Making ‘powder for hourglasses’ in the early modern household

By Stephanie Pope

There are numerous fascinating recipes in BnF Ms. Fr. 640, the sixteenth-century French metallurgist’s manual which forms the basis of Pamela Smith’s Making and Knowing Project–but, for me, the most fascinating of all is the one to make ‘powder for hourglasses’:

It must be made very fine and not subject to rust and with enough weight to flow. Taking i lb. of lead, melt it and skim and purify it from its filth, then pour into it four ℥ of finely ground common salt, and take care that there are no stones or earth. And immediately after pouring it, stir continuously very well with an iron [tool] until the lead and salt are quite incorporated, and take it immediately off the fire, stirring continuously. And if it seems too coarse, grind it on a marble slab and pass it through a fine sieve then wash it as many as times as necessary until the water runs clear, throwing out the fine powder that will float on it, renewing the water as many times as necessary until it is completely cleared.

What was this recipe doing in the working manuscript of a sixteenth-century French practitioner? This recipe, however, provides valuable insight into the flexibility of ingredients in early modern recipes and the experimental nature of the domestic setting in this period.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338), Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. Image credit: author’s own.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338), Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. Image credit: author’s own.

The origin of the hourglass is unclear. Although the device has its precedent in the ancient Egyptian water clock known as the clepsydra, the hourglass seems to be a medieval invention. The earliest reference to its existence is iconographical and symbolic. It appears in a series of frescoes dating to 1338 in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, entitled The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, and is held by the female figure of Temperance, one of the six virtues of good government.

Although there is some confusion over the earliest functions of the hourglass, it seems that at some point the production of hourglass sand became part of a repertoire of standard household recipes. This is suggested by a recipe in Le Menagier de Paris (‘The Goodman of Paris’), written c. 1393 by a wealthy Parisian burgher for the instruction of his wife in various marital matters. The miscellaneous section, ‘Other small things that be needful’, includes–along with recipes for various preserves and rosewater–a recipe:

TO MAKE SAND FOR HOURGLASSES. Take the grease which comes from the sawdust of marble when those great tombs of black marble be sawn, then boil it well in wine like a piece of meat and skim it, and then set it to dry in the sun; and boil, skim and dry nine times; and thus it will be good.

Although the ingredients in this recipe differ from those in Ms. Fr. 640, the processes and their ends seem comparable to our recipe (e.g. heating and skimming are both required).

Attempting to determine why the production of hourglass sand became a sort-of domestic chore is difficult. Perhaps its presence among household recipes was partly due to the ready availability of the necessary ingredients. Variant seventeenth-century recipes state that pulverised eggshells can also be used to make sand of this sort, which would certainly have been easily accessible, and an efficient use of domestic waste. More than this, though, the various recipes for hourglass sand–lead and salt, eggshells, “grease” from marble–suggest that it could be produced from any materials that the experimenter had on hand.

So, lead and salt may be the principal ingredients of our author-practitioner’s recipe because these two substances would have been in ample supply in his workshop. While the marble grease that features in the Menagier de Paris’s recipe seems a little more exotic than lead or eggshells, we should bear in mind that great marble tombs were being constructed in Paris in the fourteenth century; this particular material probably played a more significant role in quotidian life than we might initially guess.

The notion that hourglass sand might be produced by any scraps of material readily available might also explain the spike in popularity experienced by the hourglass in the fifteenth- and sixteenth centuries: if the ingredients for hourglass sand could simply be anything readily available, hourglass sand could (and would) be produced frequently. Increased hourglass production would cause people to find more uses for it in their daily lives, and demand for its production would consequentially increase.

At any rate, the hourglass gained prominence in daily life during the fifteenth- and sixteenth centuries, and was used to measure intervals such as the length of sermons, cooking time, and breaks from labour. It was also employed in specialist domains: the hourglass marked the length of lectures for the students at Oxford University, helped medical practitioners to measure pulses, and regulated working hours in craftsmen’s shops. The last might be why our author-practitioner was interested in their production: he could have needed one as part of his working environment.

Even as domestic hourglass sand production spread across early modern Europe, the product was notoriously inaccurate. Can this tell us anything about the conception of time in early modern Europe? Well, the lack of time standardisation across areas of the same country in sixteenth-century Europe meant that time was much more heterogeneous than now. This non-universal understanding of time is reflected more widely in MS. Fr. 640 by the use of anthropocentric forms of temporal and spatial measurement.

For instance, the author-practitioner often measured objects in terms of handspan, an individually-variable form of measurement. Even more intriguingly, he also referred twice to the recitation of the paternoster as a measurement of time duration. In the recipe for ‘Something excellent against burns’, the author stated that an oil-wax must be stirred for ‘the time you need to recite 9 pater nosters’. The presence of a prayer as a form of time measurement provides a link between theology and horology. It also suggests that time was not a universal standard for our author-practitioner, but was something local to individuals and their measuring practices.

The domestication of hourglass sand production, then, is a neat illustration of how material culture can often shed new light on contemporaneous intellectual, ideological, artistic, and literary concerns.

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