We are now arriving at the moment when ablutions are becoming rarer. The mobile vase and basin are replaced by a fountain fixed on the wall, but it is more of an ornament than a useful object.
Under the Restoration of the monarchy in France, the fountain also disappears, to be replaced by a mouth-rincer, borrowed from the English neighbours. Let us listen to the indignation of this professor of good manners on the subject.
“There are rude and very impolite people who are able to forget themselves to the point of rincing their mouths at the table and then spitting out the water. It would be an impertinence to do something like that in front of the people to whom you owe respect, and it is even dishonest to do such a thing among equals.”
Mouth-rincers, discredited for a long time, reappear at the beginning of the XXth Century, as stated by Le Gaulois in 1906: “The use of bowls called mouth-rincers has just been re-introduced at the table of the King of England, at the end of the meal. Since the exile of the Stuarts, their use was abolished, except for the King and the Queen. The other table companions were not allowed to have mouth-rincers, and the reason is rather curious.
“There remained in England, even at the court, numerous Stuart sympathisers, and it was noticed that these Jacobites, at the moment of toasting the King, passed their glass over the bowl of water. Understood only by them, it was a way of showing that their toast was going to the real King, across the water. The bowls were abolished to abolish this fiction.
“Here [in France], mouth-rincers persisted up until about twenty years ago; bowls are only used for fingers, and it is probably this that has been re-introduced into the English court.”
Today, industrial finger-rincers, or hot, perfumed towels are still distributed in certain restaurants. This after-meal ablution shows better than any document, the survival of past customs. Although, the picturesque note of yester-year is forever lost – which is a pity.
Let us have a last look at it, at the time of knights in shining armour.
“Then came a maitre d’hotel who very gently knelt in front of the damsel and said to her:
“”My damsel, it is ready when it pleases you to wash.”
“”Faith”, says she. “When it pleases my lords who are here.”
“To which Antoine answered:
“”Damsel, we are all ready when it pleases you.””
This poetic little entr’acte is a lot better than its horrible evolution to the mouth-rincer. Don’t you think?