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A History of Perfume

Perfume Oils have been around for a very long time in one form or another. Read on to get a feel for their origins below....

Fragrance found its way into religious and secular life via scented oils. These were made, as they still are today, by extracting plant oils into fat or vegetable oil and then straining out the used plant material. They were used liberally in religious ceremonies to consecrate temples, alters, statues, candles, and priests.

Religious Use of Fragrant Oils

The Book of Exodus (30:22-25) provides one of the earliest recipes for an anointing oil -- given by God to Moses to be used in the initiation of priests. The ingredients included myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, and cassia blended into olive oil.

When Mary Magdalene anointed Christ's feet and wiped them with her hair, it was with an oil made from costly spikenard. The name Christ, or Christos, from the Greek chriein, literally means "to anoint," and the frankincense and myrrh brought by the wise men to the Christ child most likely were anointing oils. These oils were considered to be more valuable than the gold that was carried by the third wise man.

Ancient Egyptian Scents

Egyptian talent for formulating scented oils became legendary, and their oils were certainly potent: Calcite pots filled with richly scented oils still held a faint odor when King Tutankamen's tomb was opened 3,000 years later. Egyptians were especially creative with the use of scent and did not restrict it to religious rites. An individual's special odor, or khaibt, was represented by a hieroglyph of a fan and was thought capable of influencing the emotions of others.

The first beauty spa may have been the perfume factory owned by Cleopatra at En Gedi, by the Dead Sea. Individuals were apparently offered health and beauty treatments, since the ruins of the factory show seats in what are believed to have been waiting and treatment rooms. Fragrant herbs were blended into specially prepared olive oil. Unfortunately, the book in which Cleopatra recorded recipes for her body oils, Cleopatra Gynaeciarum Libri, is long lost. We know of it only through its mention in Roman texts. In Egypt, everyone used body oils, from royalty to laborers. Builders constructing a burial site went on strike in the twelfth century B.C.E. not just because the food was bad, but even worse, they complained, "We have no ointment." They depended upon the oils to ease sore muscles after a day of hauling and carving huge stones and to protect their skin from the intense Egyptian sun. If you would like to learn more about perfumes in the Egyptian age, click here

Ancient Greeks 

The Greeks were especially attracted to the use of scented oils. In fact, Hippocrates recommended the use of body oils in the bath. In Athens, proprietors of unguentarii shops sold marjoram, lily, thyme, sage, anise, rose, and iris infused in oil and thickened with beeswax. They packaged their unguents (from a word meaning to smear or anoint) in small, elaborately decorated ceramic pots, as they still do today. However, in those times the shopkeepers were consulted as doctors, and their products were sold for a multitude of medicinal uses.

Greek men and women anointed their bodies for both personal enhancement and sensuality. The men used a different scented oil, chosen for its particular attributes, for each part of their body. Most of the oils they used, such as mint for the arms, were warm and stimulating. To learn more about the Greek history of perfume, click here.

Romans

The Romans, who did not enjoy the messy process of infusing and straining scented oils, imported most of theirs from Egypt. Men and women alike literally bathed in fragrance. So prevalent was the use of scent that Romans affectionately called their sweethearts "my myrrh, my cinnamon," just as today we call our loved ones "honey." To learn more about the Roman history of perfume, click here.

From the Crusades to the Renaissance

While Europeans largely turned their backs on the use of perfume at this time – pure frivolity, was the verdict – other cultures revered and reveled in it.

India

East Indian Tantric practice turned women into a veritable garden of earthly delights. They anointed themselves with jasmine on their hands, patchouli on the neck and cheeks, amber on their breasts, spikenard in the hair, musk on the abdomen, sandalwood on the thighs, and saffron on their feet. Men, however, applied only sandalwood to their own bodies.

The daily bathing ritual in India required the application of sesame oils scented with jasmine, coriander, cardamom, basil, costus, pandanus, agarwood, pine, saffron, champac, and clove. Ancient Vedic religious and medical books gave instruction on balancing body temperature, temperament, and digestion with such aromas, and some of their therapeutic uses were certainly passed on to the West.

China

In the Orient, the Chinese were suffusing their surroundings with fragrance – from the ink they wrote with, the stationery they wrote on, to (less surprisingly) the temples they worshiped in.  The Japanese, by contrast, focused their attention on the burning of fragrance, creating an incense ceremony – Kho-Do – which was said to ward off bad luck.  (A handful of monks still perform the Kho-Do incense ceremony today)

Middle East

The Arabs came up with clever ways to capture fragrances. Across the Arab lands – where perfume plays a central role in religious ceremonies – trade links were maintained with India and China, and scientists worked on new techniques of distillation to capture the ephemeral scent of these new materials:   the first tin-plated copper still (much less fragile than the original glass), and a ‘cooling worm’, the pipe and chamber which the distillation was transferred to.  As the prophet Mohammed put it, in the 7th to 8th Century, ‘It has been given to me to love three things in your base world:  women, perfumes and prayer…’

Aztecs and Inca's

Throughout the Americas, massage with scented oils was also used as therapy and was often the first treatment given. One massage oil prepared by the Incas contained valerian and other relaxing herbs that were thickened with seaweed. The Aztecs massaged the sick with scented ointments in their sweat lodges.

To learn more about the history of perfume in this time period, click here.

The Age of Enlightenment

Valiant explorers continued to bring back a bewitching treasure trove of scented materials to Europe.  Men like Vasco de Gama (1469-1524), Magellan (1480-1521) and Columbus (1451-1506) brought vanilla, pepper, Peru balsam, cardamom, sandalwood, clove, cocoa…  Many were used for flavouring, but also found their way intro fragrant creations.

To learn more about the history of perfume in this time period, click here.

France - Louis XIV

King Louis XIV (1638-1715) was terrified of bathing; he’s said to have taken only three baths in his life.  That fear was shared by the noblility in the 17th Century – it was thought that water spread disease (so the less you bathed, the less vulnerable you were). Yet Versailles was seriously fragrant.  Throughout the Palace, bowls were filled with flower petals, to sweeten the air. Furniture was sprayed with perfume. Even the fountain and visitors (probably a defensive move, when hygiene was pretty scarce) were sprayed with perfume, on entering the Palace. In fact, the air of the gilded salons at the French court was so fragrant that the French court became known as ‘the Perfumed Court’.

To learn more about the history of perfume with Louis XIV, click here.

France - Napoleon

The Revolution was a turbulent time, for perfumers, who lost their most affluent customers, often to the guillotine. But they had a new champion, in Napoleon Bonaparte – who just loved Eau de Cologne, and used it extravagantly throughout his life.

To learn more about the history of perfume with Louis XIV, click here.

Great Britain - The Victorians

Queen Victoria was ‘not amused’ by plenty of things, including the over-lavish use of fragranceAnything too ‘sexy’ – along with the use of cosmetics and wearing of make-up – was associated with ‘fallen’ women, prostitutes, those of questionable morals. (Even later in Victorian times, when make-up tiptoed back into fashion, it was always natural-looking: a healthy, pink-cheeked look rather than the decadence of a fully made-up face, which was still seen as sinful.)

To learn more about the history of perfume with the Victorians, click here.

Early 20th Century to 1920

Having set a new trend for more complicated (and much less shy) fragrances, the House of Guerlain was busy.  After launching Jicky – a swirl of lemon, bergamot, lavender, mint, verbena and sweet marjoram (with so-sexy civet as a fixative), Au Bon Vieux Temps (1890) and Belle Époque (1892), Apres l’Ondée (1906) and L’Heure Bleue (1912) followed. But Guerlain had competition from a young Corsican man called Francois Coty (born Francois Marie Joseph Sportuno), who learned the art of perfumery by working in Grasse for the House de Chiris, then pioneering the creation of many synthetic essences.

To learn more about the history of perfume in the early 20th Century, click here.

The 1920's and Chanel

In 1921, a very clever designer and businesswoman created a scent that revolutionised the way women smell.  Getting on for 100 years later, Chanel No. 5 is still the world’s most iconic fragrance.

Chanel was truly modern, ‘traversing the boundaries between lady and mistress’, as one commentator put it. She had plenty of ‘racy’ friends – but counted many aristocrats among her circle (including, later, The Duke of Westminster as a lover). She first set up a millinery shop, but by 1921 had a string of successful boutiques in Paris, Deauville and Biarritz. She drove around in her very own Rolls Royce, and owned a villa in the south of France. We owe to Chanel our love of sunbathing, too: previously, tans were associated with outdoor manual labour – until Chanel returned from a beach holiday seriously bronzed, and voilà! Suddenly pale wasn’t so interesting.

To learn more about the history of perfume in the 1920's, click here.

The 1930s and 1940s

At the start of the 30s, belts may have been tightened – but perfume was a luxury many women clung to.  The Stock Market crash on Wall Street in 1929 kickstarted the Great Depression in the US – but perhaps as an antidote to that doom and gloom, the fragrances launched now seemed to offer hope, and positivity, and embody thoughts of love:  Jean Patou‘s so-romantic Joy, targeted at the Americans who couldn’t stretch to the couturier‘s glamorous gowns and daywear, but could perhaps indulge themselves by dabbing a drop or two of a jasmine-and-rose-rich fragrance behind their ears.  Je Reviens (‘I’m coming back’) was launched by Worth – another Parisian designer – in 1932, and so cementing the link between fashion and perfumery which endures to this day.

To learn more about the history of perfume in the 1930's and 1940's, click here.

The 1950s and 1960s

Until the 50s, fragrance was something women mostly reserved for high days, holidays – and birthdays. Until one very savvy, go-getting New York beauty entrepreneur – by the name of Estée Lauder – had a brainwave. So the game-changing fragrance Youth Dew began as a bath oil, something – as she once told The Perfume Society’s Jo Fairley over tea at New York’s Plaza Hotel. ‘Back then, a woman waited for her husband to give her perfume on her birthday or anniversary. No woman purchased fragrance for herself. So I decided I wouldn’t call my new launch “perfume”.  I’d call it Youth Dew,’ (a name borrowed from one of her successful skin creams).

A bath oil that doubled as a skin perfume to buy, because it was feminine, all-American, very girl-next-door to take baths. A woman could buy a bath oil for herself without feeling guilty or giving hints to her husband.’  And when Mrs. Lauder declares that women’s status got a boost when ‘a woman felt free to dole out some of her own dollars for scents,’ who can argue with that…?

To learn more about the history of perfume in the 1950's and 1960's, click here.

We hope you enjoyed this history of perfume, brought to you with grateful thanks to the Perfume Society. If this has inspired you to buy a perfume oil, please click for Hers perfume oils or His perfume oils.

With acknowledgement to (Kathi Keville, History of Aromatherapy, 2006) and The Perfume Society 2017