Wellcome Library, London // CC BY 4.0
When Henry VIII began courting Anne Boleyn, he gave her a small gold pendant, attached to which were an ear scoop and two toothpicks. While the gift of two toothpicks and a scoop to remove ear wax might not seem romantic to 21st century couples, Boleyn would have likely appreciated the toilet pendant, since it would have been highly fashionable in the 16th century court.
The ornamental wearing of toilet sets, in particular toothpicks, became increasingly popular in the Renaissance and the practice continued well into the 18th century (toothpicks in particular fell by the wayside upon the invention of the toothbrush). Toilet pendants, like this 17th century example held by the Wellcome Collection in London, were status objects made out of expensive materials such as gold and silver. The wearing of a toilet pendant was an expression both of the personal hygiene of its wearer as well as knowledge of court etiquette practices. According to Renaissance scholars, the wearing of such pendants “embodied and communicated not only an individual’s identity, but the social relations of a class.”
But this particular pendant, with both the toilet instruments and an intricately worked pomander on top, was firmly entrenched in two traditions that both signaled a deep interest in personal hygiene. Derived from the French pomme ambre or pomme d’embre, which translates to “amber apple,” the pomander was a small charm that would have been stuffed with fragrance. Usually worn around the waist or neck, the pomander would have dampened many of the unwelcome, pungent smells of the Renaissance, but it also had a medicinal purpose of sorts.
Until the acceptance of germ theory in the 19th century, Europeans believed that disease was caused by miasma, or foul smelling air. Perfumes, like the kind contained in pomanders, were believed to be a defense against disease. As pomanders became more popular throughout the Renaissance, the term was used more broadly to encompass nearly any charm or pendant that contained fragrance.
The Wellcome’s pendant is one of the numerous examples of pomanders that survive. Like the toilet set, examples span multiple centuries showing increasingly whimsical and elaborate approaches. Stand-alone pomanders were, apparently, more common; numerous 16th century portraits depict aristocratic or wealthy sitters holding pomanders, again pointing to their relative commonality as a fashionable accessory.
Pieter Janz Pourbus via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Though both pomander and toilet sets were incredibly popular during the same time span, the Wellcome’s pendant, which combines the two trends, seems relatively unusual. It’s a testament to a moment in which haute couture, personal hygiene, and medicine seamlessly blended into one noticeable object.