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.