Making Scents in the Victorian Home

By Jessica P. Clark

Eugène Rimmel. Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections, digital ID 2006250, and Wikicommons.
Eugène Rimmel. Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections (digital ID 2006250) and Wikicommons

In 1864, London perfumer Eugène Rimmel (of modern Rimmel Cosmetics fame) published The Book of Perfumes. Compiled from a series of articles he wrote for science-minded readers of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, the book charted the history of perfumery, as well as modern distilling techniques used by Europe’s leading manufacturing perfumers: expression, enfleurage, maceration. The Book of Perfumes resembled other perfumery books on the market, save for one important difference; Rimmel provided no recipes for women to concoct their own perfumes at home. In this regard, Rimmel’s text signified a shift away from the instructional genre, suggesting that the manufacture of perfumery should be left to professional (and male) perfumers.

Rimmel’s exclusion of feminized home production was a deliberate move. In his prologue, he noted that many ladies once operated “a private stillroom of their own and personally superintended the various ‘confections’ used for their toilet” out of necessity. By the 1860s, he argued, technological developments in London’s growing commercial industry, not to mention perfumers’ role in imperial commodity flows, vastly exceeded the material resources and technologies available to women’s self-production.

[G]ood perfumers and good perfumes are abundant enough; and, with the best recipes in the world, ladies would be unable to equal the productions of our laboratories, for how could they procure the various materials which we receive from all parts of the world? And were they even to succeed in so doing, there would still be wanting the necessary utensils and the modus faciendi, which is not easily acquired…perfumery can always be bought much better and cheaper from dealers, than it could be manufactured privately by untutored persons.[1]

According to Rimmel, English women could not match the quality of goods produced by professional men laboring in the new commercial market. What’s more, he claimed these goods were even cheaper than home production, a new argument linked to developments in mass manufacturing.

What remains unclear is the extent to which women continued to concoct perfumery in the home, despite discouragement from professionals like Rimmel. Historians like Holly Dugan and Kirsten James have highlighted the centrality of home production of perfumery in the early modern period, when English women produced scents to combat illness, miasmas, and pain. But the extent of domestic production is more difficult to ascertain in the nineteenth century, when an expanding market of consumer goods surely attracted some female consumers away from the laborious demands of home production.

We have some evidence to suggest that women continued to make scents. Account books belonging to London chemists George Daniel and Thomas Acraman Coate show female shoppers buying perfumery ingredients in the 1860s. There was also the enduring popularity of Anglo-American recipe collections that included perfumery recipes. A survey of texts produced between 1855 and 1910 reveals that many printed recipe collections continued to include instructions on producing spirituous waters, but also colognes, solid parfums, and scented sachets.

Glass frames used in the process of "enfleurage." From “Perfumery, Perfumes,” Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, Volume VI (New York: Collier, 1888) 165.
Glass frames used in commercial “enfleurage.” From “Perfumery, Perfumes,” Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, Volume VI (New York: Collier, 1888) 165. Image courtesy of Google Books.

These published recipes highlight time-honored strategies for creating scents in middle- and upper-class kitchens. One home technique for scent extraction involved layering fresh flowers with thin layers of cotton in a glass jar. After two weeks, the cotton absorbed the oils, which could then be used as a perfume. For distillation, texts advised placing petals and water in a cold still over a moderate fire, which would eventually produce fragrant waters: rose, lavender, orange, bergamot.  To create solid pastilles de toilette, readers created a paste using perfumed oils and a natural gum, tragacanth. This was fashioned into a desired shape before drying.

Interestingly, some published recipes revealed how to create perfumes available in London’s most extravagant perfumery shops. Formulas included Piesse & Lubin’s Jockey Club Bouquet (orris root, rose, cassia, tuberose, ambergris, bergamot), the ubiquitous New Mown Hay (tonquin bean, geranium, orange flower, rose, Jessamine), and Rimmel’s own “Exhibition Bouquet,” created especially for the 1851 spectacle.

While it is difficult to discern the extent to which Victorian women made their own perfumes, it is safe to assume that the practice lessened over time; the growth of the luxury perfumery market in the twentieth century is a testament to that. With the rise of new commercial markets and availability, home producers transformed into consumers, encouraged by those profiting from this development: professional manufacturing perfumers.


[1] Eugène Rimmel, Book of Perfumes (London: Chapman and Hall, 1867) vii-viii.

Texts consulted for this post include:

Beasley, Henry. Druggist’s General Receipt Book. London: J. & A. Churchill, 1852.

Cooley, Arnold James. Instructions and Cautions Respecting the Selection and Use of Perfumes, Cosmetics, and other Toilet Articles: with a comprehensive collection of formulae and directions for their preparation. London: R. Hardwicke, 1868.

Cooley, Arnold James. A Cyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Collateral Information in the Arts, Manufactures, and Trades, including medicine, pharmacy, and domestic economy. London: John Churchill, 1845.

Dussauce, H. A Practical Guide for a Perfumer. London: Trubner & Co., 1868.

Lamont, L.P. The Mirror of Beauty. London: Bailey, 1830.

Lille, Charles. The British Perfumer. London: J. Souter, 1822.

Marquart, John. 600 Miscellaneous Valuable Receipts, worth their weight in gold. Philadelphia: John E. Potter & Co., 1867.

Owen, R. Jones. Practice of Perfumery: a treatise on the toilet and cosmetic arts, historical, scientific, and practical. London: Houlston, 1870.

Piesse, G.W. Septimus. Art of Perfumery and Method of Obtaining the Odors of Plants. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1855.

R.B.  The Perfumer’s Legacy: or Companion to the Toilet. London: Kent & Richards, 1850.

Rimmel, Eugène. The Book of Perfumes. London: Chapman and Hall, 1865.

Garlic and fertility testing in the Greek world

By Laurence Totelin

In my last blog post, I discussed some ancient gender tests. This month, I turn to Greek fertility tests. In the Greek world, women only entered full womanhood upon conception and delivery of a child, preferably a boy. Infertility seriously damaged a woman’s status in her community. It is therefore no wonder that one of the treatises of the Hippocratic Corpus (a collection of some sixty texts written in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE) was devoted to the issue of barrenness: On Sterile Women. This tract includes a few fertility tests, aimed at predicting whether a woman will become pregnant or not.

Representation of garlic in the famous 'Vienna Dioscorides' manuscript (512 CE)
Representation of garlic in the famous ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ manuscript (512 CE)

Tests by means of which you will know whether a woman will be pregnant. If you want to know whether a woman will be pregnant: give to drink butter [or a plant called boutyron] and the milk of a woman who has borne a male child, whilst she is fasting. If she vomits, she will be pregnant; if not, she will not.

Another: Let her wrap some oil of bitter almonds in wool and apply as a pessary. Check in the morning whether she smells of it through the mouth; if she smells, she will be pregnant, if not, she will not.

Another test for the same purpose: apply pessaries that are not particularly strong. If she has pains in the joints, suffers from clattering teeth, dizziness, and yawning, there is more hope that she will pregnant than if she who does not suffer from any of these afflictions.

Another: Having washed and peeled a head of garlic, apply it to the womb, and see the next day whether she smells of it through the mouth; if she smells, she will be pregnant, if not, she will not.

If you want to know whether a woman will be pregnant, let here drink finely pounded anise in water, then let her sleep. If she itches around the navel, she will be pregnant; if not, she will not. [On Sterile Women 214]

Every single one of these tests would deserve a long explanation, especially since possible Egyptian parallels exist for some of these recipes. Here, however, I will focus on the second and fourth tests, the almond oil and garlic tests. Both rest upon the assumption that women have a sort of tube (a hodos) that runs through their bodies, with two openings: the mouth of the face and the mouth of the womb (=the vagina). In a healthy woman, whose tube was not obstructed, a smell could travel easily from the lower to the upper mouth – hence the use of such smell test.

The smells used here were not chosen at random. Perfumes, such as that of bitter almond, were associated with Aphrodite, love making and marriage ceremonies. Garlic too was associted with sexuality and fertility, although the links are not particularly easy to interpret. In Aristophanes’ comedy, The Women at the Thesmophoria (a festival in honour of Demeter), women use garlic to conceal the smell of wine after a night of drinking and sex with their lovers (v. 495). Garlic masks the smells associated with sex and pleasure. Similarly, according to the historian Philochorus (third century BCE), at the festival of the Skirophoria (a festival in honour of Athena and Demeter), ‘women ate garlic in order to abstain from sex, so that they would not smell of perfume’ (FGRH 328 F 89). Thus, Philochorus presents garlic as an-aphrodisiac, a clear opposite to those perfumes used in sexual foreplay.

The sceptic will no doubt say that garlic was chosen simply because it is a strong smelling, ‘windy’ plant, whose scent would travel easily through the body. Yet, there seems to be something that links it to women and sex in the ancient world. An admittedly much later document, a sacred law from the sanctuary of the healing god Men at Sounion in Attica (IG II2 1365) informs men that they should cleanse if they have been in contact with garlic, pigs and women — a rather puzzling combination unless you know that ‘piggy’ was Greek slang for the vulva.

To Make Muske Cakes

By Casey Mitchell

From a cultural perspective, odd foods are a common occurrence in the world today. Individuals from America might be horrified to eat something as foreign as monkey brains–a delicacy in Africa and India–or haggis, the Scots’ age-old recipe for beef-in-a-sheep’s bladder/stomach/what you will. Jane Baber’s Book of Receipts, compiled in 1625, contains several recipes that are, well, interesting, to say the least. Most of them have medicinal qualities of some sort, and, while nutritious, may be pungent or downright aromatic in their own way. One such recipe is “To Make Muske Cakes.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Musk? Like the really smelly ‘perfume’?” Yes, indeed. The very thought of including a glandular secretion from an animal into a recipe sounds fairly disgusting, right? The important part is not in its smell or taste, but its purpose, as musk grain, like most smelly ingredients, is used as “a remedy for very grave diseases known to all antique pharmacopeias”.[1]

The process of obtaining the musk itself is worth mentioning, as it can be long. During the period in which Jane Baber was collecting recipes, musk had been an international commodity for about 300 years. Marco Polo’s journey to the Orient in the late thirteenth century yielded the West’s first real encounter with the identity of the musk deer, the animal responsible for the big stink (pun intended). The animal itself, native to Kashmir, was hunted once a year for the two musk pods contained under the belly of the males, which gave off the odious secretions we’re so familiar with today. Once the secretions congealed, they became very much like coffee grounds, filling the glands with musk grain. According to a modern Kashmiri perfumer, “3 small grains of one gram are sufficient to make a liter of alcoholic perfume”.[1] Taking into account the offensiveness of the musk itself and the amount used in making perfume, Baber’s recipe calls for “2 grains of Muske,” making this a very smelly cake.

musk 1
Contents of a Musk Deer’s Gland. Source: Abdes Attar, www. profumo.it.

Other ingredients include, at the very start of the recipe, “gum dragon” or Tragacanth, to be laid “3 days in Bee water.” The plant itself is used in foods and pharmaceuticals as a binding agent, like flour and eggs in baking, and can be administered medicinally to treat both constipation and diarrhea.[2] The “Bee water” remains something of a mystery, being a possible reference to another early modern recipe entitled, “An aproued medesen for them that have ther water stoped with the stone or Strangrel them & it will make them make water in tow hours”.[3] The recipe itself involves the pulverizing of bees using a wooden mortar and pestle, straining the resulting juice, and drinking it to cure urinary blockages, which plays into the waste-managing qualities of the remaining ingredients of the Muske Cakes. Alternatively, it might refer to the syrupy sugar water used by beekeepers to supplement the diets of bees during late winter and early spring when honey and pollen are scarce. This particular concoction in its modern form is made of a heated combination of water, cane or beet sugar–and a small amount of apple cider vinegar to prevent the sugar from caramelizing, which can harm the bees.[4]

The inclusion of caraway seeds in the recipe fulfills the role of an added spice to the cake itself, which is also comprised of “one new laid eg” and “double refine sugar,” mixed in a mortar and pestle. Because this particular recipe doesn’t call for flour, yeast, or any other composite for making a bread-based cake, one would assume that the gum dragon would render the “cake” into something resembling a flan or Jell-O mold. The recipe calls for “the stuffe” to be laid on “wafers” before being put into the oven, to be made “as hott as you can that they maye bee well bakt.” Because I was so interested in what the final product of this oddity might look like, I searched for and found an image that might closely resemble it.

Musk Cakes 2
Pink Musk Cake Pop Bite. Source: Bubble and Sweet’s flickr photostream, http://www.flickr.com/photos/bubbleandsweet/5037947115/in/photostream.

The differences between this version of what the description referred to as a “Pink Musk Cake Pop Bite” and Jane Baber’s version are many.[5] The main one, however, is that the ingredient of true musk grain is now very difficult to find, given that the musk deer has been hunted almost to extinction. Therefore, the musk utilized in the recipe pictured above is very likely taken from the derivative of a musk plant, which serves the same aromatic purpose, though not the medicinal one. The texture of the cake’s interior, however, appears to be pretty close to what I pictured as that of Baber’s.

While the medicinal purpose of Jane Baber’s musk cake is yet unknown, having possibly some connection with the digestive and laxative properties of gum dragon, its composition remains fairly simple. Its ingredients thereof, including artificial musk, can be found in most markets and health food stores. Buyers beware, however, as the smell of musk in a kitchen may be enough to put off the appetites of others! In short, I would only recommend this recipe to those who have no problem in adopting their own special fragrance.

[1.] AbdesSalaam Attar, “Moschus Moschiferus, The Kashmiri Musk Deer”, www.profumo.it, March 2006. Date accessed, 6 April 2013.

[2.] “Tragacanth”, www.webmd.com. Date accessed, 6 April 2013.

[3.] “An aproued medesen for them that have ther water stoped with the stone or Strangrel them & it will make them make water in tow hours.” British Library, Egerton MS 2608.

[4.] Tammy Curry, “How to Make Sugar Water for Bees” www.ehow.com15 August 2012. Dates accessed, 6 April 2013.

[5.] Linda V. “Pink Musk Cake Pop Bite”, Bubble and Sweet’s Photostream, 29 July 2010. Date accessed, 6 April 2013.

Casey Mitchell is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas, Arlington. Casey was involved in a class project to transcribe Jane Baber’s recipe book, led by Amy Tigner.