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.

Civet and Rose: (Early) Modern Perfume Ingredients Fit for a King

By Colleen Kennedy

Civet was one of the most exotic luxury ingredients in early modern perfumes. This odoriferous secretion comes from the perineal glands of the civet cat of Asia and Africa to mark its territory. What did civet smell like to the early modern nose? Associated with royalty in its earliest introduction to England; even now it retains an affect of and association with royalty.

Zibeth or Sivet-Cat. This woodcut is an illustration from the book "The history of four-footed beasts and serpents..." by Edward Topsell, printed by E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge, T. Williams and T. Johnson in London in 1658. courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries
Zibeth or Sivet-Cat. This woodcut is an illustration from the book “The history of four-footed beasts and serpents…” by Edward Topsell, printed by E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge, T. Williams and T. Johnson in London in 1658. courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

Modern perfume blogs and reviews of contemporary civet-based perfumes, when read alongside early modern recipe books, allow us to sniff out the aroma of civet, which evoked the grandeur and luxury of royalty–then and now .

For a modern example, we can consider the perfume Rose Poivrée (2000), which has a compound similar to some of the most highly regarded Renaissance perfumes. Tove Salander suggests that it makes sense to consult perfume blogs while trying to understand the affective properties of perfumes: “The online perfume community provides one of the few arenas in which odor perception is trained and verbalized beyond simple statements of like or dislike. As such it may serve as a model for the academic analysis of smells” (305).

Rose Poivrée (The Different Company)

The ingredient list for Rose Poivrée is relatively simple: Damascus rose, rose bay, pepper, coriander, vetiver, and civet. The first ingredient, which is also the middle note (Damascus rose) and the final ingredient, the base note (civet) are two of the most common sixteenth-century perfume ingredients and are often blended together.

Chandler Burr, author of The Emperor of Scent and The Perfect Scent reviews several civet-based perfumes, including Rose Poivrée (2000):

One of the more astonishing civet scents on the market today is Rose Poivrée, from the French niche house the Different Company. This is a rose absolute — rose absolute, F.Y.I., doesn’t smell like “rose”; it’s dark and musty. Its perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, resisted prettifying the rose and instead doused it with an animalic breath. Pungent with decay, Rose Poivrée is unsettling and gorgeous, the perfume that Satan’s wife would wear to an opening at MoMA.

Even for modern professionals, the metaphors become mixed and confusing. The imagery is strong and evocative, but oscillates between the concrete and the abstract in perplexing ways. So, we can only imagine the difficulty of early modern writers to express how civet smelled or how they were affected by the smell of civet.

Kevin Curran and James Kearney, in their “Introduction” to the “Shakespeare and Phenomenology” issue of Criticism (Summer 2012)remind us that “feeling and senses have a history. The way we feel sad is different from the way Shakespeare felt sad; the way we smell perfume is different from the way Queen Elizabeth smelled perfume” (354). Yet, in Rose Poivrée, the two ingredients that resonate most strongly are civet and rose absolute, both essential scents in sixteenth century perfumery. But what if the way we smell rose and civet (linking it to royal excesses) is also the way Elizabeth I and her father, Henry VIII, also smelled civet?

According to the OED, “civet” entered the English language when the animal first entered Henry VIII’s royal court. Like the civet, damask roses were also introduced into England during Henry’s reign, gifted from the king’s royal physician Dr. Thomas Linacre (Dugan 58).

In a popular Renaissance perfume recipe from the oft reprinted A closet for ladies and gentlevvomen (1608) civet and rose are combined:

Take sixe spoonfulls of compound water, as much of rose water, a quarter of an ounce, of fine sugar, two graines of muske, two graines of amber-greece, two of  Ciuet, boyle it softly together, all the house will smell of Cloues.

This perfume is called “King Henry the eight his perfume” and we can find variations of the name (such as a “court perfume” or “royall perfume”) and ingredients throughout the Renaissance, but the combination of civet and rose remains consistent.

In these versions of a pre-modern celebrity fragrance, we find Henry’s name attached as the perfume preferred by the King. The very title of this perfume hints at a royal connection and, specifically relating to Henry VIII, a sense of virility. These are aspects that Chandler Burr and The Different Company both imply in their own descriptions of Rose Poivrée. The Different Company describes Rose Poivrée as “a royal scent from exotic lands, this decadent essence mixes pure rose with a devilish pepper and spice, a combination fit for kings [and] queens…” While wary of stating that these different perfumes—especially with differences in ingredients, proportion, and maybe most importantly, noses smelling these odorants—there is still a lingering affect that transcends time, space, and culture that makes the smeller link civet and rose (when combined) with royal potency.


Works Cited

Kevin Curran and James Kearney, “Introduction to Shakespeare and Phenomenology,” Criticism 54, 3 (2012): 353-364.

Tove Solander, “Signature Scents: Perfume and Characterization in the Contemporary Novel,” Senses and Society 5, 3 (2010): 301-321.