Tales from the Archives: What Was Perfume in the Eighteenth Century?

In the UK, we are getting towards the end of the wonderful bluebell season. In some cooler parts of the country, forest floors are still covered with the delicately-scented flower. I love the earthy smell of bluebells as it blends with the other scents of the woods.

In celebration of the delicious smells that spring flowers bring, this month takes ‘perfume’ as its theme.

We start with a post from our archives. In this post originally published in 2014, Kirsten James reflects on the definition of perfume in the eighteenth century, highlighting the changes in the use of perfumes over that century.


By Kirsten James

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.

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

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.

Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!


Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.

Nit Picking the Greek and Roman Way

By Laurence Totelin

One of the ‘joys’ of parenthood is dealing with lice and nits. In the UK, the NHS helpfully states that ‘there’s nothing you can do to prevent head lice.’ You can only prevent them from spreading like wild fire. This school year, the problem has deepened in England and Wales, as general practitioners have been prevented from prescribing free treatments in an attempt to make savings. Treatments on sale in pharmacies and supermarkets are exorbitantly priced and don’t work particularly well. Cheaper treatments, basically covering the hair with hair conditioner and combing, are extremely time consuming but perhaps more effective in the long run.

Nineteenth-century lice comb, India. The Science Museum, London. Source: Wellcome Images

Fighting off lice infestations in our household this year has made me wonder whether the Greeks and the Romans also dealt with the issue, and if so, how. I discovered that the ancients distinguished between the adult insect, the louse (phtheir in Greek), and its egg (konis in Greek), thereby showing an understanding that one cannot get rid of the pest without removing all eggs. They also recognised that lice can live on the head, the body, and even the eyebrows. They appreciated that the easiest way to treat an infestation was to shave the hair, although perhaps not as assiduously as Egyptian priests, who according to the Greek historian Herodotus (Histories 2.37), shaved their entire body every other day to avoid lice. That method, however, was not available to those who had to wear their hair long for social or cultural reasons. Thus, Herodotus again noted of the Adyrmachidae, a tribe of Libyans, that:

Their women wear twisted bronze ornaments on both legs; their hair is long; each catches her own lice, then bites and throws them away. They are the only Libyans that do this (Herodotus 4.168, translation A.D. Godley).

This observation is meant to stress the oddness and otherness of the Adyrmachidae, whose women fight lice in a disgusting manner, without even relying on the social ritual of nit picking.

Delousing. Illustration to the Hortus Sanitatis, fifteenth century. Source: Wellcome Images

What about treatments? Ancient Greek and Roman medical authors offer some possible solutions. The first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides recorded several methods in his De Materia Medica, many of which are still in use today. Some consisted in spreading the hair with a sticky or oily substance, such as cedar oil (1.77.2) or boiled honey (2.82.2), which would presumably have asphyxiated the lice and facilitated a combing process. Others involved smearing the hair with a plant sap (sap of ivy, 2.179.3) or decoction (decoction of tamarisk leaves, 1.87.2), which might have acted as an insect repellent or poison. Dioscorides also recommended the use of alum (5.106.6) and sea water (5.11.1). Perhaps more surprising is his suggestion to give garlic, drunk with a decoction of oregano (2.152.2).

Other medical authors gave slightly more complex recipes for the treatment of lice infestation. Thus, the sixth century author Alexander of Tralles (1.459) recommended a mixture of sodium carbonate, alum, and wild grapes, each in the amount of an ounce, mixed with myrtle oil and smeared onto the head. The seventh century medical author Paul of Aegina for his part claimed that ‘I am always successful when I anoint the head with wild grapes crushed together with vinegar and oil’ (3.3.8).

In short, most of those remedies are highly sensible, if perhaps not entirely effective. But then again, what is ever effective in fighting lice? There were, however, some tall tales circulating in antiquity regarding nits and lice. Dioscorides tells us that authorities whose names were not worth recording ‘say that those who are given [viper flesh] grow lice, which is false. And some add that those who eat vipers become long-lived’ (2.16.1). The trade off for a long life, then it seems, is to eat viper flesh and become a growing field for lice. I’m not sure I would make that trade off!

A Pain in the Backside: Ancient Remedies for Haemorrhoids

By Glyn Muitjens

Although haemorrhoids are not often talked about, as many seem to consider them a source of embarrassment, they are anything but a rare condition. In fact, the Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain and Ireland suspects one in three people in Britain suffers from them sometime in life. Haemorrhoids seem to have been a common problem in Greek antiquity as well, and this inspired at least one medical author from the 5th century BCE to dedicate a treatise to them and their treatments – recipes included!

            Haemorrhoids (Greek haimorrhois, a contraction of haima, ‘blood’, and rhoia, ‘flux’) form due to prolonged pressure on the anal veins, which swell up and may in some cases lead to lumps appearing on the outside of the anus. The author of the treatise Haemorrhoids, which is part of the Hippocratic Corpus, describes their formation as follows:

Nineteenth-century representation of the excision of haemorrhoidal tumours. Source: Wellcome Images

When bile or phlegm becomes fixed in the vessels of the anus, it heats the blood in them so that, being heated, they attract blood from their nearest neighbours. As the vessels fill up, the interior of the anus becomes prominent and the heads of the vessels are raised above its surface, where they are partly abraded by the faeces passing out, and partly overcome by the blood collected inside them, and so spurt out blood, usually during defecation, but occasionally at other times as well. (Hippocrates, Haemorrhoids 1)

For this author humoral clogging, heat and the ensuing attraction of ‘like to like’ – staples of Hippocratic pathology – are to blame for the formation of haemorrhoids. Another Hippocratic claims that men from cities exposed to hot winds have heads filled with phlegm, often suffering from haemorrhoids “in the anus” (Airs Waters Places 3). The Greek word haimorrhois can be used to denote any vein that discharges blood, so some topographical precision is necessary to speak of haemorrhoids in our sense of the term.

            The Hippocratic author mentions several possible ways of treating haemorrhoids. Some of these are rather invasive: cauterization with heated irons, for example – a treatment not always welcomed with enthusiasm (“Let assistants hold the patient down by his head and arms while he is being cauterized so that he does not move – but let him shout during the cautery, for that makes the anus stick out more.” Haemorrhoids 2). The cautery wound is then covered with a plaster of boiled lentils and chickpeas for 5 or 6 days, after which an assemblage of different fabrics covered in honey is inserted in the anus and kept in place by a bandage tied around the body.

A tool to remove haemorrhoids: the Chassignae-type écraseur, London, England, 1880-1902. Source: Wellcome Images

            This final treatment points to an interesting aspect of treating haemorrhoids ‘of the anal variety’, namely that the backside is a difficult place to reach both for diagnosis – the author warns that using a device to dilate the anus for closer inspection might obscure the haemorrhoid – and for treatment, which elicits some creative responses. For example, having removed a “knobbiness” or kondulôma next to a blood vessel by hand, the author suggests to dry out the blood vessel by inserting a tube into the anus, and shove a heated iron into the tube, so as not to expose the patient to the burning directly.

            Haemorrhoids could also be removed purely with medications, for which the author provides several recipes, both for direct application and as suppositories. For example, after moistening the anus:

Grind myrrh and oak galls into a smooth paste, and add one and a half times as much burnt Egyptian alum and an equal amount of black pigment: apply this medication dry. (Haemorrhoids 8)

Recipes for this purpose were also provided by the 1st century CE pharmacological writer Dioscorides: bramble, and several kinds of frankincense when applied as a plaster could be used to treat condylomas and haemorrhoids (De Materia Medica 3.74.2; 4.37.1).

Frankincense, represented in the ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ manuscript, 512 CE

            At the end of the treatise, our Hippocratic author speaks of what he calls haemorrhoids “as pertaining to women.” The treatment is as follows:

Moisten with copious warm water in which sweet smelling substances have been boiled; grind tamarisk, burnt litharge, and oak gall, add white wine, olive oil, and goose grease, pound these all smooth, and after she has been moistened give this to be anointed. Also foment the anus after forcing it out as far as possible. (Haemorrhoids 9)

What does the author mean with “as pertaining to women”? The moistening treatment (the Greek verb used appears only a handful of times in the Corpus) is very reminiscent of those found in the Hippocratic gynaecological treatise Nature of Women, in which they pertain to the womb. Are we to imagine that these haemorrhoids are located in the uterus? The final sentence, “also foment the anus”, might be taken to point in this direction, as if the backside is not the primary concern.

            I hope to have broken some of the embarrassed silence surrounding haemorrhoids, putting them in historical perspective. Although haemorrhoids nowadays can be a nuisance, we should remember they are a common condition and rarely pose a serious threat to health. At worst, they have to be treated through minor surgery. Let’s thank the stars we’re not ancient Greeks.

All of the Greek translations, sometimes slightly adapted by me, are from Paul Potter, Hippocrates Volume VIII (Cambridge MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1995)