Pomanders are traditionally mixtures of fragrant substances which are often held within a container - although the term can also be applied to the container itself. The odours given off by the mixtures were once believed to offer protection against disease and they are particularly associated with times of plague, from the 1300s onwards. Their use is linked to centuries-old miasma theories which suggested that disease was transmitted through foul-smelling air. Keeping a sweet-smelling pomander close by was believed to offer protection.
The name comes from the French pomme d’ambre, pomme being ‘apple’, which referred to the typical shape of the container, and d’ambre for ‘ambergris’, a waxy substance that originates in the digestive system of the sperm whale. The ambergris formed a base to which other herbs and perfumes were added.
While poorer people would make do with the simplest forms of pomander, the noble and wealthy might have elaborate and expensive designs made for them. The finest examples are beautifully constructed with precious metals and are sometimes studded with jewels. The more complex designs incorporated a number of individual segments into which could be added different herbs and perfumes. These status symbols could be worn attached to a neck chain or belt so as to be instantly available when venturing out into the smellier parts of town.
J Castle, 'Amulets and Protection: Pomanders', Bulletin of the Society for Renaissance Studies, 17/ 2, (2000) pp 12-18
R Schmitz, 'The Pomander', Pharmacy in History, 31 (1989), pp 86-90