Laying up in lavender

The bedchamber, bedsheets and linen

Brewer's 'Dictionary of Phrase and Fable' (1984) claims that the name lavender comes from the Spanish lavandera (a laundress), the plant used by laundresses for scenting linen. Indeed, the scenting of bed sheets is commonly mentioned in literature. This may have significance because of lavender's association with calming effects, as observed above, and/or moth repellent activity.

As regards the latter, Brewer (1984) gives the meaning of 'laid up in lavender' as 'taken great care of, laid away, as women put things away in lavender to keep off moths'. However, the following three quotes from plays suggest that the preparation of bedsheets with lavender relates to a hedonic quality given to them rather than in relation to storage:

Stat: 'While in the Garret of Simiramis I make your Bed, lay on clean Sheets, Scented with Lavender, And sweep the Room out for your coming ...'.

(Cibber, Colley, 'The Rival Queans', 1729)

Jenny: 'Pick ... the lavender, I must be tying that, or you'll have linen, And naught to sweeten it!'.

(Pfeiffer, Emily, 'The Wynnes of Wynhavod', 1882)

Mrs. M. Cosey: 'Rosalie, lavender sheets, aired snow, snug supper, every thing what I call comfortable, eh?'.

(Morton, Thomas, 'Town and Country', 1807)

One reference is to the smell of the bedroom in general: Heron: 'Your chamber hath been furnished hard by mine, And by my hand sweetened with lavender'. (Austin, Alfred, 'Flodden Field', Poet Laureate, 1897-1913).

A poem makes this positive quality clear: 'Crowd her chamber with your sweets, Not a flower but grows for her!, Make her bed with linen sheets, That have lain in lavender' (Duclaux, Agnes Mary Frances, 'Celia's Home-Coming', 1857).

In 'Mill on the Floss' (1860), George Eliot uses the term with some black humour in conjunction with the similar phrase of 'laying out of the dead' in preparation for burial: '... as for them best Holland sheets, I should repent buying 'em, only they'll do to lay us out in. An' if you was to die to-morrow, Mr Tulliver, they're mangled beautiful, an' all ready, an' smell o' lavender as it 'ud be a pleasure to lay 'em out'. Other mentions are more relevant to the storage aspect, although the hedonic aspect is still prominent:

'Rocking cradles, and covering jams, knitting socks for baby feet, Or piecing together lavender bags for keeping the linen sweet...'.

(Austin, Alfred, 'Grandmother's Teaching' 'Soliloquies in Song', 1882)

'... their display of the whitest linen, and their storing-up, wheresoever the existence of a drawer, small or large, rendered it possible, of quantities of rose-leaves and sweet lavender'.

(Dickens, Charles, 'Bleak House', 1853)

'Then he pulled open the drawers, filled with his mother's things, and looked at them: there were lavender bags among the linen, and their scent was fresh and pleasant.'

(Maugham, Somerset, 'Of Human Bondage', 1915)

'See, sir,' and here he opened a door and ushered Otto into a little white-washed sleeping-room, 'here you are in port. It is small, but it is airy, and the sheets are clean and kept in lavender'.

(Stevenson, Robert Louis, 'Prince Otto', 1885)


An early mention of the use of lavender in storing clothes relates to repelling moths: 'A Citie pestilence, A moath that eates up gownes, doublets and hose, One that with Bills, leades smocks and shirts together To linnen close adultery, and upon them Strowes lavender, so strongly, that the owners Dare never smell them after; hee's a broaker.' (Dekker, Thomas 'The Wonder of a Kingdome', 1636). A selection of other quotes illustrate that the storage is long-term or for rarely used items:

'When the gay triumph ceases, and the treasure Divided, all the Offices laid up, And the new cloathes in Lavender, what then?'.

(Shirley, James, 'The Sisters', 1653)

Ind: 'The onely sute you wear smels of the chest that holds in Limbo Lavender all your rest'.

(Brome, Richard, 'The English Moor', 1659)

Joe: 'That dress, mum, was made in France, so I've heard, Parish make, and it's got a Parish lining in the buzzum too. It's been laid up in lavender nigh upon twenty years among my old woman's relics.'

'In a wardrobe, fresh as spring with yearly lavender'.

(Davidson, John, 'The Theatrocrat', 1905)

'A dingy brown coat, with vellom button-holes, to be sure, speaks an excellent taste; but then I would advise you to lay it by in lavender, for your Grandson's christening ...'.

Since clothes are usually bought to be worn regularly, those that are kept in storage are necessarily used only for unusual occasions, for example, during mourning. Two quotes illustrate this association:

'As this remembrance came upon Mrs Greenow she put her handkerchief to her eyes, and Alice observed that that which she held still bore the deepest hem of widowhood. They would be used, no doubt, till the last day, and then put by in lavender for future possible occasions.'

(Anthony Trollope, 'Can You Forgive Her?', 1865)

Post Obit.: 'But come, Georgiana, I must go change my cloathes, and put by my mourning in lavender.'

(Reynolds, Frederick, 'Folly as it flies', 1802)

Other items

In 'Mr. Lirriper's Lodgings', Charles Dickens comments on a place to put important papers: 'which I mean always carefully to keep in my lavender drawer as the first printed account of his'. Perhaps this is associated with moth repellent activity. One intriguing mention is in relation to claret: 'When we askt him for Claret, he vow'd not a drop, for he had in Lavender laid it all up ...' (Ames, Richard, 'The Search after Claret', 1691). It is not clear whether this is an actual or synonymous use of the term.

Metaphorical usage

'Laying up in lavender' was apparently a well-accepted and known practice so that it was able to be used metaphorically as meaning 'putting away in storage' in a general sense. This could include lovers and others, here possibly with the additional meaning of 'and forgotten about', for example:

Bertha: 'If she has fancies — and all girls have some — She knows her duty and will lay them by In lavender with other childish gauds; When the right royal lover clatters in.'

(Warren, John Byrne Leicester, Baron de Tabley, 'The Soldier of Fortune', 1876)

'She lay'd him neatly in her Lap, And carried him to a House that stood Upon an Hill in an old Wood: And when she had the Urchin there, She laid him up in Lavender.'

(Cotton, Charles, 'Scarronides', 1667)

'No, no; Joe Bangles' work is done. Shelve him, superannuate him, lay him up in lavender, he's only in the way.'

(Gilbert, William Schwenck, 'Randall's Thumb', 1911)

The term could also be applied to the abstract: 'Take off your tragic airs, my dear friend, and fold them up and put them away in lavender. You'll never need them again.' (Montgomery, Lucy Maud, 'Anne's House of Dreams', 1917).

Following Brewer's comment that the term implies 'taking care of', it was seen as appropriate for a treasured object: Dumont: 'Oh, you darling instrument! (Hugging the violin.) If poeans ought to be sung to thee, for I owe thee every thing! You have made me happy, by enabling me to make two young creatures so, and shall be laid up in lavender, as the first fiddle of love!' (Webster, Benjamin, 'The Modern Orpheus', 1837).

Brewer also cites two other meanings of the term, notably, that persons who are in hiding are said to be 'in lavender', and for someone who is 'in pawn', that is, they have become so poor that they have had to pawn their belongings:

'The poor gentleman paies so deare for the lavender it is laid up in, that if it lies long at the broker's house he seems to buy his apparel twice.'

(Greene: 'A Quip from an Upstart Courtier', 1592)

However, apart from his assertions and this one quote, no other citations for these usages were found in the literature searched, so perhaps these were colloquial at some time, but did not make it into literature.

Hedonic uses

As well as for calming and storing sheets and clothes, lavender was directly used to counter the stenches of older times: 'Yet the smell of a Yahoo continuing very offensive, I always keep my nose well stopped with rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves.' (Dean Swift, 'Gullivers' Travels', 1729). Two plays also comment on this use: 'Here is the Lavender for your Nose'. Sir.' Furrs. 'Stop, stop those holes James, there are more stinks than sweet smells.' (Newcastle, William Cavendish, Duke of, 'The Humorous Lovers', 1677). Baron: 'And why, I should like to know, must you drench your clothes and my sofa with lavender water?' Count: 'Pardonnez, mon Colonel; the smoke of tobacco is quite insupportable.' (Thompson, Benjamin, 'Lovers' Vows', 1801).

Lavender also seemed to be used in combination with rose-leaves as an ambient fragrance. George Eliot mentions this purely hedonic use in 'Silas Marner', 1861: 'Mrs Osgood's inclination to remain with her niece gave them also a reason for staying to see the rustic beauty's toilette. And it was really a pleasure from the first opening of the bandbox, where everything smelt of lavender and rose leaves ...'.

Similarly, Hans Christian Andersen (1872) refers to the combination in 'The Shepherdess and the Sheep': 'Let us get into the great pot-pourri jar which stands in the corner; there we can lie on rose-leaves and lavender', and Charles Dickens (1970) in 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood': '. he would quietly swallow what was given him, merely taking a corrective dip of hands and face into the great bowl of dried rose-leaves, and into the other great bowl of dried lavender ...'

It was also carried around on handkerchiefs, as commented by one itself: 'Julia never looked more lovely than she did that night. She anticipated much pleasure, and her smiles were in proportion to her anticipations. When all was ready, she took me from the drawer, let a single drop of lavender fall in my bosom ... asked Betts Shoreham ... 'What CAN there be in that pocket-handkerchief to excite tears from a mind and a heart like yours?''. (James Fenimore Cooper, 'Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief', 1843).

This apparently amorous association is mentioned by Brewer, who states that the giving of lavender is a token of affection: ' He from his lass him lavender hath sent. Showing his love, and doth requital crave' (Drayton: Eclogue, IX), although no other mentions of such a use were cited in the searched literature.

In the following quotes the carrying and wearing of lavender is represented as somewhat foppish, and perhaps effete, when worn by men:

'No more the gaudy beau, With handkerchief in lavender well drench'd' (Fergusson, Robert, 'The Canongate Play-house in Ruins. A Burlesque Poem', 1750—74).

Third footman: 'Damned hard, my friends: I have not been able to throw a drop of lavender into my handkerchief, yet!'

(Pratt, Samuel Jackson, 'Fire and frost: A comic drama', 1805).

Mrs S. 'Oh, I did, Mr. Gradgrind, I did; but the unhappy woman told me to mind my own business; and her guilty paramour - that lavender-scented parliament fellow - threatened to kill me if I gave the alarm.'

(Nation, William Hamilton Codrington, 'Under the Earth: A Romantic Drama', 1871).

Met: 'I have seen the ruffian somewhere ... Owed me half-a-crown for seven years, and wears lavender water!'

(Jerrold, Douglas William, 'Time Works Wonders', 1845).

Other applications

Shakespeare (1623) links lavender with middle age in a Winter's Tale, when Perdita quotes a courting youth: 'Here's flow'rs for you: hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram; The marigold, that goes to bed wi' th' sun, and with him rises weeping; these are flow'rs of middle summer, and I think they are given to men of middle age. Y'are very welcome.'

There is a unique mention of lavender being used in cooking: Drug.: 'A finer sucking pig in lavender, with sage growing in his belly, was never seen!' (Murphy, Arthur, 'What We Must All Come To', 1764).

Finally, Beatrix Potter (1904) in 'Children's Stories' has a whimsical use: 'Old Mrs. Rabbit... also sold herbs, and rosemary tea, and rabbit-tobacco (which is what WE call lavender).'

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