What Was Perfume in the Eighteenth Century?

Kirsten James

Le Parfumeur Royal

Simon Barbe, Le Parfumeur Royal, Paris, 1699. Image Credit: BIU Santé, http://www2.biusante.

Perfume as we know it is a sweet smelling liquid made from natural and synthetic aromatic ingredients. Yet, far from being a mere scent, perfume is also a fashion accessory, tool of self-definition, and convenient gift. Perfumes are now branded so successfully that names and bottles are often more recognizable than actual smells.

It is easy to imagine that perfume in the past was much the same. For instance, conventional histories of perfume remind us that in the eighteenth century, perfume was luxurious and worn by female courtiers, amongst others, to demonstrate their social status. This was undoubtedly the case. But a variety of evidence reveals that, during this period, perfume had multiple uses and meanings that are readily overlooked if we simply seek out the familiar present in the past.

One kind of evidence comes from perfumers’ business records. Stock inventories, account books, and sale receipts allow us to form a more nuanced impression of what perfumers sold, how much their products cost, and how they changed over time. In the late 1700s, the best-selling products available from perfumers in major European cities such as London and Paris included (as one might imagine) scented waters. However, they also included items that one would not associate with perfumers today: soap for the body, powders and pomades for the hair, alongside an assortment of tongue scrapers, tooth brushes, and toothpaste that reflected the new obsession with oral hygiene – the latter trend explored by Colin Jones in The Smile Revolution.

Advertisements, including trade-cards and broadsides, represent another set of evidence betraying the range of products sold by perfumers. In many cases, these advertisements contained a simple picture, the name and address of the shop, and a list of available products. One such broadside was displayed by Arthur Rothwell; it announced that he sold from "The Civet-Cat and Rose" on London's New Bond Street not only perfumes and "quintessences" but also snuffs, wash-balls, hair combs and powders, skin products, and several medicines including "Daffy’s Elixir."


Pierre Lalouette, A New Method of Curing Venereal Disease by Fumigation. London, 1777. Image Credit: Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/newmethodofcurin00lalo

A third kind of evidence consists of medical treatises. These show that some circles considered perfumes effective medicines. As in previous centuries, perfume reputedly prevented and cured plague. But, in the 1700s, when outbreaks of bubonic plague ceased in Western Europe, perfume was set to work strengthening body and mind, preventing spasms, and curing lethargy. In the 1770s, for example, physician Pierre Lalouette invented a fumigation machine that used perfumes to treat venereal disease. Several ingredients burnt in his machine could be purchased from the perfumer’s boutique; these included frankincense, nutmeg, myrrh, and juniper. Others, such as mercury and sulphur, remained exclusive to druggists and apothecaries because they were considered dangerous.

A final kind of evidence is arguably even more useful for showing the different uses and meanings of perfume. Other contributions to this blog demonstrate how recipes can reveal much about the past. Printed and manuscript recipes for perfumes are no exception. Recipes in pharmacopoeias confirm that physicians believed in the medicinal properties of perfumes. Pharmacopoia Bateana (1706) claimed that the "Royal Essence" (consisting of musk, civet, balsam of Peru, clove oil, rhodium oil, tartar salt and cinnamon) could form an "odoriferous water" that prevented "fainting fits."  Various manuscript collections (such as those in the Wellcome Collection) include recipes for masking stenches, purifying the air, preventing aging, and enhancing beauty.

Such books indicate how the use of perfume changed. In the early 1700s, the emphasis was still on scenting waters, gloves, linens, and homes. By the second half of the 1700s, however, the emphasis switched from perfuming things and places to perfuming the body. For instance, The Toilet of Flora (1784) recommended that "Hungary-Water" (made from rosemary, pennyroyal and marjoram flowers mixed with conic brandy) be used "to bathe the face and limbs, or any part affected with pains" in order to cleanse and strengthen the body.

As these different sets of evidence suggest, perfume in the eighteenth century was multifarious, and the history of the word "perfume" is consistent with these multiple uses and meanings. The word derives from the Latin per fumum ("through smoke"), and throughout the seventeenth century perfume usually referred to substances that released odour when heated. However, by the mid-eighteenth century the "agreeable odour" of perfume was as likely to feature in dictionary definitions as its medical uses. By the early nineteenth century, some dictionaries referred to the purported medicinal uses of perfumes as an anachronism, while adding that perfumes were increasingly sought after for their refined and luxurious scents. It would not be until the nineteenth century, then, that the meaning and uses of perfume – though not its marketing – took on a character that looks decidedly familiar to us.

Kirsten James is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation is provisionally titled ‘The Science of Scent and Business of Perfume in Paris and London in the Eighteenth Century."





A Plant for the End of the World


Atractylodes chinensis (DC.) 蒼朮, from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Surviving Famine) 1.101a

Atractylodes chinensis (DC.) 蒼朮, from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Surviving Famine, pub. 1525) 1.101a

Located in his mountain retreat near the Floriate Sunlight Cavern on Mount Mao, China’s earliest recorded pharmacologist, Tao Hongjing, is deep in his studies. He is editing the earliest known recension of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, the Divine Husbandman's Pharmacopoeia (Shennong bencao jing 神農本草經). It is about the year 500, and Tao is also compiling a collection of manuscripts, sacred revelations to a local family, the Xus 許 of Jurong, revealed to them over 130 years earlier. Collectively titled the Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen'gao 真誥), they cover all manner of topics that interested the Xus, from personal salvation, bodily cure, the contours of the underworld, to the political careers of their friends who had died and passed over into the bureaucracies of the afterlife. One manuscript in this collection celebrates a plant native to the Mao mountains, the herb atractylodes, cangzhu 蒼朮.  It describes not only the medical properties of the plant but an entire array of health-related and salvific practices. It is revealed by the Goddess, the Lady of Purple Tenuity, Ziwei Wang furen 紫微王夫人, whose title refers to the canopy of heaven surrounding the pole star. This manuscript, copied in the hand of the younger of the two Xu brothers, Xu Hui 許翽, is titled Discourse on Eating Atractylodes (Fu zhu xu 服朮序).  It begins at the end of time, with the apocalypse that was predicted for the year 392. In succeeding layers, the Lady of Purple Tenuity describes different practices which for dealing with the disease, warfare and famine to come.

Excerpt from reconstructed Mawangdui Daoyin tu, excavated from tomb dated to 168 BCE. Wellcome Images

Excerpt from reconstructed Mawangdui Daoyin tu, excavated from tomb dated to 168 BCE.
Wellcome Images

There are massage and breathing exercises which nourish vitality (yangsheng 養生) to ensure robust health while drawing meditative awareness to the interior of the body.  These circulate qi and activate divine beings in the body.1 Other similar repertoires from this period further included daoyin 導引 stretching like those pictured here, sexual cultivation, and diet.

Visualisation of the dipper stars descending into the adept's body, and returning, bringing the adept with them.

Visualisation of the dipper stars descending into the adept's body, and returning, bringing the adept with them. 上 清金闕帝君五斗三一圖訣.

The Lady of Purple Tenuity goes on to describe the next phase of practice, in which the adept visualizes starry gods of the dipper and other asterisms as celestial bureaucrats, inviting them to take up residence in the body. These visualizations anthropomorphize the bodily awareness of earlier breathing meditations, and match the body with the movements of the stars, of the seasons, of the five phases.   Then come fantastic alchemicals, beyond material making or financial access, which stretch the imagination and aspiration:

Tiger spittle, phoenix brain, white cornelian, jade frost, lunar liquor of the Grand Bourne, thrice-cycled numinous steel.  If you offer up a knife-point's worth, your divine feathery wings will spread wide. Opening up the supreme writs of the void-like cavern, you will blaze in glory in the chamber of the primordial beginning...2

Visualisation of Cranial Gods. 上清金書玉字上經

Visualisation of Cranial Gods. 上清金書玉字上經

Finally, Lady Wang lays out the highest levels of practice: oration of the Great Cavern Scripture (Dadong zhenjing 大洞真經), and the other supreme texts of the tradition. These install supreme deities throughout the body, grant immortality and ascension to the highest layers of heaven. They will

cause the 5 organs to flourish and thrive and guard and close the mysterious portal [between the eyes]. Visualize the nine perfected [beings] within the brain and the three qi will transport fluids [through the body] and irrigate the elixir field.3

Only then, Lady Wang begins to discuss plants:

One can add [to one’s lifespan] with the five micas, water cassia, atractylodes root, polygonatum, Lyonia Ovalifolia, sunflower, eastern stone, malachite, oily pine nuts, sesame, poria. These are all tools for cultivating life; using them can lengthen your years. I have completely investigated the successes and failures of trees and herbs. There are those which quickly benefit to oneself, but none equal the many proofs of the power of Atractylodes.4

It is here where she reveals that atractylodes, alone among all others, can dispel ghost-borne diseases at the millennial climax. The plant among plants, it is the key to survival in the end times.

Eat this potent herb to care for your health, swallow the floriate springs of clear rivers; study the secret instructions concerning mysterious wonders, and intone hidden texts of the most high. If you do this nesting high in mountain caves, you’ll be able to talk of your years in the same terms as metal and stone.5

This is not just a recipe for making a drug, it is a recipe for life, for salvation. Three recipes using atractylodes appear elsewhere in the Declarations as separate documents. They each describe technical details of boiling, sieving and pulping the root, frying it with wine or mixing it with honey, jujubes or pine nuts.  Other passages in Tao's collection show that the Xu family were taking atractylodes for different reasons: Xu Mi 許謐 the father, was taking it for his semi-paralysed arm. the youngest of his three sons, Xu Hui 許翽 was taking it to prepare his digestive system for austere ascetic diets where he would give up food entirely to live on herbs or just qi. But why articulate atractylodes into this larger program?  Giving it this special meaning bound up the Xus with the sacredness of the mountains on which it grew. During the cataclysm the Mao mountains were to be the site where the Lord of the Dao from on High would descend to save the worthy. The Xus chances of being saved depended on two kinds of merit.  Firstly, the merit gained from persevering in their spiritual practices and achieving bio-spiritual transformation .  However, their access to these practices was due to the merits of their ancestor, Xu Ah, who compassionately dispensed drugs and food in the region during epidemic and famine.The salvific qualities of Atractylodes brought these two together, binding their elite heritage, and their spiritual practice, their past and their future, into a direct relationship with the land, the mountains and the local ecology of medicinal herbs. The very mountain where the Xus were destined to be saved was the same site Tao Hongjing had chosen for his own editorial efforts, both of the Declarations, and the Pharmacopoeia.  What of the Lady of Purple Tenuity's knowledge of actractyldoes travelled into Tao’s Pharmacopoeia, written for the emperor, and intended for exoteric transmission outside? The eschatology, the other practices, the Xus disappear in that work. The pharmacopoeic format is regular and predictable, each entry proceeding with the drug’s name, flavours, temperature, toxicity, major functions and so on. Atractylodes is reported useful here for blockage syndrome in the limbs, which was Xu Mi’s condition, and for digestive problems, which correlates to Xu Lian’s fasting. Furthermore, Tao’s annotations report that “Transcendent Scriptures say” that it can suppress epidemic poxes and disperse evil qi, codewords for ghostly diseases, echoing the claims of the Discourse. Do these separate collections indicate broader cultural distinctions between religion and medicine, between recipes and pharmacopoeias, between local and centralized, or esoteric and exoteric knowledge?

1 On Shangqing massage techniques and their relationship to self-divinization see Michael Stanley-Baker, "Palpable Access to the Divine: Daoist Medieval Massage, Visualisation and Internal Sensation" Asian Medicine 7 (2012): 101-127. On the broader project, see here.

2 虎沫鳳腦,雲琅玉霜,太極月醴,三環靈剛。若以刀圭奏矣,神羽翼張,乃披空同之上文,煒燁元始之室。Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen'gao 真誥), Tao Honging ed.,DZ DZ 1016,  6.2b.

3 使五藏生華,守閉元關內存九真,三氣運液,而灌溉丹田。 Ibid., 6.3a-b.

4 乃可加以五雲   、水桂,朮根,黄精,南燭,陽草,東石,空青,松柏,脂實,巨勝,茯苓。竝養生之具。將可以長年矣。吾   又倶察草木之勝負。有速益於己者,竝未及朮勢之多驗乎。 Ibid., 6.3b. 5 餌靈朮以頤生,漱華泉於清川;研玄妙之祕   訣,誦太上之隱篇。於是高栖于峯岫,竝金石   而論年耶。  Ibid., 6.5b.

Follow the Recipe! Un/Authorizing Muslim Women's Cosmetic Expertise in the Medieval and Early Modern West

Montserrat Cabré

"I saw a certain Saracen woman from Sicily," claimed an anonymous twelfth-century author in Latin, "curing infinite numbers of people [of mouth odour] with this medicine alone."1

Knowledge about beauty circulated extensively in medieval Western Europe, and this know-how was almost always associated with women. Virtually every medieval healthcare handbook in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic contained sections devoted to questions of beauty. In particular, tracts on women's cosmetics abounded. Recipe collections included a considerable number of beauty recipes, serving either the laity or a variety of health practitioners.

Latin medical texts, and the vernacular traditions they inspired, did not simply acknowledge women's interest in cosmetics, but also emphasized their expertise. Texts portrayed women as active agents and producers of collective knowledge on beauty.  Cosmetic recipes—often penned by male authors—conveyed women’s common interests and shared knowledge in beautification.

At the same time, Latin medical texts ascribed specific practices to certain individual women or to particular groups of women.  As we see in the opening quotation, texts very rarely included women’s given or family names. Instead, other features identified them: their place of birth, where they lived, or, often, their religious identity.  As the works of reputed Arabic physicians and surgeons were admired in medieval Western Europe, Christian sources unambiguously distinguished Muslim women’s expertise in the art of beauty treatments. However, Moorish women’s collective authority would eventually become lost in favour of other women.

For example, in the earliest versions of the Salernitan De Ornatu Mulierum, a twelfth-century Latin treatise written by an anonymous male author, a certain “ointment… which removes hairs, refines the skin, and takes away blemishes” was recorded as a recipe for noble Saracen women. However, less than a century later, the new Latin version of the same text attributed the depilatory to Salernitan noblewomen.2 This was neither an accident nor a simple adaptation of a recipe for new audiences. Rather, it marked the beginning of an on-going erasure of Muslim women's authority from Western cosmetic literature.

This obliteration of female Muslim expertise happened gradually. Later vernacular texts dealing with cosmetics still acknowledged their collective or individual authority about beauty. For instance, we see six acknowledgements for recipes from an unnamed Saracen woman in the late thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Ornatus Mulierum.3

Untitled 2

Vergel de señores. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Ms. 8565, libro 3, cap. 9, fol. 134r.

The fifteenth-century Vergel de Señores (Garden of Gentlemen), an anonymous Spanish recipe book for household use, attributed certain beauty treatments to Moorish women. The text devoted a long section to cosmetics, mentioning the practices of ladies (señoras) and their particular investment in knowing recipes that beautified the face. The expertise of Moorish women was called upon, however, when referring to cosmetic recipes containing lead and mercury. The dangerous effects of these ingredients had worried physicians and surgeons for centuries, particularly in regards to potentially noxious effects on the gums and teeth. The compiler of Vergel advised his readers to use them wisely, detailing safe practices.


Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1160, fol. 97r. [facsimile edition: Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. II.]

The authority acknowledged to Muslim women on cosmetics, however, did not last.  Sometime before 1563, Juan Vallés compiled another household manual which was meant to go into print—albeit it never did. The Regalo de la Vida Humana also contained a long section of cosmetic recipes, copied extensively from the Vergel de Señores. Its author, Juan Vallés, still acknowledged women's authority in beauty treatments, but he narrowed their agency by gracefully tending to portray them as the intended audience of the recipes rather than asserting their expertise. And significantly, he omitted any mention of Moorish women and their knowledge of beautifying recipes. Having been recognized as experts in the medieval traditions, Muslim women did not make it into the new texts. Stripped of identifying traits, female agency was impoverished and transformed into an audience of Christian women.4

Ultimately, noticing these shifts reveals the delicate and fragile nature of the acknowledgement of collective and anonymous authority over knowledge –that is, of the particular types of authority granted to women.  Recipes, therefore, should be treasured sources for they offer us a unique perspective to detect and trace how specific groups of people, particularly vulnerable people, are empowered or unauthorized over a long time span.

(1)  Monica H. Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula. A medieval compendium of women's medicine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2001), p. 46.

(2)  Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula, pp. 169, 246.

(3)  Montserrat Cabré, "Beautiful bodies", in Linda Kalof, ed., A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Medieval Age (Oxford: Berg, 2010), pp. 134-136.

(4)  Juan Vallés, Regalo de la Vida Humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. I , pp.  306-310, 410-411.


Montserrat Cabré is an Associate Professor of the History of Science at the Universidad de Cantabria, Spain, where she teaches the history of science and women and gender studies. She works on medieval and early modern women’s medicine, particularly on women’s knowledges as well as the construction of sexual difference.

“Cooking Without Looking”: Visual-Impairment, Domesticity, and the Post-World War II United States

By Laura Micheletti Puaca

The post-World War II United States is popularly remembered as the heyday of domesticity, especially for white, middle-class Americans. Particularly pervasive is the image of the happy homemaker cheerfully tending to her new stove and cooking dinner for her family. During the mid-twentieth century, depictions such as this one abounded in the mass media and were routinely found in advertisements, popular publications, and situation comedies, to name just a few examples.  In addition to their widespread circulation, these representations were also bolstered and seemingly legitimized by a number of postwar developments, such as the return of male veterans, the resulting marriage and baby booms, and the expansion of consumer culture. The emerging Cold War, moreover, often times hinged on the articulation and elevation of these dominant domestic ideals as a means to differentiate the United States from the Soviet Union, where full-time homemaking was held in little regard.  Although we know that these images failed to capture the complexity of women’s lives and obscured undercurrents of dissent, they nevertheless exerted a strong cultural influence in shaping gender roles, societal expectations, social status, and even one’s sense of self-worth.

The degree to which American women could meet, or aspired to meet, these expectations, was influenced not only by race and class, as is commonly acknowledged, but also by ability. For women with blindness and partial visual impairment, carrying out domestic responsibilities, such as preparing meals for loved ones, presented particular challenges.  Trips to the grocery store often required a companion to assist with reading labels. Only a handful of cookbooks had Braille editions. And even some of those that did still contained stock phrases intended for the sighted cook. One Braille cookbook published in 1939, for example, included instructions to fry fish in hot lard “till golden brown” and to cook veal cutlets “until thoroughly done,” without providing timing instructions.[1]

The concerns of visually-impaired homemakers attracted increasing attention in the post-World War II period due to a confluence of factors. The expanding vocational rehabilitation system, which aimed to assist not only disabled veterans but also civilians live “normal” lives provided new sources of support for homemakers with disabilities.  The rehabilitation system both bolstered and benefited from the work of rehabilitation experts and home economists who helped to redefine the problems of disabled homemakers as an important area of academic inquiry. Although most of these specialists primarily studied women with limited mobility, a number of them focused on the blind and visually-impaired.

In the mid-1950s, for example, Esther Knudson Tipps, a Master’s degree candidate in Home Economics at the University of Texas, surveyed blind homemakers in the state in an effort to compile some tried and true tips for visually-impaired cooks. Freddie Henderson, a blind homemaker from Austin, advocated “test[ing] for brownness and good crust on casserole dishes by drawing the back of a fork across the top and listening for a slight crackling sound.”[2]  Another blind homemaker from Austin, Frankie Dearen, suggested “par[ing] potatoes under running water. The remaining skin can then be detected by the feel of the texture.”[3] Meanwhile, Birdie Sparkman, a blind homemaker from Dallas, explained, “One way to spread whipped cream evenly over a pie is to first pour the whipped cream on the center top of the pie and then cover top with Saran wrap, drawing the Saran taut and sealing it on the bottom edge of the plate. Then with the finger, the cream can be worked around under the wrap until it is perfectly smooth.” [4]

"Elaine Marken using a slate and stylus to create Braille labels for canned foods," http://www.iowablindhistory.org/blindhistory/household-tasks. “Courtesy of Iowa Blind History Archive at the Iowa Department for the Blind.”

"Elaine Marken using a slate and stylus to create Braille labels for canned foods," http://www.iowablindhistory.org/blindhistory/household-tasks. “Courtesy of Iowa Blind History Archive at the Iowa Department for the Blind.”

What became Tipp’s 1956 thesis, “Cooking Without Looking—Food Preparation Methods and Techniques for Blind Homemakers,” was later reproduced and printed in both large print and in Braille by the American Printing House for the Blind.[5] This study served, in part, as a much-needed corrective to earlier cookbooks that failed to consider the needs of visually-impaired homemakers. By recognizing their particular needs, it also assisted visually-impaired homemakers to meet societal expectations by carrying out their culturally prescribed roles. Although this example as well as other efforts to rehabilitate homemakers with disabilities bolstered dominant gender roles, they also helped women with disabilities to see themselves and to be seen by others as important members of their families and society.

[1] Lois Virginia Cox, One Hundred and Three Selected Recipes, mimeographed and Braille editions (Louisville, KY: The American Printing House for the Blind, 1939), quoted in Esther Knudson Tipps, “Cooking Without Looking—Food Preparation Methods and Techniques for Blind Homemakers” (MS thesis, University of Texas, 1956), 4-5.

[2] Freddie Henderson quoted in Tipps, “Cooking Without Looking,” 87.

[3] Frankie Dearen quoted in Tipps, “Cooking Without Looking,” 91.

[4] Birdie Sparkman quoted in Tipps, 92-93.

[5] See, for example, Esther Knudson Tipps, Cooking Without Looking: Food Preparation Methods and Techniques for Visually Handicapped Homemakers (Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind, 1959).