A rose is a rose is a rose… but how does it smell?

By Galina Shyndriayeva as part of the Perfume Series

Questions of words and the meanings they convey are critical for poetry and literature, but they are just as important in the poetry of the senses. While chemical knowledge seems to have little to do with poetic concerns, European chemistry at the turn of the twentieth century, around the time of Gertrude Stein’s famous pronunciation that “a rose is a rose is a rose”, called into question what a rose really was.

The preoccupation of many organic chemists at the time was to analyze and identify discrete compounds which were responsible for a specific function in the organic matter, such as providing the sensation of a grassy scent. For example, lavender essential oil was analyzed into components which were responsible for the lavender scent. Some of these compounds could sometimes be isolated from materials cheaper than lavender oil and used as an ingredient in perfumes to impart some smidgen of lavender scent.

Evaluating otto of rose at Kazanlik, Bulgaria, major exporter of roses, ca. 1906. From William Le Queux, An observer in the Near East (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Roses proved to have a particularly thorny (of course) scent to analyze. Chemists, mainly in France and Germany, published many articles claiming to have thoroughly identified the key components of rose oil (known as rose otto, the product of two sequential distillation steps), such as the alcohols citronellol, geraniol, rhodinol and others. But what was rhodinol to one group of chemists was not recognized as rhodinol to another; the second group claimed rhodinol was just an unrefined mixture of other components and judged the first group of chemists for sloppy technique. This situation was due to the delicate and laborious procedures of chemical analysis of the time. Adding to the complexity was the fact that oil from even the same cultivar of rose but grown in different conditions (altitude, rainfall, temperature, etc.) could contain different quantities of compounds. Setting a standard to demarcate a pure rose oil according to its constituents was therefore a matter of contention; what could be a rose in Germany was not a rose in France.

Yet the problem of identifying a rose oil as rose oil was not limited to satisfactorily labelling its components in a way agreed to by all the chemists. Profits from manufacturing rose oil could of course be stretched by adulterating the oil and a chemical understanding of the oil helped to choose more sophisticated adulterants. Verifying by chemical analysis whether the oil one just bought was genuine was as laborious a process. For example, a common adulterant was palmarosa oil, the major component of which was the alcohol geraniol, which was not only also present in rose oil, but varied in quantity depending on cultivation conditions. All these sophistication efforts ensured that the skilled ‘nose’, rather than chemical tests, would often remain the most trusted arbiter of a real rose.1

Rosa x damascena, principal Bulgarian hybrid for use in perfumes. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Lucia Condac / CC BY 3.0.

What about the perfumers? One option was just to identify a favorite, trusted supplier of roses and buy otto of rose, with all its complex mixtures of compounds still somewhat mysterious, only from them. A cheaper option was to replicate the rose scent without using roses at all, possible by the 1920s with a greater range of compounds being manufactured commercially. One recipe gives 80% geraniol and small proportions of other compounds, such as citronellol and phenyl ethyl alcohol. Perfumers could use this product, manufactured by a German fragrance and essential oil supplier called Schimmel, or use something similar but add a little ‘real rose’ to ground the imitation.2 This imitation option called into question what skills were more important for a talented perfumer – to replicate a rose scent skillfully using lesser ingredients, or to properly identify a high quality ‘real’ rose oil? A British perfumer for Yardley, William Poucher, for example, was evidently proud of his skills in both these activities, but what he boasted of most in his book was his ability to identify correctly the origins of different rose oils only by scent: “To the trained specialists, however, the merest graduation of odour is appreciable, and an expert florist will name the variety of rose even in the dark” (italics original).3 And these deliberations do not even take into question which perfume the consumer would identify as a rose scent!

The scent of a rose then was highly malleable, due to both intentional as well as fraudulent artistry, as well as to the difficulty of identifying its components, and defining it was a contentious process.


1. Michael Palairet, “Primary production in a market for luxury: the rose-oil trade of Bulgaria, 1771-1941,” Journal of European Economic History 28, 3 (1999): 564-566.

2. Michael Palairet, “Primary production in a market for luxury: the rose-oil trade of Bulgaria, 1771-1941,” Journal of European Economic History 28, 3 (1999), 569.

3. William A. Poucher, Perfumes, cosmetics and soaps: With especial reference to synthetics, vol. 2 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1932), 206.

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.

Introducing Our New Co-Editor: Ryan Kashanipour

Interview by Lisa Smith

As April draws to a close and the temperature is already pushing one hundred degrees here in the desert of Southern Arizona, it is my great pleasure to introduce my fellow new co-editor here at the Recipes Project (not to mention fellow Tucson local) Ryan Kashanipour. Ryan is an ethnohistorian of medicine and science at Northern Arizona University, specializing in Latin American history and the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. Lisa Smith recently caught up with Ryan for an interview on his research and his new role here at the Recipes Project:

Welcome to your new role as co-editor of the Recipes Project, Ryan!  What interests you most about recipes?

I love recipes of all sorts: cookery, medicinal, magical, and the like. I see recipes as a unique genre of records, which can simultaneously be deeply personal accounts that can create family connections, local identities, and a sense of belonging, while also being grand references on everything from metaphysics to the environment to the nation. As everyday records, they can offer rare glimpses at personal and family traditions, along with gendered relations that cut across generations.  Because many of them deal with food and health, they are often intimate accounts of emotions and the body.  All the while, recipes can be regimented and formalized works that are state-level programs that aim to carry nationalist agendas and campaigns.  I have to admit that my life is already filled with recipes. In my home, I have a growing collection of modern and historical print cookbooks.  My six-year-old daughter, in fact, has been writing and leaving recipes all around our kitchen:

We know that you work on medicine and science in colonial Mexico. How do recipes feature in your research?

My work operates at the intersection of magic and medicine in colonial Latin America.  In particular, I look at manuscript books of medicine written by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of the works that I deal with are written in the local language, Yucatec Maya, which is what first attracted me to them as an historical anthropologist. The records deal with everything from common skin ailments to epidemic diseases to afflictions caused by curses and sorcery. There are cures for broken legs and broken hearts. The remedies themselves often appear in recipe format, that is to say, as a fairly orderly set of instructions on how to make or perform the cure.  However, because these sorts of practice fell outside of the sanctioned practices of Spanish colonial society, these records were highly protected and secretive. The representatives of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, along with the organization that certified physicians and healers, regularly prosecuted those deemed to be malicious or false healers. Nevertheless, one of the interesting things that I have found is that these recipes circulated among different ethnic and social groups.  There was a constant lack of medical professionals within the colonies and, as a result, people developed their own systems of healing that reflected the social make up of local communities.  In the case of the Yucatán, this meant that natives, African peoples, and Europeans exchanged ideas and practices. As such, I treat these remedies as democratic records that show everyday exchanges and encounters.

We’re excited about new developments here at the Recipes Project. What kinds of posts are you hoping to commission for the RP

As a longtime collaborator (and fan) of the Recipes Project, I am very excited by this new role. Having written for and occasionally edited for the site in the past, I am really thrilled to have the opportunity to actively shape its future directions.  As a Latin Americanist interested in everything from ancient practices to modern traditions, I hope to continue to highlight the breadth and depth of work being done on the Spanish and Portuguese worlds.  My aim, at some core level, is to bring together scholars regardless of the geographic divisions that are often ingrained in our professional and academic training. For me, the Recipes Project is a venue to create connections and foster collaborations about scholarship and teaching through the hybrid of traditional and digital mediums.  I have to say, though, that I am really just excited to try to bring people together from diverse backgrounds and approaches.

From Pest to Prescription

By Cadance Butler

It is possible to find all sorts of fascinating treatments and remedies in the veterinary texts of late antiquity. While plants are the most common components of pharmacological remedies, minerals and animals were also incorporated with some frequency. Many of these cures appear to have been relatively painless; however, others can quite easily be counted within the category of uncomfortable remedies, either for the animal being treated, the animal being used as part of the treatment, or, in some especially unfortunate cases, for both parties.  

When considering the use of animals as ingredients, it is important to evaluate the source of each zoological component. While some animal parts and byproducts are made available to veterinary care providers secondhand (i.e. after a pig has been slaughtered for sacrifice or human consumption, some of its fat is used in an ointment), other animals are used either in their entirety or are killed primarily for their veterinary properties. Whereas the former could be seen as a way of making practical use of what would otherwise be waste, the latter indicates a greater allocation of resources to the healing of animals.

A head louse (Pediculus humanus). Coloured drawing by A.J.E. Terzi. Credit: Wellcome Collection

In a treatment for stomach pain, the 4th century CE veterinary writer Pelagonius recommends the following:

Place three human lice in the right ear of the horse in such a way that they are not named but are removed immediately from any little article of clothing. (Pelagonius, Ars Veterinaria 122)

As can be seen in Dr. Totelin’s post earlier this month, Greek and Roman medical authors were not only well aware of the problem posed by lice, but also recommended a variety of treatments for their removal. The desire to prevent lice infestations also extended to livestock, as is made clear in ancient agricultural treatises, especially with regards to poultry. For instance, Varro (116-27 BCE) suggests manually removing lice from the birds which are already infected (Varro, On Agriculture 3.14), whereas Columella (4-70 CE) recommends removing all of the feathers from the head and from under the wings as a preventative measure (Columella On Agriculture 8.7.2)

Because of these efforts to prevent lice from infesting livestock, it seems somewhat counterproductive to intentionally introduce the parasites to a new host, assuming that the horse was free from lice in the first place. While human lice (Pediculus humanus) and equine lice (Haematopinus asini and Damalinia equi) are different species which cannot survive on the other’s host, it is unclear whether or not that was known in antiquity, as the agricultural and veterinary writers refer to all lice as pedes or pediculi. The requirement for human lice here, alongside the specific directions for collecting the lice, likely indicates a magical element to the treatment, rather than an acknowledgement of different lice species. Regardless of the louse’s inability to survive in its new home, horses have highly sensitive skin in their ears, and I cannot imagine that having lice placed inside them would have been a particularly pleasant experience.

The larva and fly of a house fly (Musca domestica). Coloured drawing by A.J.E. Terzi. Credit: Wellcome Collection

As disagreeable as the lice might have been, however, Columella’s remedy for a horse with difficulty urinating sounds exponentially more unpleasant. He states:

If [the horse] does not produce urine, the remedies are almost the same. For oil mixed with wine is poured over the flanks and hindquarters, and if this has not been sufficiently beneficial, insert a small suppository of reduced honey and salt into the hole through which urine flows, or a live fly, or a grain of frankincense, or a suppository of bitumen is inserted into the natural places. (Columella, On Agriculture 6.30.4)

Much like lice, flies were widely recognized as pests in antiquity. Besides tormenting animals with their general presence (Varro, On Agriculture 2.5.14), flies are capable of both exacerbating existing wounds and causing serious new ones. According to Columella, for instance, preexisting wounds should be anointed with a mixture of pitch, oil, and aged axel-grease in order to prevent a fly, and subsequent larva, infestation (Columella, On Agriculture 6.16.3). Furthermore, he then claims that flies can cause so many sores in dogs’ ears during the summer that their ears are damaged beyond repair (Columella, On Agriculture 7.13.1).

The logistics of depositing a live fly within a horse’s urinary tract aside, the process would have been challenging, likely painful for the horse, and almost certainly would have resulted in the fly’s eventual death. As much as the plight of the poor fly makes me shudder, however, the treatment was held in high enough regard, or was enough of an oddity, that Pelagonius included it in his own veterinary treatise approximately three centuries later (Pelagonius, Ars Veterinaria 162). As in the case of the lice, it is unclear why a creature typically considered to be harmful to the health of livestock suddenly becomes the means by which a suffering animal is healed. In both of the remedies discussed above, animals typically considered pests are employed as healing agents. Occasionally, harmful creatures, such as the shrew, are used to treat injuries that they themselves have inflicted (Pelagonius, Ars Veterinaria 279); however, the use of live pests to treat an unrelated illness is something else again. Ultimately, heedless of the horse’s real discomfort, the lice and (somewhat incredibly) the fly are sacrificed for the perceived greater good.