Making Scents in the Victorian Home

By Jessica P. Clark

Eugène Rimmel. Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections, digital ID 2006250, and Wikicommons.
Eugène Rimmel. Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections (digital ID 2006250) and Wikicommons

In 1864, London perfumer Eugène Rimmel (of modern Rimmel Cosmetics fame) published The Book of Perfumes. Compiled from a series of articles he wrote for science-minded readers of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, the book charted the history of perfumery, as well as modern distilling techniques used by Europe’s leading manufacturing perfumers: expression, enfleurage, maceration. The Book of Perfumes resembled other perfumery books on the market, save for one important difference; Rimmel provided no recipes for women to concoct their own perfumes at home. In this regard, Rimmel’s text signified a shift away from the instructional genre, suggesting that the manufacture of perfumery should be left to professional (and male) perfumers.

Rimmel’s exclusion of feminized home production was a deliberate move. In his prologue, he noted that many ladies once operated “a private stillroom of their own and personally superintended the various ‘confections’ used for their toilet” out of necessity. By the 1860s, he argued, technological developments in London’s growing commercial industry, not to mention perfumers’ role in imperial commodity flows, vastly exceeded the material resources and technologies available to women’s self-production.

[G]ood perfumers and good perfumes are abundant enough; and, with the best recipes in the world, ladies would be unable to equal the productions of our laboratories, for how could they procure the various materials which we receive from all parts of the world? And were they even to succeed in so doing, there would still be wanting the necessary utensils and the modus faciendi, which is not easily acquired…perfumery can always be bought much better and cheaper from dealers, than it could be manufactured privately by untutored persons.[1]

According to Rimmel, English women could not match the quality of goods produced by professional men laboring in the new commercial market. What’s more, he claimed these goods were even cheaper than home production, a new argument linked to developments in mass manufacturing.

What remains unclear is the extent to which women continued to concoct perfumery in the home, despite discouragement from professionals like Rimmel. Historians like Holly Dugan and Kirsten James have highlighted the centrality of home production of perfumery in the early modern period, when English women produced scents to combat illness, miasmas, and pain. But the extent of domestic production is more difficult to ascertain in the nineteenth century, when an expanding market of consumer goods surely attracted some female consumers away from the laborious demands of home production.

We have some evidence to suggest that women continued to make scents. Account books belonging to London chemists George Daniel and Thomas Acraman Coate show female shoppers buying perfumery ingredients in the 1860s. There was also the enduring popularity of Anglo-American recipe collections that included perfumery recipes. A survey of texts produced between 1855 and 1910 reveals that many printed recipe collections continued to include instructions on producing spirituous waters, but also colognes, solid parfums, and scented sachets.

Glass frames used in the process of "enfleurage." From “Perfumery, Perfumes,” Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, Volume VI (New York: Collier, 1888) 165.
Glass frames used in commercial “enfleurage.” From “Perfumery, Perfumes,” Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, Volume VI (New York: Collier, 1888) 165. Image courtesy of Google Books.

These published recipes highlight time-honored strategies for creating scents in middle- and upper-class kitchens. One home technique for scent extraction involved layering fresh flowers with thin layers of cotton in a glass jar. After two weeks, the cotton absorbed the oils, which could then be used as a perfume. For distillation, texts advised placing petals and water in a cold still over a moderate fire, which would eventually produce fragrant waters: rose, lavender, orange, bergamot.  To create solid pastilles de toilette, readers created a paste using perfumed oils and a natural gum, tragacanth. This was fashioned into a desired shape before drying.

Interestingly, some published recipes revealed how to create perfumes available in London’s most extravagant perfumery shops. Formulas included Piesse & Lubin’s Jockey Club Bouquet (orris root, rose, cassia, tuberose, ambergris, bergamot), the ubiquitous New Mown Hay (tonquin bean, geranium, orange flower, rose, Jessamine), and Rimmel’s own “Exhibition Bouquet,” created especially for the 1851 spectacle.

While it is difficult to discern the extent to which Victorian women made their own perfumes, it is safe to assume that the practice lessened over time; the growth of the luxury perfumery market in the twentieth century is a testament to that. With the rise of new commercial markets and availability, home producers transformed into consumers, encouraged by those profiting from this development: professional manufacturing perfumers.


[1] Eugène Rimmel, Book of Perfumes (London: Chapman and Hall, 1867) vii-viii.

Texts consulted for this post include:

Beasley, Henry. Druggist’s General Receipt Book. London: J. & A. Churchill, 1852.

Cooley, Arnold James. Instructions and Cautions Respecting the Selection and Use of Perfumes, Cosmetics, and other Toilet Articles: with a comprehensive collection of formulae and directions for their preparation. London: R. Hardwicke, 1868.

Cooley, Arnold James. A Cyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Collateral Information in the Arts, Manufactures, and Trades, including medicine, pharmacy, and domestic economy. London: John Churchill, 1845.

Dussauce, H. A Practical Guide for a Perfumer. London: Trubner & Co., 1868.

Lamont, L.P. The Mirror of Beauty. London: Bailey, 1830.

Lille, Charles. The British Perfumer. London: J. Souter, 1822.

Marquart, John. 600 Miscellaneous Valuable Receipts, worth their weight in gold. Philadelphia: John E. Potter & Co., 1867.

Owen, R. Jones. Practice of Perfumery: a treatise on the toilet and cosmetic arts, historical, scientific, and practical. London: Houlston, 1870.

Piesse, G.W. Septimus. Art of Perfumery and Method of Obtaining the Odors of Plants. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1855.

R.B.  The Perfumer’s Legacy: or Companion to the Toilet. London: Kent & Richards, 1850.

Rimmel, Eugène. The Book of Perfumes. London: Chapman and Hall, 1865.


2 thoughts on “Making Scents in the Victorian Home”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *