History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

11 April 2008

Smelling like a Rose ... a brief overview of perfume

Smelling good has been high on the list of Musts (no pun) since mankind climbed down from the trees. Balsam was the first scent actually used for something “off the plant.” Balsams (Balm of Gilead, for instance) were used to treat wounds and to protect plants from browsing animals. Then someone, a Persian or an Egyptian, discovered attar of roses and the world was off on a quest for flowers and trees that smelled nice. [See Persian rose-water sprinkler at right]

Oil from aromatic plants had all kinds of uses: Egyptians, the first to use scents for personal adornment, scented their hair; sweetened their breath; air-conditioned and freshened their houses (the dispersing scent actually lowered the temperature); smoothed their skin with perfumed oils; and doused the bodies of the dead.

Later, the Romans introduced lavender water for washing clothes (in fact laundry was first known as “lavendre”). Dried leaves, resins, spices and oils were imported from all over Asia and India to the Roman empire, which quickly saw the aesthetic (and economic) possibilities for church incense, fragrant candles, even juice to rub on furniture (from balsam and Sweet Cicily, a kind of fern). To say nothing of strewing floors with rue to keep down the fleas.

In the 10th century, the Arab physician Avicenna distilled the oil of rose petals and the world hasn’t smelled the same since. Even today, Bedoins lace their coffee with attar of rose-water.

By the late 1100's, perfume sellers in Paris had established a fraternity of scented-glove makers who were also allowed to sell perfumes.

Arnaldo de Vilanove, a Catalan physician in the late 13th century, studied the effect of soaking, squeezing, or heating flower and tree petals or leaves or bracts to extract their essential oils (attar) and by the 14th century, the art of mixing attars with alcohol (oils are insoluble in water) gave us perfume!

Known as simples in the medieval period, tinctures of herbs and flowers were used for medicinal and aesthetic purposes. Red Damask roses were used because of their reliably perfumed petals, along with mint, thyme, rosemary, lavender, orris root, etc. Upper class medieval women packed their clothes in cedarwood chests, sprinkled sheets with ground lavender, and wore glass scent bottles around their necks.

But not until the 1500's did perfumes come into general use in England, and it’s interesting that scented oils and water were not applied directly to the skin, but worn in other ways: perfumed face washes, perfumed baths (particularly after the Plague, people became more conscious of personal cleanliness); perfumed snuff (and cigars, especially after tobacco was imported); perfumed finger rings (including a Regency “fountain ring” which squirted a 12-inch jet of fragrance).

King Henry VIII had a favorite scent recipe: 6 spoons rose oil; 6 spoons rose water; 1/4 oz sugar, 2 grains musk, 1 oz ambergris. Boil 6 hours and strain.

By the time of the Stuarts, ladies enjoyed vinaigrettes (rose-scented “vinegar”), scented pastilles, perfumed lamps, perfumed handerchiefs, poncet boxes (wooden boxes filled with perfumed powder), pomanders, etc. Queen Elizabeth I developed a passion for scented gloves imported from Italy (impregnated with attar of something); in fact, it was the glove manufacturers (working with herbalists) who first sold perfume!

Much later, tinkering chemists discovered that mixing an acid with an alcohol made an “ester” and now, no matter how meager the Damask rose crop, voila! Man could imitate nature. Today, 2/3 of all scents are man-made.

People like to smell good. Hence the continued demand for perfumes introduced in the 1920's: Arpege (Lanvin), L’Aimant (Francois Coty), and Chanel No. 5 (Ernst Beaux).

Sources: Perfume Through the Ages, Roy Genders;“History of the Perfume and Fragrance Industry” [articles from internet site, Perfume 2000.com].


Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fascinating post, Lynna. So it all started with roses, eh? I recently bought some lotus oil, so I could know what it smelled like -- kind of astringent, kind of banana-ish, and (maybe it's just the association) kinda erotic, so I had my heroine scent the bathwater with it.

9:25 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Isn't vanilla a scent men are supposed to rank as one of the highest on the "sexy" scale?

Baking bread was next, as I recall!

Great post Lynn

8:34 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

To me it's (psychologically) interesting that 21st century man responds to food scents: vanilla, baking bread.
And, according to many romance novels, women respond to the scent of horses, sweat, and "man."
Whatever that means...

11:06 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Fascinating post, Lynna! I particularly loved the receipe for Henry VIII's favorite scent. I wonder if he wore it himself or preferred it on others.

I once wore pure vanilla extract as a perfume when I played the daughter of the Newgate Prison jailer in a play titled "Children of Darkness." It was written in 1925, but took place in 1725; a key event in the play is the hanging of notorious highwayman Jonathan Wild. I wondered what a seductive lower-class woman might use as scent, since she wouldn't be able to afford perfume.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

also check out the NY Times Style Magazine today for new rose scents and upcoming technologies -- the one that calls out to the unreconstructed hippie in me of course being "Cannabis Rose".

10:31 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Hmmm. A vanilla bean is lots cheaper than Chanel No. 5...

12:43 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Lynna! I love deciding what scents my different characters will wear. I used vanilla in the perfume I made up for Mélanie (which I loosely based on Shalimar, which is what I wear myself).

Amanda, the play sounds fascinating!

12:18 AM  

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