Perfumes have been used for about as long as history can be traced. Though hygiene expectations have changed over time (Queen Isabella of Spain boasts that she only took two baths in her life), people have always liked to smell nice. They’ve even taken to perfume.
So, what is perfume, exactly? Have people still thought of it as scented liquids in small glass bottles, as we do now? Interestingly, some of the first perfumes were stored in small glass bottles. The more things change, the more things remain the same, as the French say. So let’s take a look at perfume across history and see what we can learn.
We now think about perfume as liquids that we can dab or mist on ourselves to give us a nice smell. The current term perfume, on the other hand, is derived from the Latin expression per fumus, which means “through smoke,” and therefore hints at the source of perfume. The smokes produced by burning incense were the first perfumes.
Incense and Ancient History
Incense is one of humanity’s earliest inventions, with documents dating back more than 3500 years to ancient Egypt. It was mostly a luxurious item used to perfume the air: the rich used it in their apartments, and priests used it in holy ceremonies. Regular people had to contend with the odours of everyday life.
Because of the time and expense required to produce it, incense was considered a luxury commodity. The more complicated anything is to make, both then and now, the more it can cost. Try powdering assorted barks, twigs, leaves, and flowers with a mortar and pestle to get an understanding of how ancient incense was made. Now repeat this process until you have a barrel of incense.
This leads us to another point: where do perfumes originate? Perfumes and incenses are mostly produced from plant materials. Many trees, such as cedar or mesquite, are fragrant, and we all know the roses, as well as many leaves, emit a fragrance. Other ingredients, such as oils and wines, may be combined with these to achieve the desired fragrance. In today’s language, if the fragrance comes from a solid, it’s an incense; if it comes from a liquid, it’s a perfume.
Liquid scents were also known to the ancient Egyptians. They scented themselves with assorted oils and flower extracts, and the practise spread throughout their culture. Bathing had perfume, and bathing was done often. As a side note, the public baths of Greece and Rome are likely descended from Egyptian forerunners.
The Egyptians were also concerned about the bottles and barrels used to store perfumes. These were either ceramic or pottery, but they did use glass, much as we do today.
Bringing Perfume to the West
While Egyptian civilization was lost, the art of perfuming persisted. The Greeks and Romans did not use incense as much as the Egyptians did, but they did adopt the ritual of bathing with scented oils. Men’s fragrances often used olive oil as a basis. These scented oils actually served two purposes. They smelled great, but they also shielded the skin from the sun in the humid Mediterranean region.
Perfumes is traditionally made by grinding herbs, barks, woods, or leaves, then infusing them into different oils or burning them as incense for a long time. Things started to improve in the Middle Ages when Arab chemists invented a method for extracting oils from flowers. These oils are now referred to as essential oils, not because they are necessary in the perfume industry (although they are), but because they are the basis of the fragrance.
Perfume Enters Modern History
Critical oils were imported to Europe by Arab merchants during the Renaissance, and perfumers quickly recognised them as superior for the production of scented perfumes, especially liquid ones.
Perfume soon gained popularity in Europe as a means of masking life’s bad odours. It became especially common in France, thanks in part to royal approval. Because of the prevalence of fragrance, Louis XV’s court was dubbed the perfumed court. The tradition of daubing women’s perfume on their wrists started in France.
Although it wasn’t just the royal courtiers that were scented. Gloves and wigs, which were common at the time, were often perfumed. If you’ve ever seen a portrait of Washington or the other gentlemen from colonial America, you’ll find that their wigs are white, not from age, but from the perfumed powder that was added to them.
Heading Toward the 20th Century
Making perfumes with essential oils, mainly from floral sources, is still practised today. The bottles are the most noticeable contrast between today’s women’s fragrances and those available in the 1700s.
Francois Coty, the French-Corsican perfume manufacturer who established a fabulous reputation as a parfumier, or perfume maker, in the 1890s and 1900s, was the brainchild of modern glass perfume bottles as miniature works of art. He also had a keen sense of advertisement and understood that not everyone had Coty’s nose. He had the brilliant idea of selling his perfumes in slim, appealing glass bottles. He formed a partnership with a glass blower, and the rest, as they say, is history.