This expression is often used today when being melodramatic or just for comedic effect, but for centuries it was associated with many different conditions that mainly affected women. Smelling salts have been used to rouse people from a faint since at least the 13th century but the Romans and Greeks both wrote about the restorative properties of ammonia salts even before then.
Fainting was believed to be caused by gases that emanated from a woman’s womb, hence the word vapours. In fact, it was mainly due to low blood pressure and an inability to breath, probably caused, for many women, by the wearing of tight corsets! When smelling salts were held under the nose, the fumes from the ammonia would irritate the insides of the nostrils triggering a breathing reflex causing the lungs to breathe in and out quickly to clear out the nasal passages. These deep breaths would send more oxygen to the brain and reset respiratory patterns so breathing would return to normal.
By the 18th century the popularity of smelling salts had grown as both a useful and fashionable commodity and portable preparations in beautifully designed bottles were available, such as this bottle in the museum. Beautiful storage cases were made of ivory or gold to carry around and offer to the afflicted as a status symbol. Literature of the time impressed on women that fainting and being revived with salts was what the modern, elegant woman did. Swooning in front of a handsome man was a popular past time amongst the upper classes.
The zenith of the smelling salt era was the 19th century when even policeman carried ‘lady-revivers’. Other names for smelling salts were ‘spirit of hartshorn’, ‘sal volatile’ and ‘eau de luce’, also swooning water and melancholy water. One advert extolling its virtues said:
‘By smelling it, it gives instantaneous relief in all sorts of headaches, sickness, fainting, sudden frights, hysterick and hypochondriacal disorders, lowness of spirits, convulsive and epileptic fits, apoplexies, vertigoes and all nervous disorders……….no one is really safe without it.’ (Dalmahoy, A. The curious smelling bottle. [1785?] Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Uni of Warwick.)
Today doctors say that lying down is the best way to recover from a faint and they no longer encourage the use of smelling salts. However, salts are still available, mainly due to their use by sports people such as boxers and weightlifters to focus their minds or to recover from a knockout!