Category Archives: 18th Century

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.

Boiling Milk: Experimenting with Boerhaave’s Little Furnace, Part III

By Ruben Verwaal and Marieke Hendriksen

Fig. 1. Ruben keeps an eye on the temperature.
Fig. 1. Ruben keeps an eye on the temperature.

It has been exactly 350 years since Herman Boerhaave’s birthday. What better way to honour the renowned professor than to redo some of his old experiments? 

On Monday 31st of December, in the year 1668, Herman was born. And already as a kid, he and his brother James probed the curiosities of nature: plants, minerals, liquids and bodily fluids. As Herman recalled some 30 years later, “how many whole days and nights we have spent successively together in the chemical examination of natural bodies” [1]. It must have been around this time that Herman invented his little furnace.

“I’ll put an alarm to take the milk out of the freezer,” Marieke texted Ruben the week before New Years’. Between all the Christmas dinners, the 31st was the only day still free to meet up over the holiday. Weeks before we had bought Irish turf online and collected raw milk from a farm near Delft, as well as from a breastfeeding friend . Having finally found the time, we gathered their materials together and started experimenting.

Why Milk?

As a physician, Boerhaave was fascinated with the human body. How does it work? What is it made of? Boerhaave soon realised that a newborn solely grows on breastmilk. Mothers eat their food and digest it with juices from their intestines; after circulating in their bodies, the fluid concocts into chyle and develops into the maternal sustenance in their breasts. Not only human babies, Boerhaave reasoned, but all mammals are nourished by milk and can grow solely on it. “Milk, therefore, appeared to be the first thing to be examined.” [2]

Making Curd

Fig. 2. 4PM: Raw milk heated with vinegar gives you cheese - well, sort of.
Fig. 2. 4PM: Raw milk heated with vinegar gives you cheese – well, sort of.

We set out to replicate the first experiment, titled “fresh cow’s milk coagulates with acids, even in a boiling heat.” We lit the turf in the fireplace. Once it was hot, glowing, and smelling, Marieke put some in an earthenware bowl and placed it in our wooden furnace to let it heat up. Meanwhile Ruben added vinegar to fresh milk in a glass vessel. As the fluid was gradually heating up in our furnace, parts of the mixture were slowly coagulating into curd.

We were basically imitating the cheese-making proces – a more than common practice in the early modern Dutch Republic. Boerhaave, however, assigned physiological significance to this process. For the cheese could be hardened and burned, smelling like bone – proving that even the hardest parts of a baby’s body could have its origin in milk. “This is a strange change of so fluid a matter as milk, but is, perhaps, the origin of all the solids in the body.” [3]

Red Milk

The second experiment was to show how “recent cow’s milk coagulates, turns yellow, and red, by boiling over the fire with fixed alcali.” We basically repeated the previous steps, but instead of using vinegar we added ammonia. Slowly but surely, the white fluid indeed turned yellow, then a dark orange – and was about to turn red. Here we had to stop, unfortunately, because the turf was cooling down, and it was getting dark outside.

Yet via this relatively simple process, Boerhaave confirmed a common illness: milk fever. The milk from mothers suffering from fever “becomes yellow, saline, thin and sanious.” [4] It also clarified why Dutch cows gave yellow milk during the 1714 outbreak of cow’s fever.

Fig. 3. 6PM: Raw breast milk heated with ammonia: 'bloody' milk?
Fig. 3. 6PM: Raw breast milk heated with ammonia: ‘bloody’ milk?

So What Have we Learned?

First, turf smells! We can only surmise that our early modern colleagues were simply oblivious to the smell due to its omnipresence. Second, our apparatus passed the test. Boerhaave’s little furnace successfully kept the heat inside at an evenly distributed yet high temperature (around 60℃). This is an important feat, especially when working with milk. Anyone who has ever boiled milk knows how easily it becomes a big mess when you don’t pay attention for just two seconds. Yet we were able to have 15-minute glühwein and oliebollen breaks without any problem. 

Third, our experiments have shown us how relatively easily some of Boerhaave’s experiments can be replicated – as opposed to some of his contemporaries who made secret potions or applied intricate and dangerous procedures with metals and minerals. Historical reproduction, reconstruction, and re-enactment are methodologically complex and potentially problematic because of the impossibility of repeating history and reliving the experiences of historical actors. Yet our experiments do enhance our understanding of the past; they make our historical understanding more holistic, less linear and text-based. [5] For example, these experiments help us to understand why Boerhaave was such a popular teacher; with the help of a small oven based on his design, students could learn by doing. 

Fourth, with more time and patience we could have gained better results. This is the case with everything, of course. Yet some of Boerhaave’s experiments with milk – for example the milk turning sour by digestion (i.e. at 37℃) – is described as taking twelve days! Lastly, replicating early modern experiments is fun. We won’t deny that working on your object of study outside the library is refreshing. The photos and videos of the process have a public appeal too. We hope you enjoyed it.



[1] ‘Dedication’ in Herman Boerhaave, Elements of Chemistry (London, 1735), A3r.

[2] Herman Boerhaave, A New Method of Chemistry (London, 1741), 2, 185.

[3] Ibid., 187–188.

[4] Ibid., 188–189.

[5] Pamela H. Smith and Tonny Beentjes, “Nature and Art: Making and Knowing: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Life-Casting Technniques,” Renaissance Quarterly 63 (2010): 128–79. Marieke M.A. Hendriksen, Elegant Anatomy. The Eighteenth-Century Leiden Anatomical Collections (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2015), Chapter 1. Donna Bilak et al., “The Making and Knowing Project: Reflections, Methods, and New Directions,” West 86th 23, no. 1 (2016): 35–55. Hjalmar Fors, Lawrence M. Principe, and H. Otto Sibum, “From the Library to the Laboratory and Back Again : Experiment as a Tool for the History of Science,” Ambix 63, no. 2 (2016): 85–97.

A Cool Oven: Boerhaave’s Little Furnace, part II

By Ruben Verwaal and Marieke Hendriksen

Ruben Verwaal is curator of the historical collections at Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam, and at the Museum for Communication in The Hague. He obtained his PhD in June 2018 with a thesis on the role of bodily fluids in eighteenth-century chemistry. Marieke Hendriksen is a researcher on the Artechne Project and PI at the Art DATIS Project at Utrecht University and a long-time contributor to The Recipes Project. She specializes in the material culture of science and art in the long eighteenth century. Ruben and Marieke share an obsession with an eighteenth-century object that has since disappeared: a small chemical furnace. In a previous post, they wrote about reconstructing Boerhaave’s little furnace. Now they have two…

The newly build oven, August 2018

In August of this year, we wrote about our first attempt to recreate Boerhaave’s little furnace from old coal stoves. Meanwhile, Marieke’s dad, André, who is a skilled carpenter, was building a furnace from scratch, using Boerhaave’s description and a nineteenth-century example of a Boerhaave furnace in the collection of Museum Gouda as his guidelines. This resulted in a sturdy furnace of solid dried oak, much larger than the furnace we created from coal stoves.

The interesting thing about Boerhaave’s furnace is that many of the experiments that he described in his chemistry book, the Elementa Chemiae, for which the furnace can be used, required a very moderate degree of heat – one could say a cool rather than a hot oven. Two examples we mentioned previously were the distillation of rosemary, and the hatching of eggs, which Boerhaave said he believed his furnace could be used for too. The kind of egg is not specified, but for chicken eggs, the ideal temperature for hatching is 37,6 Celsius. Could we attain that temperature with our furnaces? 

Boerhaave advised to use glowing coals or Dutch turf as fuel, with which a constant and moderate heat should be achieved that could be kept up to 24 hours. As turf is no longer won in the Netherlands, we started with some ordinary barbeque coals – and indeed managed to establish a fairly constant heat of around 30 Celsius in the large oven for an hour or so. But coals did not hatch any chicks.

Coals: a stable 30 Celsius

Suspecting that turf may give better results, we set out to buy turf, which is still won in regions in Germany and Ireland. It turned out to be surprisingly difficult to buy in the Netherlands though. Eventually we managed to purchase a box of Irish turf through the American website of the online retailer we love to hate – but it took eight weeks (!) to arrive.  Though our cool oven still hasn’t incubated a chicken, the first results look promising.

Irish peat via the US
Irish peat via the US

Meanwhile, we started thinking about the experiments we’d like to recreate once we had all necessary materials. Since Ruben wrote his PhD thesis about bodily fluids, he is keen on reconstructing an experiment with milk from different mammals. Preferably, we’d compare the effects of prolonged mild heat on cow’s milk and human breast milk. Raw cow’s milk can be purchased at some farms, so Ruben cycled out to get some, while Marieke hesitantly contacted a friend who was pumping to feed her infant daughter to ask if she was willing to donate some of her leftovers to science. Note for future generations: Marieke has the coolest friends – she instantly said yes! For weeks, she gathered the left overs that her daughter did not drink in freezer bags.

Suddenly, it is December, and we have two furnaces, a box of Irish peat, and milk in two freezers. Now we ‘only’ have to make time for this reconstruction experiment… We live an hour apart and this is our pet project, so we’re desperately searching for a couple of days when we can take time of work. It turns out that the most difficult aspect of this reconstruction project is not the building of the furnaces or the sourcing of the necessary materials, but the absence of what Boerhaave obviously did have: cheap labour in the form of young assistants, who could take turns keeping the furnaces going day and night. We can only hope that once we do manage to take those days off, the Dutch winter is still as mild as it has been up till now! 

How to Prevent the Cooling of the Earth: A Page from God’s Cookbook

By Jean-Olivier Richard

Image from Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus (1678 edn.) vol. 1, p. 194.

Historians studying the relationship between climate and recipes (and yes, historians have good reasons to do so; see Jennifer A. Munroe’s post on seasonality and Katherine Allen’s articles on springtime in recipe books and the common cold) usually frame the question in terms of seasonality. In the pre-modern world, ingredients for recipes could often only be obtained in certain seasons or particular climates – the so-called seasonality of recipes. But the concept of recipe, provided one is willing to stretch its bounds, can also help us understand how our ancestors envisioned the role of God and Man in climate change and cosmic history. What if, for instance, one were to think of the Creation account of Genesis as a recipe? The metaphor is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Recipes entail not only ingredients and instructions, but also agency: isn’t God said to have made everything in measure, number, and weight (Wisdom 11:21)? Many early modern philosophers cherished this notion. Let us imagine, with one such philosopher, a page from God’s cookbook:

In the beginning, create the heaven and the earth. Everything should be in a state of chaos. Then, let there be light. Light will bring the world into sight by causing the formless abyss to sort itself out. Over a period of six days, let the sun, the moon, and the planets coalesce like bubbles, as celestial and terrestrial matter separate; on earth, concentric layers of air, water, and dry land will arise around a pulsing core of fire. In the process, bring forth minerals, plants, and animals. This is good, but not good enough. If the primordial light is left unchecked, all mixed and organic bodies will soon break down and dissolve into their elementary constituents; even beings endowed with seeds will stop propagating their kind. To prevent the cosmos from congealing, add Man to the mixture. Let him stir it, and it will be very good.

A caricature of Louis-Bertrand Castel’s “ocular organ” by Charles Germain de Saint Aubin (1721-1786).

The physics treatise that inspires my thought experiment appeared in 1724, when the boundaries between physical, chemical, and spiritual processes were still porous. Its author was the French Jesuit mathematician and natural philosopher Louis-Bertrand Castel (1688-1757), best remembered today for his ocular harpsichord (a musical instrument that played colors) and his quarrels with the likes of Voltaire and Rousseau. To be clear, Castel did not couch his interpretation of Genesis in culinary terms; but he did argue that God’s primordial “light” must refer to the fundamental, mechanical principle of nature, the force causing elementary particles to weigh against one another and to regroup according to their kind — like mercury, water, and oil mixed together end up settling into layers. What Moses called “light,” ancient philosophers like Empedocles, Parmenides, and Epicurus had known confusedly as “love and strife”, “sympathies and antipathies,” “attractions and repulsions.” Since Newton, moderns recognized it as “universal gravitation” — or as Castel would have it, “universal weighing” (pesanteur). Natural philosophy, just like the original chaos, was sorting itself out.

Yet universal weighing could only be half the story. Castel’s main contribution to science, as he saw it, was to demonstrate the need for another principle: a universal lightness, a kind of spiritual leaven or ferment that would counter the weight of nature and sprinkle a little chaos into the world’s regular march toward equilibrium. This principle had to be spiritual, as opposed to mechanical, because a constant mechanical counterweight would cancel out rather than interrupt the course of nature as needed. Now, God could intervene directly to do just that, but that would be beneath His dignity. A popular alternative — giving nature its own spiritual, vital powers — raised the specter of materialism; out of question for a Jesuit. Castel’s solution? God must have delegated the task of disrupting the world to Man, his troublesome steward. Endowed with free will, humans could bring about everything universal pesanteur could not. Local trouble, Castel reckoned, added up to all the meteorological, climatic, and geological changes needed to prevent the world from grinding to a halt and freezing over.

While this might seem to be a recipe for disaster, Castel trusted that God knew what He was doing. The curse of mortality, for one, ensured humans would not slack off, nor overreach their bounds. Since the Fall, Adam and his descendants felt the weight of nature; they had to sweat and toil to delay the hour of their death (death by gravity, that is). On the upside, tilling the land, breeding animals, cutting down trees, draining fens, building canals, mining the earth, manufacturing goods and transporting them for commerce—all this labor, along with the consumption and excretion of food, renewed the mixtures that nature constantly unraveled. Multiplied by the millions, local actions caused ripples: rain, winds, and waves to which Castel attributed weather pattern and climate change. When well concerted, human efforts made the earth compliant; when excessive or deficient, corrective backlashes ensued — storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. On the whole, the world remained hospitable because man-made mixtures, combined with nature’s weighing and sorting action, preserved the planet’s internal circulation mechanism. Carried down by rivers, oceanic currents, and subterranean channels, the by-products of human activity fueled the central fire of the earth, the reservoir of heat for all living beings on the surface. Castel estimated that the sun only contributed a minute portion of heat compared to the earth’s inner furnace, hence the importance of keeping it alive.

Reproduced with kind permission from

Fifty years after Castel published his treatise, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) hypothesized that the earth was once a globe of molten rocks, whose age he ingeniously estimated by measuring the cooling rate of molten metal spheres. Revisiting the notion of a “central fire” keeping the planet warm from within, Buffon warned his readers about the inevitable freezing of the world, but also suggested that human industry might counter the process. Framed by debates about climate, gravity, progress, and the place of divine and human agency in nature, the Enlightenment saw scores of new ideas about the history of the earth — some of which presaging in surprising ways today’s anxieties about climate change. Yet Castel his contemporaries also expressed more confidence in human stewardship. Humans were God’s special ingredient in a perfectly well-balanced recipe; their 19th- and 20th-century successors would not be so serene.


Richard, Jean-Olivier. “The Art of Making Rain and Fair Weather: Life and World System of Louis-Bertrand Castel, SJ (1688-1757).” Ph.D. dissertation. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University, 2016.

Castel, Louis-Bertrand. Traité de Physique sur la pesanteur universelle. Paris: Cailleau, 1724.

Buffon, Georges Louis-Leclerc, Comte de. Les Époques de la nature. Paris: Imprimerie royale, 1780.