What Was Perfume in the Eighteenth Century?

By Kirsten James

Le Parfumeur Royal
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

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.

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.”

Untitled2
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.


Kirsten James is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation is provisionally titled ‘The Science of Scent and Business of Perfume in Paris and London in the Eighteenth Century.”

Exploring CPP 10a214: Sweet Bags and Dames

By Rebecca Laroche with Hillary Nunn

In my last entry (06/08/2013), I related the short tale of my British Library disappointment. On the upside, in not finding conclusive evidence toward the identity of the compiler of the marvelous manuscript at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, I only had to read a letter and determine the difference of hands, which was but a matter of minutes.I was left to pursue another link to the Layfield manuscript, one that was, perhaps more fruitful, if only slightly more conclusive.

At page 55 of the Downing half of the manuscript appears the following recipe:

To dry roses to put in sweete baggs

Take the best damask rose leaues
sifted clean and lett them lye ii houres
after a broade upon a table then take
orace, storax and Beniamin beaten
to powder, of each a like quantity then
take a wide mouthed glasse & therein cast
a layer of roses & a layer of powder
crush them down hard and sett them in
the hott sunne till they be dry & crisp, so
take them out & put them in your bagge
probatum per Dnam Yeluerton

The British Library contains an extensive manuscript of more than 1300 recipes (yes, I did count) owned by one Margaret Yelverton (BL Add MS 28237). On its 186th leaf, the manuscript records various recipes for sweet bags, pomanders, and the like.  None of the recipes for sweet bags is exactly as recorded in the Layfield manuscript. One, however, “To make sweete baggs for Linnin” (fol. 186r) has several of the same ingredients and seems to be a more developed version of the Philadelphia one, but adding a few more perfumes and using an alembic to dry out the flowers rather than relying on the sun.

What does this convergence tells us?

  • Elizabeth Downing’s position as a medical practitioner/recipe collector (12/03/2013) was paralleled by that of her contemporary Margaret Yelverton, as well as by that of their contemporary, the Countess of Exeter (09/04/2013).
  • The purpose of the sweet bags, though not described in the Philadelphia manuscript, was to perfume linens.
  • The recipe from the Layfield manuscript is for a more refined sweet bag, as another in the Yelverton manuscript “To make sweet baggs with little cost” (fol. 186r) does not have the more expensive storax and benjamin, but rather the more common cloves and cinnamon.

In turn, however, the Philadelphia manuscript tells us little about of “Dnam Yelverton,” as it is not clear if “Dame” in the manuscript refers to an actual lady or to a housewife. Four other attributions hold the title, three other times thus spelled.  We cannot even be sure if the Yelverton recipe came directly from the source or through a third party (though third parties are noted elsewhere in the manuscript). What the manuscript does reveal is an extensive early seventeenth-century network of women of varying status and capabilities.

Smelling ‘Violet’ in Renaissance Works

By Colleen Kennedy

The violet (Viola odorata) is cited in several herbals and many recipe books as a particularly sweet scented, fragrant flower. Herbals, such as Culpeper’s, describe the violet as a “cold and moist” plant, with many medicinal qualities. It is used as a laxative, and as a treatment of syphilis and uterine complaints; it counterbalances choleric humors, is good for many lung ailments, eases headaches and sleeplessness, and is a general panacea.

Violets are also commonly used in recipes, either as “cakes of violet,” “candied violets,” “conserve of violets,” or “syrup of violets,” as flavoring for metheglins (meads), and to add aromatic qualities to vinegars and other recipes:

To Make Syrup of Flowers:

Take of Violet flowers fresh and pickt, a pound, clear water boiling one quart, shut them up close together in a new glazed pot a whole day, then press them hard out, and in two pound of the Liquor, dissolve four pound and three ounces of white Sugar, take away the scum, and so make it into a Syrup without boiling. (Woolley 6)

Any of Hannah Woolley’s recipe books are a good place to begin to study early modern recipes utilizing violet flowers. Violet’s pleasant odor is also the source of its medicinal powers and cause for its common domestic usage.

Hannah Woolley's The Accomplish'd lady's delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)
Hannah Woolley’s The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)

So, what does the violet smell like?  English, alas, lacks a smell-vocabulary, and violet is repeatedly only listed as “sweet” or “fragrant.” Avery Gilbert considers the two distinct “voices” available to modern perfume makers: “Ingredient Voice” (the actual list of and proportions of ingredients) and “Imagery Voice” (“atmospherics, the drama of seduction, passion, and mystery”) (15). It is in that latter voice that we move closer to the more detailed early modern accounts of the aroma of violet.

For example, modern perfume blogger Normand Cardella, in his review of Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris, muses on the smell of violet: “So… what does a violet note smell like?  Well… it’s powdery, a little sweet and decidedly sad.  Musically, a violet note in perfume would be a minor chord.”

Likewise, for early modern writers, the violet is also a sad  and musical aroma. Francis Bacon, in his essay “Of Gardens” (1625),  links pleasurable odors and sounds (and much earlier than our modern perfumers): “And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air”. Violet is his favorite perfumed flower: “that which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet”.

The violet’s “imagery voice” is most fully articulated in Duke Orsino’s opening lines of Twelfth Night:

“Orsino and Viola” by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (c. 1850)

“If music be the food of love, play on.

Give me excess of it that, surfeiting

The appetite may sicken and so die.

That strain again, it had a dying fall.

O, it came so o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more.

‘Tis not so sweet as it was before.” (1.1.1-8)

Much of the language here that applies to music or love is equally applicable to the sensation of smelling violets,  especially violet’s unique chemical compound and its effect on the sense of smell. As Diane Ackerman describes: “Violets contain ionine, which short-circuits our sense of smell. The flower continues to exude its fragrance, but we lose the ability to smell it. Wait a minute or two, and its smell will blare again. Then it will fade again, and so on.”

The discovery of its isomer ketones did not occur until the late nineteenth century, yet, its affects were all very real experiences for early modern writers, such as Shakespeare, who attempt to distil and capture the essence of violet in distinctly beautiful terms, with the violet “stealing and giving odours.”

The “dying fall” of Orsino’s sad tune is like the melancholy aspects of the violet, evoking impermanence, transience, and death. Even Orsino’s command to stop the music can also describe the anesthetic properties of ionine.  As Orsino complains though, the scent, the song, the sensations, and so on is “not so sweet as it was before.”

John Gerard's "The herball or Generall historie of plantes" (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets
John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets

Orsino’s very mind, in its melancholic state, is affected by sweet airs—whether sad songs or fragrant violets. As the early modern brain was believed to be acutely affected by odors, and the violet emits a particularly sweet and sad aroma, the botanist and herbalist John Gerard’s regard for the violet’s olfactive and affective properties should not be surprising:

[Violets] haue a great prerogative aboue others, not onely because the minde conceiveth a certaine pleasure and recreation by smelling and handling of those most odoriferous flours, but also for that very many by these Violets receive ornament and comely grace …And the recreation of the minde which is taken hereby, cannot be but very good and honest: for they admonish and stir up a man to that which is comely and honest… do bring to a liberall and gentle manly minde, the remembrance of honestie, comelinesse, and all kindes of vertues. (Chapter 312: “Of Violets” 849-850)

Gerard nicely summarizes the memorable, virtuous, affective, symbolic, and olfactive properties of the violet that we have been sniffing out in this brief essay.

Viola odorata

References (in order of appearance)

Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London: Arcturus, 2009).

Hannah Woolley, The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery containing I. the art of preserving and candying fruits & flowers (London: Printed for B. Harris, and are to be sold at his shop, 1675).

Rebecca Laroche, with Steven Turner, “Robert Boyle, Hannah Woolley, and Syrup of Violets”, Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 390-91.

Avery Gilbert, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008).

The Norton Shakespeare Based on The Oxford Edition, second edition, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York, 2008).

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

Rebecca Laroche, “Ophelia’s Plants and the Death of Violets”, in L. Bruckner and D. Brayton, eds. Ecocritical Shakespeare (Ashgate, 2011).

Jessica Kerr, Shakespeare’s Flowers (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1969).

Richard Palmer, “In Bad Odour: Smell and its Significance in Medicine from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century”, Medicine and the Five Senses, eds. W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

John Gerard, The Herball or Generall historie of plantes, 2nd ed. (London, 1633).

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.