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19 August 2007

A (Very) Brief History of Perfume

I’ve always loved perfume. Ever since my aunt gave me a gigantic bottle of Jean Nate when I was about 8, I’ve been addicted to department store perfume counters, to smelling and blending, to taking on a new persona through the magical combination of scent and packaging. (The woman who wears Vera Wang Princess, for instance, wouldn’t be the same woman who wears Tom Ford’s Black Orchid!). Perfumes can mean memories, too. Miss Dior makes me think of my grandmother; jasmine oil, my first boyfriend, because he bought me a bottle at a Renaissance fair. Lauren takes me back to college, since my roommate wore it (and, in one memorable and stinky evening, spilled it on the floor!).

Sadly, many scents that I love in the bottle (Joy, Fracas, Chanel #5) smell oddly like motor oil when I put them on. So, I stick to my own tried-and-true in the end—Crabtree & Evelyn’s Evelyn for everyday (it actually smells like summery roses, without that weird mustiness rosy perfumes sometimes take on). Coco Mademoiselle for special occasions.

When I started writing A Notorious Woman, my heroine Julietta needed an occupation in Venice. Something that would bring her in contact with Venetian society, allow her to meet the hero Marc (the current heartthrob of the city!), and also cover up her secret alchemical experiments. What better than an exclusive perfume shop? After all, perfume has an alchemy of its own. Who would guess that Sicilian lemon, magnolia, and musk (the main ingredients of Sarah Jessica Parker’s new perfume Covet) could add up to something lovely and evocative?

I had so much fun researching the history of perfume, the process of making this magical elixir, and even the making of perfume bottles (often works of art in themselves). I bought some essential oils and tried blending my own scent with, well, less that successful results. At least my carpet no longer smells strangely of carnations and potting soil…

So, here is a brief (very brief!) history of perfume!

Ancient Egyptians used perfumes as part of their religious rituals, as well as for cosmetic and medicinal purposes (as incense, oils, and creams). From there, scent spread to Greece, Rome, and the Islamic world (where, eventually, it reached more Europeans through the Crusades).

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the use of perfume grew even more popular (to cover up the lack of hygiene, I suspect!). Italians, the French, and even the English (influenced by the sensitive nose of Elizabeth I) couldn’t live without their oils and pomanders. The great popularity of perfumed gloves in France led in the 1650s to the formation of specialized guilds for perfume makers. The 18th century (when the court of Louis XV was even nicknamed ‘the perfumed court’ for its copious use of the stuff, even on furniture) saw the important invention of a concoction known as eau de Cologne. A blend of rosemary, neroli, bergamot, and lemon, it was light and refreshing, and could easily be diluted in bathwater; mixed with wine or eaten on a sugar cube for mouthwash; even used as an enema or for poultices. Not only liquid perfume (in beautiful bottles of Murano glass, or after 1765, Baccarat), but scented sponges kept in gilded vinaigrettes and oil diffusers for rooms were popular. (A fun source for this is Elisabeth Feydeau’s book Scented Palace, about Marie Antoinette’s favorite perfumer).

Due to a flourishing trade in jasmine, rose, and oranges, the town of Grasse in Provence became one of the largest producers of perfume ingredients, with the statutes of the perfume makers of Grasse in 1724. Paris became the commercial counterpart to Grasse, with famous houses such as Guerlain and Houbigant (whose Quelques Fleurs is still sold today). Not to be outdone, in London James Henry Creed founded the House of Creed in 1760 (also still going strong today!).


Not even the French Revolution could slow things down—it just changed trends a bit. The top seller of the day was a scent called “Parfum a la Guillotine.” I’m not sure I want to know what that smelled like…

Some fun websites to check out:

The Perfume Museum of Barcelona
Museum of Grasse
Perfume Smellin’ Things
Peppermint Patty’s Perfume Posse
Scentzilla

-Amanda

6 Comments:

Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Amanda, thanks for that tip about the Evelyn perfume! I feel the same way about most rose perfumes. In fact, when I worked at TJ Maxx as a teenager, we ALWAYS had Tea Rose on the accessories table, and it was ALWAYS spilled somewhere. *gag* Horrid, I tell you. Sweet and cloying and musty. Yuck. But the perfume you described sounds lovely. More like actual roses.

That eighties perfume Poison always smelled like dill pickles to me. I've never figured out what it smelled like to other people. They certainly seemed to like it.

4:03 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Heyyyy Ammanda, Welcome welcome! Love the topic and how you dealt with it in your book. I love it imbues everything with an extra layer of senuousness and awareness.

Thanks for introducing me to ThePerfumedCourt.com. They have decanted small samples to try at a fraction of the original prices, plus some vintage ones. Very cool!

Hoydens, another one of my messages that says, "Oops, Keira fell off the healthy boat (in Seattle) and now looks like this. But she's back!!!"

4:24 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Hi Keira! I'm in the same unhealthy boat as you. My mom came to visit (and bake), and within the space of a few days I gained back the five pounds I'd spent all summer losing. And the freezer is still full of sticky buns. Oh, God.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Amanda,

When you started talking about Ralph Lauren perfume (which I love)...it brought back memories of the '80's, when Halston was the rage...

The scent of Halston makes be think about living in my old sorority house, big hair, penny loafers with tassles, and pink button down shirts.

Thanks for posting on perfume!

10:23 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

From one Amanda to another -- welcome!

Terrific post! I always find scent/fragrance/odor/aroma to add that extra layer to everything, and it's such a personal thing when it mixes with one's personal pheromones. Like Proust smelling the Madeleines, when I smell a cologne or aftershave or perfume, my brain takes me back to the first person I knew that wore it as a signature scent. These days I can't smell Ralph Lauren's Polo fragrance for men without thinking about the dashing 29-year-old stage combat teacher during my days at Cornell U. He practically bathed in it, but as a starry-eyed college student, I thought it was so grown-up and masculine. He was a MAN, as opposed to college "boys."

When my mother's mother passed away in the mid 80s, I claimed the lovely silk camisoles she used to wear under her street clothes, even though I have a radically different figure. But they smelled like she did, ever so subtly of lavender, and something else I couldn't pinpoint by name ... her natural sweet yet sophisticated scent that took me back to days of walks in the United Nations Plaza park, ice cream sundaes at Rumpelmayers and special excursions to FAO Schwarz.

I'm tearing up as I type this ... and I thank you for sparking such a nostalgic journey!

5:41 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great post Amanda. I've loved perfume ever since I was a child. Searching for the perfect perfume that fit my personality, trying on new personas with each one. I remember wearing Love's Baby Soft back as a pre-teen, and the first smell of Chanel No. 5. I practically bathed in it for years. I remember how happy I was when my mother bought me a bottle for the last Christmas we spent together before she passed away. My mother also wore Estee Lauder's White Linen, and to this day whenever I smell it, it reminds me of her.

It's funny you should mention Poison, Victoria, that was one of my signature scents in college.

5:53 AM  

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