The civet trade in eighteenth-century London

By Kirsten James as part of the perfume series

Arthur Rothwell, Arthur Rothwell, per-fumer, at the Civet-cat and Rose […] (London, c.1790).

Civet was an indispensable ingredient for early modern perfumery. This yellow, musky-smelling liquid from the perineal glands of carnivorous civet animals (Viverra civetta) was used in a bewildering range of recipes. Given its perceived potency, it was almost always diluted with other animal or floral ingredients. The importance and widespread use of the ingredient prompted natural philosophers to investigate its source. The French surgeon Sauveur François Morand (1697–1773) studied the “sac and the perfume of the civet” at the start of the eighteenth century, and was surprised to discover that the animal possessed “a particular organ containing all parts of a cassolette” – in other words, a device akin to a man-made vase for burning perfumes. This organ, Morand insisted, included a natural sponge preventing its singular perfume leaking.

For London perfumers, the ingredient was so central to their trade that they familiarized the capital’s inhabitants and visitors with the creature that produced it. The scarce surviving evidence of how perfumers advertised suggests that the image of the civet animal became among the most widely used for trade cards and shops signs – at least seven eighteenth-century examples can be identified, and there were undoubtedly many more. Even while the actual use of the ingredient declined in importance over the century, such advertising ensured that the civet’s image became and long remained synonymous with the perfumer. In the semiotic context of the city, the diminutive animal both signified the availability of perfume and evoked the exotic and erotic.

Just as the image of the civet became commonplace, the actual animal became a curious feature of the eighteenth-century city because the global trade in civet was accompanied by a trade in civets. Civet farmers in western European cities imported the animals and attempted to recreate their warm native climes, hopeful that breeding them and establishing a secure source of civet would prove lucrative. Nativizing this exotic creature also provided a means to eliminate reliance on unscrupulous foreign merchants.

Among those who hoped to profit was Daniel Defoe. Later famous for his political and literary writings, in the late seventeenth century Defoe was above all known in his neighbourhood of Newington as a general merchant. The son of a tallow chandler and member of the butchers’ guild, Defoe had an eye for novel lines of business. In 1692, he purchased a local civet farm, including a civet-house and seventy civets, for £852 15s. He kept his civets in cages in rooms heated by fires to prevent their “degeneration” through emulating their natural habitats. To increase and improve their production of civet, they were beaten and teased, fed sheep’s heads, rice, milk and egg whites. Unfortunately for the already indebted Defoe, the farm seems to have worsened rather than improved his finances. Six months later, it was seized and appraised at just £439 7s, barely half what he had paid for it. The sale of his civets – their number already depleted – and a “considerable amount of civet” was advertised two years later.

The subsequent fate of Defoe’s farm remains unknown, but such ventures seem to have yielded poor results because civets failed to acclimatize to cages and artificially heated rooms, and their number therefore probably declined over the eighteenth century. If farms became scarcer, more individuals owned a small number of civets. Records show that, until the early nineteenth century, individual perfumers continued to import, breed and farm civets in England. For instance, various examples document perfumers importing single animals from the East Indies, sometimes directly and at other times from farms in Europe. Most revealingly of all, some perfumers kept the animals in their shops: for instance, in the early decades of the century, one Mr Lloyd kept civets in his shop in Gracechurch Street; toward the end of the century, a newspaper notice informed readers that Mr Davidson’s civet had died in his Fleet Street perfume shop.

Owning civets served several purposes. It eliminated the need to buy the ingredient from merchants, thereby simplifying supple chains, improving profits and enabling perfumers to determine the quality of their product through regulating their animal’s diet. Customers could henceforth be offered guarantees of quality, legitimized by the animal’s presence. In this last respect, owning civets also provided a marketing tool that smacked of authenticity and increased footfall. Civets were, as the perfumer Charles Lillie observed, a source of “genuine civet” but also of “pleasure and amusement.” Paradoxically, by the end of the eighteenth century civet was therefore simultaneously exotic and homegrown. Although its exoticness was previously celebrated, now, in an age of sharpened national sentiment, London perfumers preferred “true English civet” whose purity and freshness could be guaranteed.

What Was Perfume in the Eighteenth Century?

By Kirsten James

Le Parfumeur Royal
Simon Barbe, Le Parfumeur Royal, Paris, 1699. Image Credit: BIU Santé, http://www2.biusante.
parisdescartes.fr/livanc/index.las?tout=barbe+simon&op=OU&tout2=&statut=charge

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.”

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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.”