By Pat Kenny
The name comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, pomme for apple, referring to the round shape of the early scent balls. Ambre is derived from ambergris, a substance washed up on beaches from the sperm whale which was the chief fixative for fragrances in Renaissance times.
One of the first reasons for making pomanders was the carrying of religious keepsakes (Fairamay, 2018). Adelma Simmons tells us, “originally pomanders were not made of oranges or apples but of small balls of various materials that would hold herbs, herbal scents, spices, and perfumes. Sometimes beeswax was used for the medium. Other bases included garden soil, mold, or well-drained apple pulp. The balls that were made only of gums and spices were costly and not available to the average household.”
There were many types of pomanders. Through the years, spices, essential oils, and green herbs including rue, sweet bay, lavender, and rosemary were used not only for their sweet scents but also for protection against contagious diseases. Historically, pomanders were either located somewhere in the home, worn around the neck, or attached to the belt like a bit of jewelry to safeguard against infection, disease, and bad luck.
Medicinal pomanders, some for curing fevers, some for insomnia, many for the medieval counterpart of what we call “nerves”, became popular. They were a part of stillroom activities and a source of revenue for the professional apothecary. Silversmiths and jewelers made exquisite cases for balls containing expensive perfumes, and these were worn as ornaments about the waist, while tiny ones were fashionably worn as lockets. Sometimes beautiful metallic globes were fashioned to hold the scented material, and they were often pictured hand-held on chains in portraits of persons of high standing.
Pomanders were also carried by men in many professions. Doctors, while visiting the sick, carried them. Lawmakers and judges who argued and heard cases in closed courtrooms with prisoners “infected with jail fever” considered pomanders invaluable. The dandy on the battlefield drew long breaths from a scented box to mitigate the stench of battle, and the traveler who walked along the streets lined with open sewers often carried his herbs and spices in the head of a cane which was opened and sniffed at will.
Courtiers traveling luxuriously in sedan chairs lifted languid hands to hold a pomander to the nose during passage through odorous crowds. In pioneer New England the spice balls, clove apples, or clove oranges were placed in homemade coffins that were kept in many attics ready to receive the bodies of those who did not survive the long winters. Often the graves could not be dug until spring, and farms were too isolated to call on the services of professional embalmers. Pomander balls were then put to their ancient uses of preservation and fumigation, and known as “coffin balls”.
At the least, the pomander enabled its owner to escape the stenches of rotting garbage and open sewers in the airy pleasantness of garden herbs and exotic spices. The delicate ladies and foppish gentlemen of the aristocracy would daintily wend their way through the bitter realities of the streets, sniffing their pomanders.
To turn to a happier use of pomanders, it was an English custom recorded in the time of Henry VIII to give one to each guest at New Year’s tied with a sprig of rosemary for remembrance. This was not only a sign of esteem but of good luck.
However, today the pomander is merely an aromatic novelty, though many of the original uses stand the test of legitimacy. Pomanders can be hung from ribbons in a room or closet, or tucked away into drawers and chests to keep moths away and give an aromatic scent. They can be wrapped in a colorful cloth or fancy netting or just stacked in a bowl; their uses are varied and the pomander brings a welcome fragrance. It’s an aromatic delight!
How to Make a Pomander
Pomanders are usually made with apples, crabapples, oranges, lemons, or limes. Apples are the easiest because you can usually push the cloves into the apple’s skin with your thumb. Lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit often have to have their skin broken with a bamboo or metal skewer in order to insert the clove. Kumquats are little, their skin is thinner; they dry faster and are cute for miniature table trees. They are not always available; watch out for them around the holidays, they last long in the refrigerator so buy them when you can.
I have rolled the completely-cloved fruit in mixes of ground orris and spices, yet some people are allergic to powdered orris root and the mix gets caked between the cloves. In my opinion, the mixes make the pomander hard to handle and just plain look awful. One writer reminds us that frugal New England housewives who used pomanders would have found the cloves expensive enough without adding the orris and other ground spices recommended in more modern times.
All my most successful pomanders have been dried by simply hanging them in a warm, dry place, i.e. over the refrigerator warmth, next to a radiator or in the warmth of a pilot-lit gas oven for days or weeks, turning them if necessary.
Bowls to help sort cloves, partial pieces saved
Tweezers or hemostats to help grasp cloves
Long-nosed pliers to twist the central hanger
Rubber-coated wire or other wires
Bamboo or metal skewers
Long needles for threading
Large paper clips to use as s-hooks when drying, however you can dry the cloved fruit lying down (you may have to turn it over or around periodically).
Ribbons, bows, yarns, etc. With or without a central hanger, pomanders can be wrapped and hung in netting or stacked in a bowl. Spice oils of clove, cinnamon, etc. can be added.
Remember, I usually dry mine in an old-timey oven that has a pilot light or next to an old-timey radiator, turning it periodically. Cute, guess I have become old-timey myself; lucky me!
- Choose a solid fruit.
- Skewer the central diameter of the fruit with care.
- Create a hanger through the center; includes deciding what you want to happen at the bottom of the pomander (empty loop, bead, bell?).
- You could sort your cloves at any time, deciding the size(s) and/or the ones with or without the dried bud and/or the thickness of the pedicel.
- Depending upon the type of fruit and the thickness of the skin, decide whether there is a need to make a hole with a skewer first before the insertion of the clove. Space cloves, remembering shrinkage makes them become closer.
- Cuddle the fruit, if necessary, with a folded paper towel which will absorb juices.
- After the fruit is cloved the way you want, put it where it will dry, checking it often and cuddling it within both palms if necessary to push the cloves in as it shrinks.
- If storing the pomanders long-term, give them a freeze treatment for about a week to kill off any pests or eggs. Make sure the pomander is dry and hard before doing so.
If you do desire to use a spice mix, here is a simple recipe:
1 tbsp. each: cinnamon and ground cloves with 1 tsp. ground orris root; place bowl in warm place and roll pomander in it twice or more a day for 3 days; remove it from bowl and set it in warm place for 2-3 weeks to dry out completely. Decorate your pomanders with ribbons, flowers, herbs, beads or bells to hang on your holiday tree, in windows or in closets.
Photo Credits: 1) Orange and clove pomander (Wendy Piersall); 2) Silver pomanders of the 17th century (Wellcome Images); 3) Portrait of a woman by Bartholomaeus the Elder (public domain); 4) Portrait of a man by Christopher Amberger (public domain); 5) European pomander in the shape of a ship (public domain); 6) Apple and other fruit pomanders (Pat Kenny); 7) Banana pomander (Pat Kenny); 8) Pomander Pat (Sue Betz)
The previous writings of the following were consulted for this post: Adelma Simmons, Mrs. Henry C. Martin,1968; Eleanor Sinclair Rhodes, 1969; Ann Tucker Fettner, 1977; Sarah Garland, 1979; Sylvia Lloyd & Arlene Linderman, Linda Foldan, 1984; Barbara Milo Ohrbach, 1986; Edythe Skinner, Hartman’s Herb Calendar, Dec. 1988; Barbara Radcliffe Rogers, Herbitage Farm, Richmond NH; Pat Kenny, 1989; David Merrill, 1991; Janet Walker, USNA Newsletter, 1996.
Fairamay, T. July 2, 2018. Thorn and thread: Warding off plague and other miasma with pomanders. Accessed 12/8/2021 from https://thornandthread.wordpress.com/2018/07/07/warding-off-plague-and-other-miasma-with-pomanders/#_edn13
Mabberley, D.J. 2008. Mabberley’s plant book: A portable dictionary of plants, their classification and uses, 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Mabey, R. 1988. The new age herbalist: How to use herbs for healing, nutrition, body care, and relaxation – With a complete illustrated glossary of herbs and a guide to herb cultivation. Macmillan, New York.
Ordish, G. 1985. The living garden: A 400 year history of an English garden. Houghton-Mifflin Co., Boston.
While working as a medical illustrator for over thirty years for a “modern medicine” research factory in Bethesda, Maryland, Pat Kenny simultaneously followed her heart/mind in the path of nature and practiced balancing herself with Tai Chi and herbal studies. She began to play with like-minded others through county community programs, The Herb Society of America, the Prince George’s Herb Society, the Michigan Herb Associates, and the North Carolina Herb Association. Now retired, she is cleaning house after all those years of not, using up things she has been saving for what?…an herb business of some sort? (in another life!), giving herb talks to share the herbal stuff, and seeking ways she can facilitate the cause of alternative health practices, especially botanical healing during the rest of her life.
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Great article, Pat. Perfect for the season!
What a wonderful article Pat that you have developed for the Herb society. I had never heard of coffin balls before and had wondered how bodies were preserved during long winters in the colonial time .
In many of my historical novels I have read of pommanders being used to ward off stenchs.
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