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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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