It’s often said that smell is the most evocative of senses. Just a whiff of some particular smells can transport you back in time, triggering memories from your childhood. The smell of lavender always reminds me of my grandmother. The scent of my newborn grandchildren takes me back to the days when my children were babies.
The word perfume comes from the Latin per and fumus meaning ‘through the smoke’ – because perfume was originally made, not for people to smell nice, but to cover up the horrible smell of carcasses burning in religious sacrifice.
The word scent comes from the Latin sentire ‘to sense, feel, perceive’, and aroma from the Greek meaning ‘seasoning, spice, sweet herb’. Fragrance comes from the Latin fragrans ‘sweet-smelling’.
The transition from heavy masking scents to lighter, more delicate fragrances happened in the East, where fruits and flowers were used. The Egyptians bathed themselves in oils of jasmine, hyacinth and honeysuckle.
Crusaders returned to Western Europe with exotic fragrances. In the Middle Ages, peasants rarely washed and sewerage ran openly down streets, so those who could afford it would cover up the stench by burning rose or musk, or carrying fragrant posies.
Animal oils were then discovered to have aromatic qualities – musk from deer, ambergris from sperm whales, civet from civet cats and castor from beavers, and so, many new scents were blended.
In 1709, an Italian barber arrived in Cologne, Germany and invented a concoction – an alcohol-based blend of lemon spirits, orange bitters and mint oil from the bergamot fruit, which he called eau de Cologne – French for ‘water of Cologne’. This first cologne fragrance was a huge success, growing in popularity, especially among French soldiers stationed there during the Seven Years’ War. The perfume business moved to France and the French then dominated the perfume industry from that time on.
French fashion designer Coco Chanel was superstitious, believing number five to be her lucky number, and so the fragrance Chanel No 5 was born. It was a new type of scent that appealed to the fashionable flappers of the Jazz Age. Perfumiers came from all parts of the world – Helena Rubenstein from Poland, Elizabeth Arden from Canada and Max Factor from Russia.
So, perfume has had an interesting history, from masking the stench of burning animals to providing sophisticated luxury.