Pomander balls have become a classic Christmas image. The oranges, beautifully studded with a pattern of cloves, can be found in many colonial house museums during the holidays. But what are they, how they did they come to grace our homes, and how do I make one? The answers await below..
Pomander balls began not as Christmas decorations but as personal perfumes back in Medieval times. This was long before the invention of deodorant or modern toothpaste, so people were a little smelly back then. People of the time also believed that foul odors would cause illness. Due to these two things, people would would wear satchels, or little bags, of sweet smelling herbs, spice and flowers on their bodies. People who had little money would fill their satchels with things they could grow in their garden, such as rosemary, mint, lavender or roses. People with a little more money would add spices like cloves and cinnamon or the dried rinds of exotic fruits, such as oranges and lemons.
The word pomander comes from what the very rich would put in their perfume satchels: ambergris. Ambergris is a yellow (or amber) colored substance made in the stomach of a whale. Despite where it comes from, it has very pleasant odor making it a popular perfume ingredient. However, ambergris is very rare and expensive. To show off their expensive perfume, the Medieval wealthy would wear a carved circle of ambergris around their necks, often on a silver chain. This gave us the word pomander, from the French term pomme d’ambre. “Pomme” meaning “apple” (a popular term used to describe round objects) and “ambre“, meaning “amber” invoking the color of the ambergris. So pomander roughly translates to “apple of amber”.
But what does this have to do with oranges spiked with cloves? Well, in time, those sweet smelling satchels of herbs, spices, dried frui, and ambergris migrated from the body to the home. People who could afford it began to leave bowls or little bags of these sweet smelling items around the house, to make their home smell nice, just as we would use a scented candle or potpourri today. This was especially true during times when you might have guests, such as the holidays. These bowls of sweet smelling fruits and spices eventually morphed into the clove studded oranges we know today.
While often imagined in a colonial setting, pomander balls as we know them today were more of a Victorian decoration. Truth be told, most colonists would have eaten the orange rather than decorated it. The root of this cultural confusion can be traced to Colonial Williamsburg. Back in the 1930s, a large sum of money was donated to Colonial Williamsburg to create Christmas decorations for the holiday season. The museum did not want to do something modern, worrying it would ruin the historic atmosphere, and they could not do something colonial because the colonists did not decorate for Christmas. So as a compromise, they decorated in a Victorian style; historical, but not colonial. The association stuck, and too this day, while Colonial Williamsburg will be the first to tell you pomander balls are Victorian, the general public still sees them as colonial.
Now, with the history done. Let’s make one.