Fetch Me a Cordial, I’m Unwell, by Diana J Oaks

Fetch Me a Cordial, I’m Unwell, by Diana J Oaks

When Harriet Smith is has a cold, Mr. Elton reports that she was given a cordial. When Mr. Knightley is giving instructions on how to make spruce beer, Mr. Elton breaks his pencil. When Louisa Musgrove has fallen in Lyme, she is taken back to the house and given cordials and restoratives. When Marianne Dashwood takes ill at Cleveland, she is prescribed and administered cordials. When Fanny Price received a letter from Edmund that he was coming to Portsmouth to take her back to Mansfield, she wanted a cordial. Nowhere in her novels does Jane Austen specifically mention the stillroom, but each of these references reminds us that the households of the Georgian Era, at least those of the upper and middle classes, produced such concoctions as cordials and spruce beer. These would be the products of the stillroom.

Management of the stillroom (or still room, or still-room) was one of the core skills expected of the mistress of a household, and mothers trained their daughters in the finer points of how the stillroom was run. In great households, such as what Pemberley would have been, the housekeeper might take on that role, with the assistance of stillroom maids – one of the higher rungs in the maid hierarchy.

Jane and Elizabeth Bennet hanging herbs to dry in the Longbourn stillroom.

The stillroom was essentially a secondary kitchen where preserves, beverages, cosmetics, soaps, and medicines, etc. were prepared. The room was intentionally kept apart from the bustle of regular meal preparation and was equipped with various types of equipment. A tin-lined copper still was requisite, as was a work table, knives, and a mortar and pestle. A good supply of bottles, jars, pottery, tins, racks, etc. would be key to storing whatever was produced.  Most stillrooms had their own stove and oven.

A tin-lined copper still, with pewter or copper head, neck, and worm, the latter fitting in a wood or metal tub was the standard. (Source: The Still Room by C. Roundell. Gutenburg project.)

The name is derived from the initial purpose of the stillroom, which was as a small-scale distillery for household consumption and use. In the stillroom, under careful supervision, essences, aromatic waters, and specialty liqueurs were created. Essences, in our modern vernacular, are essential oils, which followed differing processes depending on the plant, but in general, plants such as herbs or flowers are ground or macerated, mixed with water, and gently heated to allow the plant oils to separate and float to the top where they were concentrated into a special vase. Aromatic waters were produced in a similar fashion, with the fragrant water being the desired product. Lavender, rose petals, orange flowers, and elderflowers were used to create floral aromatic waters, while herbs such as rosemary, peppermint, marjoram, dill, caraway, thyme, and fennel were used for other fragrances.

Different types of distilling vessels used for various distilling processes (Source: The Still Room by C. Roundell Gutenburg Project)

The Irish satirist, Jonathan Swift once said:

There is no nation yet known in either hemisphere where the people of all conditions are more in want of some cordial to keep up their spirits than in this of ours.

Judging by the variety of liqueurs produced in stillrooms, I can see what he means. I won’t give you an exhaustive list, but here are a few fun or interesting ones: Absinthe, Clove Cordial, Green Chartreuse, Lemon Cordial, Balm of Molucca, Cherry Brandy, Crême de Cacao, Ginger Brandy, Sighs of Love, Rum Shrub, Sloe Gin, and Vermouth.

Bottles for storage of stillroom production. (Source: The Still Room by C. Roundell Gutenburg Project.

This post covered just a handful of the products of the stillroom. My next few posts will cover some of the other things our predecessors on this planet had to produce for themselves in that room. Just for fun, I’ll leave you with a couple of non-alcoholic “miscellaneous” recipes useful to household management back in the day.

To destroy the Smell of Paint in Rooms.—Place in each room a pail of water in which two or three handfuls of hay are immersed. At the end of six hours, the hay will have absorbed much of the smell of the paint. Burn the hay, throw away the water, and repeat the process as often as required.

To destroy Flies.—Take half a tea-spoonful of freshly ground black pepper, a tea-spoonful of brown sugar, and a tea-spoonful of cream. Mix all well together, and put it on a plate. The flies in the room will soon disappear.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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Robin G.
Robin G.
September 22, 2021 11:49 PM

I want some Sighs of Love, and then curl up with some of my TBR pile. 🙂

September 22, 2021 8:21 AM

In the P&P stories I read there is quite often reference to making perfumes and medicines in the still room.
Obviously it’s quite complicated really and reading this I’m now not surprised that my childhood attempts to make perfume by putting rose petals in bottles of water didn’t actually work!
Thank you.

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
September 22, 2021 7:38 AM

Very interesting article! Thank you!

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
September 20, 2021 9:04 PM

Interesting! I never knew much about stipulations before! I may try the method to get rid of flies!

September 20, 2021 8:29 PM

I didn’t realize what a stillroom was before. Thanks for sharing this informative post.

September 20, 2021 10:59 AM

Love J W & Regina’s posts, especially J W’s scene!
Have you personally tried the fly recipe? It would be great if it actually works. Might be better than hanging a plastic bag of water in the doorway but cream?

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
September 20, 2021 9:48 AM

I don’t remember anyone in the family discussing cordials. However, my father told the story of his mother lining up all the kids for their spring ‘dosing’ of castor oil. Ugh!

I have read a few JAFF stories where Jane was proficient in the stillroom. With Elizabeth’s enjoyment of being outdoors, I’m sure she was always bringing plants home for Jane. I’ve also read stories where Jane and Elizabeth created their own signature fragrances in the Longbourn stillroom. I wonder if Caroline Bingley would ever know what that room was? Not likely. I doubt her seminary held classes on the properties of the stillroom? LOL!

Oh, I just had a thought… even I know you have to be careful distilling something. Scene: Caroline is mad at Elizabeth after their discussion of the things an estate mistress should know how to do. Caroline storms into the Netherfield stillroom and, in her tirade, dismisses the servant. She then starts throwing things around, messes with containers, mixes unknown things in a bowl, and neglects what is already brewing/stewing/cooking and, of course, it blows up. Yep. That’s our Caroline.

This was an interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
September 20, 2021 4:15 PM
Reply to  Diana J Oaks

If you watch ‘Big Bang Theory’ or have seen the commercial… you’ll recognize the reference. Sheldon saved Leonard from the smoldering container of rocket fuel by putting it in the elevator, punching a button, and closing the door. Seconds later it exploded. Thus the reason the elevator doesn’t work.

After a maid alerts the house to potential trouble, Elizabeth calmly walks into the stillroom, raises a window, grabs a smoldering something, and throws it out. Thus saving Caroline and Netherfield from a potential disaster or fire [something about to reach flashpoint]. I would think Darcy would be impressed. LOL!! You just don’t see many scenes with the stillroom in JAFF. LOL!

Regina Jeffers
September 20, 2021 8:15 AM

This post had me singing, “A spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down in a most delightful way.”

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