By Jess Clark as part of the Perfumes Series
In August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. As many historians compellingly argue, the Great War was a point of major military, political, and socio-cultural disruption. This extended to commercial relationships between Britain and Germany, as firms suddenly found themselves at odds with time-honored partners. In Britain, for example, German products—and nationals—were subject to boycotts or outright violence as British consumers conveyed their national loyalties via their shopping preferences.
The expression of patriotism through shopping extended to the purchase of eau de Cologne, one of Britain’s most popular commercial scents leading into the First World War. While its origins are contested, the scent is often attributed to Johann Maria Farina (1685-1766), a Cologne-based perfumer of Italian descent who (allegedly) first developed eau de Cologne in 1709.[i] The exact recipe remained a secret, but the perfume typically included a blend of bergamot, neroli, citrus, and other essential oils. For two hundred years, the Farina family firm dominated its production, with customers flocking from around Europe to purchase the authentic German good. This extended to Britain, where shoppers could purchase original Farina eau de Cologne from local firms like Floris [Fig. 2].
However, the scent came under scrutiny with the onset of war, given its associations with luxury, not to mention its “enemy” origins. Britain’s perfumery firms suddenly found themselves in the difficult position of offering a “luxury” to a market that was increasingly rejecting such items. The British industry endured, however, and for the most part did not suffer during the war, despite the halt in trade with Germany and its allies. In fact, reflecting on the trade’s performance in 1915, the Perfumery and Essential Oil Record estimated that, as long as the government’s “campaign against ‘luxuries’” did not go too far, the essential oil and perfumery business could continue to be “fair” in spite of global conflict.[ii]
This success also depended on ongoing promotional efforts to maintain consumer interest in British-made perfumes, including eau de Cologne. Domestic perfumery firms manufactured “British” alternatives to the German scent, with national connections becoming a key selling point in wartime marketing. For example, London-based firm John Gosnell & Co. advertised their eau de Cologne and “Real Old English Lavender Water,” two “very delightful British perfumes,” as “refreshing and welcome gifts to the wounded and other invalids.”[iii] Boots Chemists proclaimed that British-made eau de Cologne “entirely supersed[ed] any German Eau-de-Cologne.” Meanwhile, famed firm Yardley proclaimed that their eau de Cologne was not, in fact, German but French, a seemingly acceptable alternative.[iv] In this way, perfumed purchases were yet another means to demonstrate alignment with a national wartime effort—by smelling of “pure” British smells that derived from “pure” British and allied sources.
Not only did British advertisements emphasize the domestic origins of their eau de Cologne, but they also suggested a broad range of uses that made the good a necessity rather than a luxury. Promotions for Luce’s “Original Jersey Eau-de-Cologne” suggested using it as “a mouth wash after using tooth powder,” a hair rinse, a carpet deodorizer, and a means of scenting the sick room.[v] Other firms extended eau de Cologne’s usefulness beyond the British home to the Front. Leicestershire-based Zenobia Ltd. argued that “[n]o other perfume” offered “an ever welcome ‘Comfort’ for wounded Soldiers & Sailors.” In the context of war, perfumes purportedly had value, serving all-purpose functions in “reviving, cooling, and refreshing.”[vi]
Throughout the trade disruptions and nationalist marketing campaigns, one thing seems to have remained constant: the recipe for individual firms’ eau de Cologne. While firms advertised their use of English or French ingredients, there was no mention of changing the formulation of the scent. This suggests that, despite the disruptions of war and attempts to signal British loyalties, consumers still smelled of the original recipes for eau de Cologne. In this way, longstanding olfactory trends prevailed, as British consumers sought out new ways to smell of time-honored scents.
[i] Catherine Maxwell, Scents and Sensibility: Perfume in Victorian Literary Culture (London: Oxford, 2017), 97.
[ii] “Commercial and Legislative Features of 1915,” The Perfumery & Essential Oil Record Year Book and Diary 1916 (London: G. Street & Co., Ltd., 1916),v.
[iii] 20 December 1914, John Gosnell & Co. Ltd., Lewes, East Sussex.
[iv] See “Gifts for the PeaceTide,” The Graphic 98, no. 2559 (14 December 1918): 38.
[v] “The Uses of Luce’s,” The Illustrated London News 149, no. 4051 (9 December 1916): 713.
[vi] Advertisement, The Illustrated London News 145, no. 3939 (17 October 1914): 560.