As I begin work on converting an old workshop on my property into my very own aromatic still room, I began to think about the origins of the still room and how various versions of it have been used back in time. Here is a fun look at aromatic still rooms from the past, and what was involved, before the big reveal on my own still room later this spring!
Ancient Roman Still Rooms
Both the ancient Greeks and Romans were frequent users of natural plant oils and used them for many occasions, including bathing and banquets, as well as for medicinal purposes. In Pompeii, there is much evidence, preserved in the lava of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., to suggest that many herbs and plants were in evident use.
These plants and herbs included many common names such as rose (Rosa x damascena), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). There are written records which show ingredients of some perfumes and oils which were in popular use at that time. Evidence has also been uncovered in the archaeological excavations of Pompeii of perfumery making houses and early forms of “still rooms.”
How Early Perfumes and Plant Medicines Were Made
Early perfumes were made of pure natural ingredients unlike many synthetic brand perfumes today; flower petals, plant seeds and tree bark were all combined with naturally fragrant resins and gums. The process of making perfumes altered over the years; however, early ancient perfumes were simply made and were called unguents.
Unguents were body perfumes and were made by immersing the plant material in a fat or oil base; this process was called enfleurage. Similarly, plant oils used for medicinal purposes were also made this way; today many plant oils are commonly known as essential oils.
The Origins of the European Still Room
The still room became commonplace in the sixteenth century and by the eighteenth century many large European country houses had their own still room. In the still room, aromatic plant material was prepared for cosmetic, medicinal and culinary uses, using the plants, flowers and herbs found on the country estate. The still room was firstly used for the making of remedies for medicinal and hygienic purposes and secondly used to make culinary oils and wines.
Natural Remedies and Oils Made in the Still Room
The still room was also a place to make perfumes, soaps, candles, fragrant waters, home remedies, cosmetics, pot pourri and moth repellents; however, even fragrant perfumes had many beneficial medicinal properties due to the natural plant materials from which they were made. Many medicinal home remedies were made from common herbs and plants such as peppermint (Mentha x piperita), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and rose (Rosa x damascena).
Still Room Aromatic Recipes
In the still room, roses were often used to make flower waters; lavender and other fragrant herbs were used to scent linen and clothes. Myrtle flowers were used to make a skin tonic named Angel Flower Water. It was common to sprinkle scented water on the floors of a house too; lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) leaves were used as a furniture polish for oak.
The still room was initially attended by a still room maid, then later in time, by the lady of the house herself. The still room was a place for many European aromatic home remedies up until the nineteenth century when synthetically engineered materials emerged.
The Still Room Today
The still room, to my mind, is enjoying a popular comeback recently among artisan distillers, herbalists, plant lovers, and, to some extent, aromatherapists. Although today’s still room may not be as eloquently designed as those of European country houses of the past, the distilling of one’s own aromatic plants and herbs, direct from the garden or countryside, is the same process. And taking plants direct from the garden to the still and distilled into your own aromatic remedy is about as close to nature as it gets!
Learn More About Aromatherapy and Aromatic Plants with Sedona Aromatherapie
Giordano, Carlo, Casale, Angelandrea, Profumi, Ungenti e Acconciature in Pompei Antica (Perfumes, Ungents and Hairstyles in Pompeii) Roma, Italia: Bardi Editore
Lawless, Julia 2001 The Aromatherapy Garden London, UK: Kyle Cathie Ltd
Author is a 20 year veteran in the health care and aromatherapy industry, a UK-certified aromatherapist, published author in aromatherapy, an approved education provider for the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), an aromatherapy business owner, a consultant, and Chief Editor for the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal.
Tags: aromatic oils in history, aromatic plants, aromatic plants in history, aromatic still room, European still rooms, Roman use of aromatic plants