Smelling salts were used to restore little ladies who fainted from wearing their stays or corsets too tight, or from being in love, or embarrassed beyond belief, or shocked to the very core. At least that’s what the English novels indicated. But that was in another era when ladies were not as strong and resilient as they are now (that probably is a debatable issue which we are not going into at this time.) As a matter of fact, I can’t picture Great-Aunt Delia being less than strong and resilient herself. Yet she’s the one who owned the smelling salts decanter that is now part of my bottle collection. She would really crow, I guess, if she’d known that now it’s young athletic men who are using smelling salts.
My Daddy’s aunt Delia Sweet could, it seemed to me, “hold her own” in any given situation. Of course I never personally knew her since she died before I was born. But the stories about her were quite vivid, one involving her feeding her several cats on stewed rats which she caught herself. Doesn’t sound like someone who needs smelling salts.
In setting up my bottle collection in a new house, a new kitchen, on a new shelf, I became curious. As I placed the little smelling salts decanter in the middle of bottles which had held other less interesting commodities like shoe polish, mayonnaise, and mouthwash, I wondered what were smelling salts anyway?
Smelling salts, also known as hartshorn or sal volatile, are used for arousing consciousness. In the 17th century it was discovered that shavings from the horns of harts gave off gas (ammonia) which irritated the lungs and throat when smelled, thus arousing consciousness. (Anybody used ammonia lately in cleaning? It sure is a startling sensation when the scent goes up your nose!) As early as the 13th century some form of smelling salts were used. In fact, smelling salts are referred to in a play by Aristophanes, a comic playwright of ancient Athens.
I thought the use of smelling salts was all something of the past. But no. I went online and learned the up-to-date facts, a few of which I’ll give you. Viewers of football or hockey games may observe players at the very beginning of a game being tossed small cylinders which they pop open and sniff, then discard the packaging. It is smelling salts, actually ammonia mixed with medical alcohol. When sniffed, the ammonia opens blood vessels in the nasal passage causing a rush of oxygen to the brain.
Sniffing smelling salts is all quite legal and safe, at least when practiced in moderation. But boxers are not allowed to use the stuff. Anyone with a possibility of a concussion should not be revived and sent back into a fray. At the same time, an injured athlete of any sport should not be given smelling salts. Head injuries could be exacerbated by the sudden jerks smelling salts would produce. In other words, it’s something to use in mild situations, to give a boost. Trainers, supposedly, do not give football players additional sniffs of smelling salts during a game. For one thing, ammonia is foul smelling, and for another, it would lose its affect with repeated doses.
In 1924 England one could purchase smelling salts in the form of something called “Vaporal.” Ladies carried them in their reticules. Vaporal came in dainty little boxes of twelve silk-covered glass capsules. Today athletes receive cute little glass cylinders of smelling salts wrapped in cotton, then cardboard. They snap the package in the middle, the ammonia spills into the cotton, the athlete sniffs it, then, according to one reporter, begins to jerk and almost dance. It is an obvious reaction that is noticeable on national television.
Now that I’ve given you all this useless information, useless unless you’re prone to faint over the daily news, I want to make a couple of observations.
Smelling salts aren’t even salt. But I think, judging by my decanter and old Victorian pictures, that clerks at the apothecary did sometimes pour that ammonia over coarse salt (like ice cream salt) for looks and maybe preservation. I’d definitely rather get my “salt” from a nice hot bag of fresh buttered popcorn!
Another observation. To achieve a surge of energy, I recommend you read God’s love letter to man, the Bible, at least one portion every day. Repeated doses never hurt! And for a big weekly surge of power, go to church on Sunday, or anytime!
Trust me. It works. And you don’t have to be burdened with those weird little glass capsules. Or with a fancy glass decanter. (I can’t picture my aunt De getting that decanter to her nose if she were prone. Maybe she used it for my tiny grandmother, her sister. That could account for the very solemn look on Grandmother’s pictured face.)