Tag Archives: perfumes

Making and Consuming Perfume in Eighteenth-Century England

Dr William Tullett asks why manuscript recipes for perfumes were on the decline in the eighteenth century, and investigates the role of the senses in perfume making.

A survey of the vast collection in the Wellcome library suggests that the presence of perfumery in manuscript recipe books slowly declined during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Why did this happen? One answer could be that perfumery and pharmacy were slowly separating during the eighteenth century. Previously, perfume, pies, and prescriptions were promiscuously mixed because the boundaries between ‘food’, ‘cosmetics’, and ‘medicines’ were blurred in the 1600s: for instance, odours were thought to contain medical powers. Eighteenth-century physicians were increasingly sceptical about this possibility. Fumigations (to purify the air of houses) and pomanders (balls of perfume to protect against plague) were less common in recipe books by 1750. Perhaps perfume no longer fitted within the holistic tradition of ‘kitchen-physic’. Yet, despite the concerns of the medical profession, perfumes continued to be advertised and used for their medicinal benefits. Fainting dandies at the opera could still reach for the eau de cologne when all the extended vowels and overwhelming music got too much.

‘Tom Rakewell in a cell in the Fleet Prison. Engraving by T. Cook after W. Hogarth.’ by William Hogarth. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

Another explanation is the increasing availability of ready-made perfumery, printed recipe books, and an emerging sense of commercial, fashion-oriented, consumer behaviour. Whilst print could easily be incorporated into manuscript recipe books, the proliferation of ready-made perfumery certainly had an impact. Insurance records on Locating London’s Past list over 300 perfumers in London between 1777 and 1786. The influence of the market is detectable in the introductions to print recipe books. For example, Simon Barbe’s The French Perfumer (English translation, London, 1696) lists biblical and noble patrons of perfume to inspire  home-brewed perfumery. Charles Lillie’s The British Perfumer (London, 1740s but published 1822) is introduced as a tool for negotiating the commercial market in perfumery: it would help prevent ‘purchasers of perfumes’ from ‘being impose[d] upon… beyond a fair, moderate, and reasonable profit’. Lillie’s book also contains some choice words on domestic perfumery. He attacked those who used ‘scraps of old women’s receipts’ and ‘gleamings from table-talk’. Above all it is fellow perfumers, working for profit in a luxury marketplace, to whom Lillie addresses his recipes.

Lillie’s recipe book has lots to say on how perfumers used their senses to assay the quality of ingredients. The inability to describe odours with precision (except through an emotional vocabulary or by reference to other materials) or remember them easily meant that touch, sight, and taste were thus the chief ways of testing ingredients. Examining ambergris, for example, Lillie noted that the worst was black or dark brown, heavy, hard to break, and had little smell. The best ambergris on the other hand was grey, easy to break and light in weight. If the ambergris had been adulterated with white sand, then Lillie suggested the use of a looking glass to check. Another test involved pricking the material with a hot needle to see if the ‘genuine odour will be given out’. However, Lillie added that ‘best way… to detect such frauds is always for the perfumer to keep by him a small piece of genuine ambergris; and… he should compare their smells by this experiment’. Without the original object smell was never a certain judge.

Where external appearances were similar, as with cassia lignum and cinnamon bark, taste could be used: cinnamon was ‘sharp and biting’ to the taste whereas cassia was ‘sweet and mawkish’. The less salty genoa soap was to the taste, the better quality it was. Touch was mobilised too: clove bark was best when at its most friable, whilst poor quality rice powder, used to make hair powder, was ‘moistened with water to give it a soft and silky feel’. Lillie’s recipe book demonstrates that sensory marks of quality were central for the perfumer because, in an era of economic specialisation, they increasingly relied on druggists, chemists, apothecaries, and grocers for their ingredients. The vanilla-scented gum benjamin (benzoin) was to be had from wax chandlers who used it to perfume sealing wax; druggists were a source for civet, although they adulterated it with honey; and even oils and essences, where the production of commercial quantities required large stills, were to be obtained from chemists ‘who actually distil it themselves’.

‘Glass bottle for eau de cologne, Paris, France, 1780-1850’ by Science Museum, London. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY.

But what about the senses of consumers who bought, rather than made, perfumes? For the small number of individuals who were still making their own perfumery, the perfumer’s shop was important for buying essences and oils ready-made. Mary Forster’s handwritten recipes for soft and hard pomatum, made from hogs’ lard to dress the hair or soften skin, list a range of waters, oils, or essences that could be bought from perfumers and added, depending on preference; these included rose, geranium, and jasmine. Lillie’s book suggests that perfumers were no longer the reliable source of such a wide variety of raw ingredients. Instead they produced ready-made items, some of which – especially waters, essences, and oils – could be used straight away in scent bottles and handkerchiefs or taken home to be used in other recipes. But consumers buying ready-made hair-powder, pomatum, or liquid scents would be far less aware of the colour, texture, weight, and other sensory qualities of the original materials. Perfume advertising also focussed less on particular ingredients and more on the feelings and places the perfumes evoked: in the 1770s Richard Warren’s trade cards evoked biblical frankincense and the odoriferous gales of the east, whilst in 1801, Hester Thrail Piozzia marvelled at the perfumer’s ability to compress ‘India’s fragrance… into a Guinea phial of Odour of Roses’.[1]

What does this tell us about the senses? It might suggest a move closer to a more ‘monolfactory’ (to coin a term) way of smelling, without any sense of a material’s other sensory properties. A loose analogy would be acousmatic listening – where one can hear something but not see the source of the sound (as on the radio). This way of smelling would, during the nineteenth-century, become part of the culture of perfumery we know today – clear, spray-on, liquids that are abstract, aimed at evoking feeling, and carry fewer of the multisensory connotations of the original ingredients. Eighteenth-century recipe books help us trace some of the origins of this slow sensory shift.

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William Tullett is a Past and Present Research Fellow at the Institute for Historical Research, London. William has just completed his first book, A Social Sense: Smell in Eighteenth-Century England, and is currently working on a new project on sound and urban change in the period between 1660 and 1840. He has published articles on early modern perfume, smell in eighteenth-century pleasure gardens and smell’s role in racial stereotypes.

 

[1] Oswald G. Knapp (ed.), The Intimate Letters of Hester Thrale Piozzi and Penelope Pennington, 1788-1821 (London, 1914), p. 229.

Fragrant Protection: Saffron in Medieval China

By Yan Liu

In 647, an emissary from Gapi, a kingdom in northern India, presented a plant called “yu gold aromatic” (yu jin xiang) to the court of Tang (618-907). The foreign herb flowered in the ninth month of the year, with the shape of a lotus. The color of the flowers was purplish blue, and their fragrance could be smelled over tens of paces.

This account comes from a tenth-century institutional history of Tang (Tang huiyao), in a section that reviews a list of plants and animals submitted by the foreign countries to the Tang. The event took place at a time when the Tang was ascending to a powerful and cosmopolitan empire, expanding its territory into Central Asia. As a result, the period witnessed a vibrant material exchange between China and India, Tibet, Persia (and from the mid-seventh century on, the Arabic empire), and even as far as Europe (see Edward Schafer’s classic work on this topic, also see an earlier post). Saliently, a wide array of foreign aromatics entered China, such as aloeswood and camphor from Southeast Asia, frankincense from India, and myrrh from Persia, which greatly enriched Chinese pharmacy.

What then is “yu gold aromatic”? Most likely, the name refers to saffron in medieval Chinese sources. “Gold” (jin) probably specifies the color of the flower, and “aromatic” (xiang) naturally points to its characteristic smell. Intriguingly, the word “yu” conjures up a fragrant herb in ancient China, which was used to scent ritual wine. Therefore, medieval Chinese writers took a familiar word from the past to name a foreign plant thereby readily integrating it into their own cultural terrain.

Not surprisingly, the earliest account of saffron in Chinese sources identifies the herb as a wine-scenting agent. According to a third-century text on natural history (Nanzhou yiwu zhi), saffron grew in Kashmir—still a major site of saffron production today—where local people offered its fresh flowers to Buddha whilst collecting the withered flowers to make fragrant wine. In the following centuries, saffron entered China either as a diplomatic gift (shown in the opening story) or as a commodity of trade. It was an expensive substance due to the intense labor involved in harvesting the three red stigmas of each flower. To obtain one pound of saffron, based on one estimation, seventy thousand flowers must be manually collected. This “circumstantial rarity,” to use Paul Freedman’s term, has made saffron one of the most costly spices in the world.

How was saffron used in medieval China? Noticeably, it became a powerful antidote. According to the eighth-century pharmacological work Supplement to Materia Medica (Bencao shiyi), saffron can dispel all types of noxious odors. Often mixed with other aromatics, it can eliminate malignant qi and demonic possession in the body. Later medical texts (Fig. 1) make it explicit that the fragrant plant can counter all poisons, highlighting its antidotal value.

Figure 1: Illustration of saffron in an early 16th-century pharmacological text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008

In addition, saffron appeared in Buddhist healing rituals. In a seventh-century scripture titled “Sutra of Golden Light,” we encounter a recipe of thirty-two aromatics (saffron included) that promises to cure all disorders and ward off adverse influences (Fig. 2). In particular, the recipe recommends that the aromatic mixture be employed to cleanse the body, with the following instruction: on the eighth day of the month, take an equal amount of each aromatic, pound and sift them, and collect the powder. Next, cast a spell on the powder for one hundred and eight times before adding it into water to wash the body. Situating drugs in a proper ritual—in this case an incantatory performance—was vital for their efficacy.

Figure 2: A recipe of thirty-two aromatics in the 7th-century Buddhist text Sutra of Golden Light. The purple box highlights saffron, written in both Chinese and Sanskrit names. Dunhuang manuscript S. 6107. Image courtesy of the International Dunhuang Project (British Library).

 

Given its strong scent, saffron was also used as a perfume in medieval China. The seventh-century medical work Essential Emergency Recipes Worth a Thousand in Gold (Beiji qianjin yaofang) by Sun Simiao, for example, offers a number of recipes to perfume clothes. One utilizes eighteen aromatics including frankincense, clove, aloeswood, musk, and saffron. Upon pounding into powder, they are mixed with boiled honey and jujube, and made into pills. Burning these pills creates vapor to scent clothes. Due to the high price of saffron at the time, it is conceivable that only the wealthy elites could afford such a perfume. Consistent with this, several Tang poems associate saffron with the sumptuous clothes of elite women. The scent of the exotic flower became a sign for patrician beauty.

Finally, I must say a few words about saffron as a spice in China. This is the primary function of the herb today, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It also constituted the chief use of the herb in medieval Europe, for enhancing the flavor and color of food. Yet the culinary use of saffron was minimal in medieval China; we have to wait until the 14th century, when China was under Mongol rule, to see the use of saffron as a spice, especially for preparing meat dishes. This practice, though, remained marginal in the following centuries. Today in China, saffron, curiously called “Tibetan Red Flower” (zang hong hua), is harnessed primarily as a medicine, not as a spice. Why? This is a fascinating puzzle that awaits further research, which invites us to ponder the untold journeys from smell to taste, from medicine to food, from the exotic to the familiar.

A Perfumed Recipe on the Early Modern Stage (Part 1)

By Colleen Kennedy

This is the first part of a two-part reading of the pomander recipe depicted in Thomas Tomkis’ allegorical Jacobean comedy, Lingua: or, the Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority (1607)[1]. Below, I consider how this perfume recipe has an immediate effect and affect on the audience. In my next installment, I consider the gendered implications of this same passage.

Theatre historian Sally Barnes argues that in our modern deodorized world and theatre, that there is a real dearth of attention paid to what she terms “‘olfactory effect’ in theatrical events—that is, the deliberate use of ‘aroma design’ to create meaning in performance” (68). Holly Dugan claims “a sixteenth-century stage devoid of smell is anachronistic.”[2] Within the playhouse, the intensity of and types of smells would vary from amphitheatre to hall playhouse. The larger structure and open roof of the Globe Theatre allowed for many smells to disperse and waft away, but within a smaller enclosed space odors would linger in the air.

Tiffany Stern reports on the smoky conditions of the Jacobean Blackfriars Theatre, a “delicate haze” but also a “confusion of smoke from candles and tobacco, and smells—again from tobacco, but seemingly also from the perfumes that Blackfriars plays so often demand” (45).[3] The new Sam Wanamaker Theatre, a reconstruction of the Blackfriars Theatre, with its “oak-framed construction” has already been denoted as sensuous space, “striking for its smell and warmth, its irregularities and warps, for its closeness to nature.”[4] Dominic Droomgale, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, relishes the “intimate and sensual” qualities in a recent interview on The Duchess of Malfi: “In our virtualised world of high technology, with no physicality or smell to it, it’s great to be in a tiny room with people that you can see and almost reach out and touch, telling you a rich and complex story.”[5]

With these concepts of the aromatic theatre, I turn now (to what I believe may be) the only recipe performed on the Renaissance stage and experienced by the audience members. In the course of the play Lingua, each of the personified five senses must appear in front of a jury (consisting of Common-Sense and some of the inner five wits) in his attempt to win the crown and robe of the supreme sense. When Olfactus, the Sense of Smell, presents his show he is accompanied by a group of seven boys all carrying sweetly scented items—two carry casting bottles, two more “with censors of incense,” and one boy each carrying flowers, herbs, and ointments.

Olfactus’ aptly named page Odor shares a recipe for creating a pomander:

 “Your only way to make a good pomander is this:

Take an ounce of the purest garden mold, cleansed and steeped seven days in change of motherless rose-water, then take the best labdanum, benioine, both storaxes, ambergrease, civet, and musk, incorporate them together, and work them into what form you please.”

Venetian woman with pomander

We can imagine that in the original performance space at Cambridge University, the room must have been redolent with sweet aromas and thick with the smoke of the censors. The sweet odors of incense and the recipe for the pomander in Tomkis’ play are especially fraught aromas of the Renaissance, with both religious and medicinal connotations.[6] Incense was considered a Catholic ritual of the old “smells and bells,” no longer practiced in the more austere Anglican Church.[7]  And the fragrant pomander, composed of spices and resins contained in a small rounded container, was one of the most ubiquitous of plague remedies. Held to the nose, the sweetly scented materials filtered out the miasma of the plague. That is, these aromas could save one’s body or soul.

Olfactus (like all the senses) must describe where he resides in the body and how he benefits the body (microcosm) and soul (psyche). The sense of smell, he argues, is the most important sense as it “refines wit and sharpens invention/ And strengthens memory.” The use of incense, he further exclaims, “makes man’s spirits more apt for things divine.”  Performed onstage, the incense and pomander recipe create exactly the sort of ambient environment that Olfactus promotes.

This innovative use of incense and a performed pomander recipe could immediately resonate with Tomkis’ audience. Tomkis innovates in other ways, composing in English rather than Latin for example,  allowing for a more immediate accessibility for non-University students to understand his works. And in another play Albumazar, a character uses a telescope to look across England, but he is truly commenting on the clothing trends of the audience, collapsing space and breaking the fourth wall.

The use of incense functions in a similar metatheatrical way when we know that the sense of smell was usually conceived as a mediating sense, unlike vision and hearing with the object perceived from afar or the senses of taste and touch that call for immediate proximity. Tomkis directs the incense to waft through the space uniting his allegorical characters and his audience as they smell the same sweet fragrances and are told that it will “refine wit,” an especially proper effect in a University setting.

Smelling incense on the stage can alter the audience’s engagement of the performance. Unsurprisingly, Olfactus is ultimately awarded the “chief priesthood of Microcosme, perpetually to offer incense in his Maiesties temple” (M3v).

Notes


[1] Thomas Tomkis, Lingua: or the Combat of the Tongue, and the Five Senses for Superiority. A Pleasant Comedy. (London: 1607. Old English Drama Students’ Facsimile Edition, 1913).

[2] Holly Dugan, “Scent of a Woman: Performing the Politics of Smell in Late Medieval and Early Modern England,” Journal of Early Modern Studies 38:2 (Spring 2008): 230.

[3] Tiffany Stern, “Taking Part: Actors and Audience on the Stage at Blackfriars.” Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance, eds. Farah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2013), 35-53.

 

[4]Rowan Moore, “Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – review.” The Observer. 11 Jan. 2014.

[6] Holly Crawford Pickett, “The Idolatrous Nose: Incense on the Early Modern Stage” (in Jane Hwang Degenhardt and Elizabeth Williamson, eds. Religion and Drama in Early Modern England: The Performance of Religion on the Renaissance Stage. Surrey: Ashgate, 2011: 19-39). Holly Crawford Pickett studies the controversy over the use of the liturgical use of incense in the Tudor and Jacobean periods, and the use of staged incense in Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women as well as in Ben Jonson’s Sejanus.

[7] See Jonathan Gil Harris’s “The Smell of Macbeth” (Shakespeare Quarterly 58.4 (Winter 2007)), in which he makes the convincing argument that the stink of Macbeth’s squib’s (used to create thunder effects) reenacts a nostalgia for Catholic “Harrowing of Hell” style plays and the lack of “smells and bells” in the Anglican church. Harris claims that Shakespeare’s staged scents subvert the inodorous Anglican Church by recreating the scents associated with Catholicism and rebellion.

Robert Herrick’s penchant for (feminine) almonds

By Colleen Kennedy

 THE BRIDE-CAKE.
by Robert Herrick
THIS day, my Julia, thou must make
For Mistress Bride the wedding-cake :
Knead but the dough, and it will be
To paste of almonds turn’d by thee :
Or kiss it thou but once or twice,
And for the bride-cake there’ll be spice.
(from Hesperides, 1648)

In this sweet trifle of a lyric, Robert Herrick does not actually dispense any practical cooking advice, but the poet notes that the flavor of Julia’s hands as she kneads the dough will impart the savor of “paste of Almonds” and that by kissing the dough, her sweet breath will give it the needed “spice.” Herrick, marrying together some of the aesthetic and feminine associations with almonds found in recipe books and medicinal manuals, alongside his larger appreciation of Classical sources, creates a gendered poetics of almond. In Herrick’s poem, as his own sweet mistress bakes almond-flavored bridal-cakes, we can sniff out that the almond was perhaps still thought to be under Venus’ influence in seventeenth-century England, associated with the erotic, the fertile, the beautiful, and the marital.

(Detail) Almond Tree from Gerard's "Herball"
(Detail) Almond Tree from Gerard’s “Herball” (via www.BioLib.de)

As Laurence Totelin suggests in a recent post on the aromas of garlic, almonds, and ancient fertility testing, “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.” Herrick’s corpus The Hesperides refers to an ancient garden of the Classical gods, and in his many poems he emulates the styles, forms, themes, and subjects of his many Greco-Roman poetic ancestors. Herrick’s Julia is a fictionalized and idealized ‘nymph,’ and her role in making bridal-cakes is especially fitting for an acolyte of Venus.

Bitter almonds (and their related products, such as almond milk) are lauded for their obstetric properties in Gerard’s Herball, such as helping alleviate the after pains of birth: “It is good for women newly delivered; for it quickly removeth the throwes which remain after delivery.” John Pechey’s The Compleat Midwife’s Practice (1698) lists the proscriptions and allowances on “How to Govern Women in Child-bed,” and suggests that along with a careful diet (and lots of claret), “She may also take at the discretion of those about her, Almond-milk now and then.”

While Julia must indulge in some domestic labor, Herrick displaces much of the drudgery onto Julia’s sweet essence. A contemporary almond paste recipe in The French Perfumer (1646) demonstrates that this is a multistep process including scalding the almonds, peeling, air-drying, beating, running through a sieve, layering with flowers, mixing frequently, and pressing for the oil. This last step alone is time consuming: “Observe that in the Composition of Essences … the… Paste must be in the Press three hours at least to draw the Oyl.”

Yet, Herrick’s Julia does not need to toil or press or scald because (in his fantasy) her skin exudes essence of almond as she prepares the bridal-cakes. Almond, due to the moisturizing qualities of its natural fats and oils, and also the exfoliating properties of its shell, is a common recipe in soaps.[1] In The Queens closet opened (1659), offers a delectable and highly fragrant soap recipe (“To make an Ipswich Water”) with white Castile (vegetable fats) Soap, rose-water, marjoram, savory, oil of cloves and spike(nard), musk and ambergreece, “work all these together in a fair Mortar, with the powder of an Almond Cake dried, and beaten as small as fine Flower, so roll it round in your hands in Rosewater.”

Hannah Wooley offers an aromatic and flavorsome almond milk recipe in The Queen-Like Closet (1670).

To make good Almond-Milk.

 Take Jordan Almonds blanched and beaten with Rosewater, then strain them often with fair water, wherein hath been boiled Violet Leaves and sliced Dates; when your Almonds are strained, take the Dates and put to it some Mace, Sugar, and a little Salt, warm it a little, and so drink it.[2]

a grove of almond trees in California (March 2009) (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Herrick’s Julia is not his only mistress associated with the aromatic, sensuous and aphrodisiacal almond. In his epigram “Upon Sibilla,” he conflates overtones of the occasional erotics of almonds, domestic labor, the beautiful and fertile housewife, and the recipes that blur lines between edible and topical concoctions. This results in a poem that hyperbolically celebrates Sibilla’s desirability and her homely, domestic attributes:

 With paste of almonds, Syb her hands doth scour;
Then gives it to the children to devour.
In cream she bathes her thighs, more soft than silk;
Then to the poor she freely gives the milk.

In these recipes, but especially Herrick’s poetic appropriations, we learn that almond-products might be gendered feminine, whether through the associations with Aphrodite/Venus, as an obstetric remedy, a beautifying elixir, sweetly scented hand soaps, or even in a perfumed drink. All were appropriate not only for bridal-cakes, but also for Herrick’s idealized mistress.

 [1] See my earlier post on Renaissance scented bath waters and soaps, including another almond recipe: “A Sweet Bath and Sweating: Renaissance Ladies and Bathing.”

[2] See my previous posts on early modern violet and civet and rosewater.