctive, penetrating, old-booky smell,--that ancient, that fairly obsolete odor that never is exhaled save from some old, infrequently opened, leather-bound volume, which has once in years far past been much used and handled. A book which has never been familiarly used and loved cannot have quite the same antique perfume. The mouldering, rusty, flaky leather comes off in a yellow-brown powder on my fingers as I take up the book; and the cover nearly breaks off as I open it, though with tender, book-loving usage. The leather, though strong and honest, has rotted or disintegrated until it has almost fallen into dust. Across the yellow, ill-printed pages there runs, zig-zagging sideways and backwards crab-fashion on his crooked brown legs, one of those pigmy book-spiders,--those ugly little bibliophiles that seem flatter even than the close-pressed pages that form their home.