views updated Jun 11 2018


Perfume, from the Latin per fumum, meaning through smoke, has been a barometer of society and its mores throughout recorded history. Like fashion, it provides a road map to people's strivings for individuality, self-aggrandizement, social standing, and feelings of well-being.

Early Egyptians are credited as one of the first groups to improve their lives and deaths through the use of fragrance and fragrance ingredients, particularly blended for burning during religious services and burial. Historical references cite Ishmaelite traders who, in 2000 b.c.e., bore aromatic treasures to eager customers in Egypt via what was known as the Incense Road. Considered more precious than gold, flowers, herbs, and spices, perfumes were an expression of exaltation and admiration. The importance of perfumes gradually reached far beyond Egypt thanks to traders, crusaders, and shifting populations who took their precious fragrances with them. This was a fortuitous turn of events for the future of fragrance.

Perfume ingredients became indispensable in religious services, as medicants, to enhance personal environments, and to be applied to the skin for protection against the elements. Perfume was also used as an aphrodisiac. The famous and infamous embraced fragrance and made it their own. Cleopatra (60–30 b.c.e.) doused the sails of her ship to entice Mark Antony. The Queen of Sheba won the heart and devotion of King Solomon by bringing him gifts of rare spices all the way from Yemen. He particularly favored the fabled myrrh. It is said that each drop of Muhammad's sweat, as he ascended to heaven, morphed into the most precious of flowers—the rose.

It was the Egyptians who learned how to press the oils from flowers and leaves that they then smoothed on their sun-scorched skins. The Arabian doctor Avicenna is credited with developing the method of distillation, in the tenth century, which led to the creation of liquid perfume.

Little has changed in the gathering and processing of perfume ingredients. Flowers and plants are picked and gathered by hand, and distillation, in which steam separates the essential oils from the flowers and plants, remains one of the prime methods for extraction. (It is one of six methods: expression, maceration, enfluverage, extraction, and headspace technology.) In modern times, the greatest change has taken place in the fragrance laboratories where computer technology has become a basic tool, not only in establishing and maintaining quality standards, but also in allowing perfumers around the world to communicate with each other in developing unique new fragrance formulas.

Hand in Glove

Fragrance and fashion were linked for the first time in the thirteenth century. The setting was Grasse, France (located between Nice and Cannes) that at the time was the center of the glove-making industry. The problem these artisans faced, however, was the unbearable smell of the leather that was tanned with urine.

The fragrant flowers of Grasse, the province of the local perfumers, came to the rescue of the tanners and perfumed gloves became the rage throughout fashionable Europe. As a result, industrious glove-makers added the title of perfumer. They enjoyed great success until the early 1800s when they were taxed out of business and as a result moved away, leaving a talented coterie of flower growers and perfumers. Grasse flourished as the perfect source of flowers, especially lavender, jasmine, and tuberose that grew on the sun-drenched hills. In the twenty-first century, Grasse is a shadow of its former self, as real-estate developers usurped much of the land in the latter part of the twentieth century. It no longer is the prime source of flowers, roots, and herbs sought by the modern fragrance industry. The whole world serves the perfumers' fragrant needs.

Scents of Royalty

The desire to adorn the body with sweet smells and beautiful jewelry created a marriage of fashion and fragrance that reached its heights in the early 1700s, particularly during the reign of Louis XIV. It was then that European royalty decided to have their fragrances at hand night and day no matter where they might be. Aromatic jewelry designed by master craftsmen was in great demand. In fact, royalty had their own private jewelers and perfumers to cater to their every whim. Chatelaines, rings, earrings, belts, and bracelets were considered indispensable. Wealthy men, women, and children all wore decorative aromatic accessories.

Courting Perfume

In 1533, when Catherine de Medici left Italy to marry Henry II, she took all of her personal perfumes and perfumers with her. It was not uncommon for royalty and wealthy citizens to employ their own perfumers and jewelers who were responsible for creating exquisite one-ofa-kind containers for each perfume. The marriage of Marie Antoinette to the future king of France, Louis XVI, united two intense devotees of perfume. Both reveled in environments heavy with scent. But it was Louis XIV who became known as "The Perfumed King" in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. His retinue of perfumers created different scents for him and his court to wear morning, noon, and night. In his court, the wings of doves were drenched with fragrance to be released after a great banquet to fill the air with refreshing scents. Extravagance was the coin of the realm. Vessels were designed to allow incense to be sprinkled on carpets and in dresser drawers. Incense was also burned to fumigate clothes, living quarters, and to induce sleep.

Street Scents and Scenes

The growth of the urban environment in the eighteenth century gave meaning to fragrance for the masses. Over-crowding, lack of sanitation, and pollution made life unbearable. Fears of unknown diseases lurking in the water kept people from bathing. Perfumes emerged as the panacea for the great-unwashed populace. Crudely made perfumes and colognes could be bought on the street by roving self-appointed perfumers who hawked their fragrant wares from garments which looked like cook's aprons. Scent bottles filled the many pockets. The French Revolution put a stop to royalty's fragrant revelries and perfume didn't regain its popularity until the early nineteenth century, when Napoleon became emperor. There was no limit to his fragrance indulgences. He virtually bathed in eau de cologne, and never went into battle without a full supply of his favorites. His wife, Josephine, loved roses and musk, and she surrounded herself with them night and day. But, when Napoleon left her for Marie Louise, Josephine filled the rooms of Malmaison with the overpowering scent of musk, which she knew Napoleon disliked intensely. Visitors to Versailles report they smell it still.

The twentieth century saw the birth of fashion designer fragrances (primarily of French origin). They were

referred to as the invisible accessory by merchants and the media, to be worn on special occasions. Then, in 1921, the great couturier, Gabrielle Chanel, set the fashion world on fire when she launched her breakthrough creation, Chanel No. 5. It was the first aldehydic type that is characterized by its rich sparkling quality. It became an overnight sensation and established a new category for the perfume world.

Chanel was not the first designer to sniff the potential of scents, however. Credit must be given to Paul Poiret, whose exotic designs were inspired by the mysteries of the Far East and who achieved recognition and applause for his art deco costumes for theater and ballet. Fascinated by the imaginative and ephemeral, he adored fragrance and became a perfume entrepreneur in the early 1900s. He established his own laboratory and facilities for blowing glass and packaging his "small wonders." His company, Parfumes Rosine, was named for one of his daughters. Of the more than fifty perfumes (floral, spicy, and oriental types dominated) introduced between 1911 and 1924, several carried his daughter's name. La Rose de Rosine was presented to the public in the mid-twenties as was La Chemise de Rosine and Mon Choix de Rosine. In 1927, inspired by the flight of Charles Lindbergh, Poiret launched Spirit of St. Louis, which was one of his last fragrance creations.

Poiret's couture clients, artists, actresses, and the wealthy, in the U.S. and abroad, quickly became his fragrance customers as he encouraged them to consider fragrance one of his most important fashion accessories. They responded enthusiastically. After World War I, however, his fashion house floundered. His fragrances continued to enjoy popularity in the United States where they were reintroduced. Poiret closed his business in 1930.

Designers and Grand Dames

The fascination with fragrance did not lose its momentum thanks to Chanel and an unending parade of designers who became arbiters of styles in scents with innovations of their own: Worth (Dans La Nuit, 1922), Jeanne Lanvin (My Sin, 1925). The legendary Arpege wasn't introduced until 1927. What was described as the most expensive perfume in the world, Joy, was launched by Jean Patou in 1930. Elsa Schiaparelli startled twentieth century women with a sexy scent which she appropriately called Shocking. Women flocked to her salon to add the scent in its unique "torso" bottle to their dressing tables. The bottle was said to have been inspired by the measurements of the voluptuous American actress Mae West. It is considered one of the great collectibles in the twenty-first century.

Peacetime Scent-Sations

A fashion/fragrance explosion following World War II was led by Christian Dior who not only dropped skirts to the floor in 1947 with his New Look, but also intrigued his customers with the legendary Miss Dior perfume. Nina Ricci introduced her romantic perfume, L'Air du Temps, in l948 in its unforgettable "double doves" bottle. In 1951, the elegant Hubert Givenchy took his place in the perfume pantheon, with L'Interdit, inspired by his muse, Audrey Hepburn.

Hints of Globalization

In the second half of the twentieth century, the French couture world spawned a splendid group of designers including Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Guy Laroche, Pierre Cardin, and Paco Rabanne. Before long, all became perfume aficionados as fragrance and fashion became inextricably connected.

Fragrance in the United States, at the time was primarily French and considered a luxury to be worn only on special occasions. An interest in American fragrances began to accelerate when Estée Lauder introduced Youth Dew in 1953. The first perfume in an oil base (versus alcohol), it was particularly long lasting and became a nationwide success. The launch of Norell, however, catapulted America into the fashion/fragrance arena. Norell was the first American designer to lend his name to a perfume. Revlon introduced it in 1969. The sophisticated floral became the olfactory touchstone for executive women throughout the country. It suddenly became de rigueur for these career women to keep Norell perfume bottles in full view on their desks.

By the 1970s, American designer fragrances multiplied. Halston led the way with his first fragrance in 1975. Presented in the famed Elsa Peretti bean bottle, it was an immediate favorite. Ralph Lauren set new fragrance standards with Lauren and Polo in 1978. Calvin Klein rocked the fragrance world in 1985 with Obsession and its provocative, risqué advertising. He followed up in l994 with the first important unisex fragrance, CK-1. It created a sensation. America's designers Oscar de la Renta, Liz Claiborne, Bill Blass, and Donna Karan moved quickly to join the fragrance explosion.

Designing a Fragrant Future

France's commitment to fragrance and its formidable fashion designers also continued unabated. In the 1980s, new cutting-edge designers made their mark: The 1990s witnessed fragrance launches from Jean-Paul Gaultier and Issey Miyake. By the time the century was over, fashion designers from Italy (Armani, Moschino, and Dolce & Gabbana), Spain (Carolina Herrera and Paco Rabanne), and Germany (Jil Sander and Hugo Boss) were international fragrance stars.

In the twenty-first century, competition heated up with fragrance blockbusters from the newest fashion leaders in the United States and abroad: the namesake fragrances of Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, and Vera Wang have joined John Galiano's Kingdom. The everwidening development of odor identical molecules and computer-generated techniques that extract and reproduce scents previously undetected or available has dramatically expanded the perfumer's palette. Amongst the original olfactory experiences that emerged are food, oceanic, and ozone notes. Researchers have explored scents emitted by coral growing in the Caribbean. Flowers have been sent into space to determine how the weightlessness impacts the flower's odor stability. Work has been undertaken to develop pleasing odor environments and delivery systems for future space stations. Research has revealed that humans are not comfortable living under odorless or negative odor conditions.

The key to the success of the designer scents has always depended on how well each designer interprets his or her fashion image in the packaging, name, advertising, and, of course, the fragrance. The appeal is especially powerful to the majority of consumers who could not afford the couture designs that appear alluringly in the pages of magazines, in store windows, and on popular TV shows. The perfumes have made it possible for almost everyone to experience the panache of the designers. As a result, designer fragrance successes have multiplied and captured the imagination and dedication of women everywhere.

There are eight basic fragrance categories: Green, single florals, floral bouquet, oriental blend, modern blend, fruity, spicy, and woodsy mossy. In recent years, fantasy formulations have grown increasingly popular. These are fragrances that defy description and are olfactory experiences based on the perfumers imagination.

In the twenty-first century, creating a fragrance demands scientific, technical, and artistic expertise. The time frame from start to finish can be as long as three years. Usually, a team of perfumers, assistants, and evaluators work against what the industry calls a "perfume profile." The profile identifies the type of fragrance (floral, spicy citrus, woodsy, green, or oriental), the characteristics of the type of woman who would wear the fragrance (sophisticated, conservative, sporty, adventurous), the pricing, the packaging, and among other factors, imagery. A number of perfumers from different supplier companies compete to win the assignment. Once the winning fragrance is selected, it is market-tested, which could take another six to eight months. During this period, the packaging, advertising, marketing, and sales promotion (including sampling) strategies are finalized.

There are only a handful of great perfumers and like all fine artists they are considered key to the success of creating a great luxury brand. They are in demand and remunerated accordingly. Because of the many elements involved in bringing a fragrance to market, there is no hard and fast rule for allocation of costs.

The future promises to expand the rarity and enjoyment of designer-inspired fragrances. New technologies and packaging concepts will make them available in a myriad of forms for personal wear and travel, as well as in the home and in public spaces. The olfactory adventure of the twenty-first century absolutely knows no bounds.

See alsoCosmetics, Nonwestern; Cosmetics, Western .


Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Random House, 1990.

Classen, Constance, ed. Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Corbin, Alain, ed. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986

Cunningham, Donna. Flower Remedies Handbook: Emotional Healing and Growth: With Bach and Other Flower Essences. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 1992.

Dyett, Linda, and Annette Green. Secrets of Aromatic Jewelry. New York: Flammarion, 1998.

Le Guerer, Annick. Scent: The Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell. Translation by Richard Miller. New York: Turtle Bay Books/Random House, 1992.

Murris, Edwin T. The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984.

White, Palmer. Elsa Schiaparelli: Empress of Fashion. New York: Rizzoli, 1986.

Annette Green


views updated Jun 08 2018



Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have attempted to mask or enhance their own odor by using perfume, which emulates nature's pleasant smells. Many natural and man-made materials have been used to make perfume to apply to the skin and clothing, to put in cleaners and cosmetics, or to scent the air. Because of differences in body chemistry, temperature, and body odors, no perfume will smell exactly the same on any two people.

Perfume comes from the Latin "per" meaning "through" and "fumum," or "smoke." Many ancient perfumes were made by extracting natural oils from plants through pressing and steaming. The oil was then burned to scent the air. Today, most perfume is used to scent bar soaps. Some products are even perfumed with industrial odorants to mask unpleasant smells or to appear "unscented."

While fragrant liquids used for the body are often considered perfume, true perfumes are defined as extracts or essences and contain a percentage of oil distilled in alcohol. Water is also used. The United States is the world's largest perfume market with annual sales totalling several billions of dollars.


According to the Bible, Three Wise Men visited the baby Jesus carrying myrrh and frankincense. Ancient Egyptians burned incense called kyphi made of henna, myrrh, cinnamon, and juniperas religious offerings. They soaked aromatic wood, gum, and resins in water and oil and used the liquid as a fragrant body lotion. The early Egyptians also perfumed their dead and often assigned specific fragrances to deities. Their word for perfume has been translated as "fragrance of the gods." It is said that the Moslem prophet Mohammed wrote, "Perfumes are foods that reawaken the spirit."

Eventually Egyptian perfumery influenced the Greeks and the Romans. For hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, perfume was primarily an Oriental art. It spread to Europe when 13th century Crusaders brought back samples from Palestine to England, France, and Italy. Europeans discovered the healing properties of fragrance during the 17th century. Doctors treating plague victims covered their mouths and noses with leather pouches holding pungent cloves, cinnamon, and spices which they thought would protect them from disease.

Perfume then came into widespread use among the monarchy. France's King Louis XIV used it so much that he was called the "perfume king." His court contained a floral pavilion filled with fragrances, and dried flowers were placed in bowls throughout the palace to freshen the air. Royal guests bathed in goat's milk and rose petals. Visitors were often doused with perfume, which also was sprayed on clothing, furniture, walls, and tableware. It was at this time that Grasse, a region of southern France where many flowering plant varieties grow, became a leading producer of perfumes.

Meanwhile, in England, aromatics were contained in lockets and the hollow heads of canes to be sniffed by the owner. It was not until the late 1800s, when synthetic chemicals were used, that perfumes could be mass marketed. The first synthetic perfume was nitrobenzene, made from nitric acid and benzene. This synthetic mixture gave off an almond smell and was often used to scent soaps. In 1868, Englishman William Perkin synthesized coumarin from the South American tonka bean to create a fragrance that smelled like freshly sown hay. Ferdinand Tiemann of the University of Berlin created synthetic violet and vanilla. In the United States, Francis Despard Dodge created citronellolan alcohol with rose-like odorby experimenting with citronella, which is derived from citronella oil and has a lemon-like odor. In different variations, this synthetic compound gives off the scents of sweet pea, lily of the valley, narcissus, and hyacinth.

Just as the art of perfumery progressed through the centuries, so did the art of the perfume bottle. Perfume bottles were often as elaborate and exotic as the oils they contained. The earliest specimens date back to about 1000 b.c. In ancient Egypt, newly invented glass bottles were made largely to hold perfumes. The crafting of perfume bottles spread into Europe and reached its peak in Venice in the 18th century, when glass containers assumed the shape of small animals or had pastoral scenes painted on them. Today perfume bottles are designed by the manufacturer to reflect the character of the fragrance inside, whether light and flowery or dark and musky.

Raw Materials

Natural ingredientsflowers, grasses, spices, fruit, wood, roots, resins, balsams, leaves, gums, and animal secretionsas well as resources like alcohol, petrochemicals, coal, and coal tars are used in the manufacture of perfumes. Some plants, such as lily of the valley, do not produce oils naturally. In fact, only about 2,000 of the 250,000 known flowering plant species contain these essential oils. Therefore, synthetic chemicals must be used to re-create the smells of non-oily substances. Synthetics also create original scents not found in nature.

Some perfume ingredients are animal products. For example, castor comes from beavers, musk from male deer, and ambergris from the sperm whale. Animal substances are often used as fixatives that enable perfume to evaporate slowly and emit odors longer. Other fixatives include coal tar, mosses, resins, or synthetic chemicals. Alcohol and sometimes water are used to dilute ingredients in perfumes. It is the ratio of alcohol to scent that determines whether the perfume is "eau de toilette" (toilet water) or cologne.

The Manufacturing


  • 1 Before the manufacturing process begins, the initial ingredients must be brought to the manufacturing center. Plant substances are harvested from around the world, often hand-picked for their fragrance. Animal products are obtained by extracting the fatty substances directly from the animal. Aromatic chemicals used in synthetic perfumes are created in the laboratory by perfume chemists.


Oils are extracted from plant substances by several methods: steam distillation, solvent extraction, enfleurage, maceration, and expression.

  • 2 In steam distillation, steam is passed through plant material held in a still, whereby the essential oil turns to gas. This gas is then passed through tubes, cooled, and liquified. Oils can also be extracted by boiling plant substances like flower petals in water instead of steaming them.
  • 3 Under solvent extraction, flowers are put into large rotating tanks or drums and benzene or a petroleum ether is poured over the flowers, extracting the essential oils. The flower parts dissolve in the solvents and leave a waxy material that contains the oil, which is then placed in ethyl alcohol. The oil dissolves in the alcohol and rises. Heat is used to evaporate the alcohol, which once fully burned off, leaves a higher concentration of the perfume oil on the bottom.
  • 4 During enfleurage, flowers are spread on glass sheets coated with grease. The glass sheets are placed between wooden frames in tiers. Then the flowers are removed by hand and changed until the grease has absorbed their fragrance.
  • 5 Maceration is similar to enfleurage except that warmed fats are used to soak up the flower smell. As in solvent extraction, the grease and fats are dissolved in alcohol to obtain the essential oils.
  • 6 Expression is the oldest and least complex method of extraction. By this process, now used in obtaining citrus oils from the rind, the fruit or plant is manually or mechanically pressed until all the oil is squeezed out.


  • 7 Once the perfume oils are collected, they are ready to be blended together according to a formula determined by a master in the field, known as a "nose." It may take as many as 800 different ingredients and several years to develop the special formula for a scent.

    After the scent has been created, it is mixed with alcohol. The amount of alcohol in a scent can vary greatly. Most full perfumes are made of about 10-20% perfume oils dissolved in alcohol and a trace of water. Colognes contain approximately 3-5% oil diluted in 80-90% alcohol, with water making up about 10%. Toilet water has the least amount2% oil in 60-80% alcohol and 20% water.


  • 8 Fine perfume is often aged for several months or even years after it is blended. Following this, a "nose" will once again test the perfume to ensure that the correct scent has been achieved. Each essential oil and perfume has three notes: "Notes de tete," or top notes, "notes de coeur," central or heart notes, and "notes de fond," base notes. Top notes have tangy or citrus-like smells; central notes (aromatic flowers like rose and jasmine) provide body, and base notes (woody fragrances) provide an enduring fragrance. More "notes," of various smells, may be further blended.

Quality Control

Because perfumes depend heavily on harvests of plant substances and the availability of animal products, perfumery can often turn risky. Thousands of flowers are needed to obtain just one pound of essential oils, and if the season's crop is destroyed by disease or adverse weather, perfumeries could be in jeopardy. In addition, consistency is hard to maintain in natural oils. The same species of plant raised in several different areas with slightly different growing conditions may not yield oils with exactly the same scent.

Problems are also encountered in collecting natural animal oils. Many animals once killed for the value of their oils are on the endangered species list and now cannot be hunted. For example, sperm whale products like ambergris have been outlawed since 1977. Also, most animal oils in general are difficult and expensive to extract. Deer musk must come from deer found in Tibet and China; civet cats, bred in Ethiopia, are kept for their fatty gland secretions; beavers from Canada and the former Soviet Union are harvested for their castor.

Synthetic perfumes have allowed perfumers more freedom and stability in their craft, even though natural ingredients are considered more desirable in the very finest perfumes. The use of synthetic perfumes and oils eliminates the need to extract oils from animals and removes the risk of a bad plant harvest, saving much expense and the lives of many animals.

The Future

Perfumes today are being made and used in different ways than in previous centuries. Perfumes are being manufactured more and more frequently with synthetic chemicals rather than natural oils. Less concentrated forms of perfume are also becoming increasingly popular. Combined, these factors decrease the cost of the scents, encouraging more widespread and frequent, often daily, use.

Using perfume to heal, make people feel good, and improve relationships between the sexes are the new frontiers being explored by the industry. The sense of smell is considered a right brain activity, which rules emotions, memory, and creativity. Aromatherapysmelling oils and fragrances to cure physical and emotional problemsis being revived to help balance hormonal and body energy. The theory behind aromatherapy states that using essential oils helps bolster the immune system when inhaled or applied topically. Smelling sweet smells also affects one's mood and can be used as a form of psychotherapy.

Like aromatherapy, more research is being conducted to synthesize human perfumethat is, the body scents we produce to attract or repel other humans. Humans, like other mammals, release pheromones to attract the opposite sex. New perfumes are being created to duplicate the effect of pheromones and stimulate sexual arousal receptors in the brain. Not only may the perfumes of the future help people cover up "bad" smells, they could improve their physical and emotional well-being as well as their sex lives.

Where To Learn More


Bylinsky, Gene. "Finally, A Good Aphrodisiac?" Fortune, October 21, 1991, p. 18.

Green, Timothy. "Making Scents Is More Complicated Than You Think." Smithsonian, June 1991, pp. 52-60.

Iverson, Annemarie. "Ozone." Harper's Bazaar, November 1993, pp. 208-40.

Lord, Shirley. "Message In a Bottle." Vogue, May 1992, p. 220.

Raphael, Anna. "Ahh! Aromatherapy." Delicious!, December 1994, pp. 47-48.

Evelyn S. Dorman


views updated May 23 2018

perfume is used for a wide variety of purposes: aesthetic, religious, culinary, and medicinal, among others. Traditionally perfumes were made from plant and animal substances and prepared in the form of waters, oils, unguents, powders, and incense. This last method of fragrancing gives us our word ‘perfume’ which means ‘to smoke through’. Most modern perfumes are alcohol-based and contain synthetic scents. While the term ‘perfume’ usually refers to fragrances in general, in the more technical language of the perfumer, a perfume must contain over 15% of fragrance oils in alcohol. Eau de parfum, eau de toilette, and cologne contain lesser amounts of fragrance oils in alcohol diluted with water.

The preferred fragrances for perfumes are by no means universal, but differ according to cultural dictates and fashions. In the sixteenth century, for example, pungent animal scents such as musk and civet were very popular. In the nineteenth century, by contrast, such animal scents were generally considered too crude, and light floral fragrances were favoured.

Perfumes were held in high esteem and widely employed in the ancient world. The wealthy would perfume not only their own bodies, but their furnishings and their favourite horses and dogs. On ancient altars perfumes were offered to the gods, while in the kitchens of antiquity the same scents — saffron, cinnamon, rose, myrrh — might be used to flavour food and wine.

With the rise of Christianity, perfumes became associated with a decadent lifestyle which catered to bodily desires rather than to spiritual necessities. Many of the early Church Fathers condemned the use of perfume as ‘a bait which draws us into sensual lusts’. While disdaining the use of perfumes, however, the Church employed metaphors of fragrance to refer to the spiritual life. Prayer, for example, was presented as a symbolic form of incense, while the Christian soul was a ‘perfumed garden’ of grace. Such metaphors acquired a certain physical reality in the phenomenon of the ‘odour of sanctity’, whereby holy persons were believed to exhale a divine fragrance.

By the end of the Middle Ages, perfumes were once again enormously popular in social life. Those who could afford it perfumed their clothes, as well as their bodies, and wore gloves and shoes made out of perfumed leather. Even jewellery might be perfumed, or else fashioned of beads of hardened perfume. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Puritans and other Protestant reformers, following the ascetic doctrines of the early Christians, denounced this indulgence in scent as contributing to an immoral lifestyle and disguising an underlying stench of sin.

Along with offering pleasing scents, perfumes had many practical uses in premodernity. Perfumes were believed to play a role both in preserving health and curing disease. Thus the ancient poet Alexis decreed that ‘the best recipe for health is to apply sweet scents unto the brain.’ The ancients employed a variety of herbal scents to treat different ailments. The fragrance of mint, for example, was thought to ease a stomach ache. Perfumes might also be applied directly to a wound to relieve inflamation and counter the ill odour of decay.

In the Middle Ages and later perfumes played a particularly important role during periods of plague. According to contemporary theories, plagues were caused by corrupt air, and transmitted from person to person through smell. The best ways to prevent such olfactory contagion were to avoid coming into contact with infectious odours and to counter the odours of disease with other pungent smells, such as perfumes and incense. The pomander — a small perforated container filled with spices and herbs and worn on the body — was meant to provide a continuous fragrant shield against disease.

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, many of the hitherto practical uses of perfume fell out of favour. As bathing became more popular, perfumes were no longer needed to mask stale body odours. The medicinal value of perfume was also questioned. Perfumes, in fact, were sometimes decried by physicians as actually leading to disease by clogging pores, or by enfeebling the mind and body through their vapours. The development of germ theory in the late 1800s largely put to rest the age-old idea of corrupt odours as agents of infection. Perfumes, consequently, were no longer considered by the medical profession to either prevent or cure disease.

The aesthetic use of perfume also declined during the same period. This was due in part to a backlash prompted by the French Revolution against the perfumed, luxurious lifestyle of the aristocracy. Furthermore, the rise of industrial capitalism encouraged the accumulation and display of tangible goods. In this culture of the concrete, the evanescent nature of perfumes made them a ‘bad buy’. Countering this materialist trend were various nineteenth-century artistic and literary movements, notably that of the Symbolists, which lauded perfumes as stimuli to the imagination.

During the nineteenth century, perfumes, which had previously been worn by both sexes, became increasingly restricted to women. The supposedly frivolous nature of perfume was deemed to make fragrance more suitable for ‘frivolous’ women than for ‘serious’ men. Sweet floral scents, in particular, were considered appropriate for women, while men, if they wore any scent at all, were offered woodsy or spicy fragrances.

In the late twentieth century a number of developments have influenced the cultural role of perfumes. The growth of ‘consumer capitalism’, with its emphasis on enjoyment, rather than mere accumulation, of goods, has led to a surge in perfume use. While perfumes are still considered primarily the domain of women, the market for men's perfumes is continually expanding. Research is also being undertaken on how the selective employment of fragrances may influence behaviour, stimulating office workers to work more effectively or shoppers to buy more products. Finally, the medicinal use of perfume has made a comeback in the contemporary practice of aromatherapy, which utilizes fragrant essential oils to treat a range of physical and psychological ailments. These trends towards increased perfume use, however, are currently being combatted by an anti-perfume movement, which argues that many people find perfumes irritating and allergenic, and agitates for an ‘odour-free’ environment.

Constance Classen


Classen, C.,, Howes, D.,, and and Synnott, A. (1994). Aroma: the cultural history of smell. Routledge, London.


views updated May 23 2018

per·fume / ˈpərˌfyoōm; ˌpərˈfyoōm/ • n. a fragrant liquid typically made from essential oils extracted from flowers and spices, used to impart a pleasant smell to one's body or clothes: I caught a whiff of her fresh lemony perfume | musk-based perfumes. ∎  a pleasant smell: the heady perfume of lilacs.• v. [tr.] impart a pleasant smell to: just one bloom of jasmine has the power to perfume a whole room. ∎  (usu. be perfumed) impregnate (something) with perfume or a sweet-smelling ingredient: the cream is perfumed with rosemary and iris extracts. ∎  apply perfume to (someone or something): her hair was oiled and perfumed.DERIVATIVES: per·fum·y / -mē/ adj.


views updated May 29 2018


Smelling good was of great concern to the ancient Greeks. But without running water, their techniques for freshening themselves were different than modern methods of bathing and showering. Men and women washed themselves with a cloth and a bowl of water or by rubbing olive oil on their skin, scraping it off with a metal rod called a strigil, and rinsing with cold water. Once clean, Greeks would apply perfumes all over their skin and hair.

To make perfume Greeks soaked spices and other fragrant flowers and herbs in warm oil until the oil took on a pleasant scent. They would then strain the ingredients from the oil and use the perfumed oil alone or mix it with a sticky gum to make a thicker perfumed cream. Cinnamon, basil, marjoram, almonds, roses, lavender, and lilies were popular fragrances for perfume. Greeks kept their perfume in beautifully decorated glass or ceramic bottles or carved alabaster vials hung as pendants from chains around their necks.


Crosher, Judith. Technology in the Time of Ancient Greece. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1998.

Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Greece. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.


views updated May 21 2018

perfume odorous vapour, (fragrance of) liquid scent. XVI. In early use also par-, but regularly assim. to PER-, — F. parfum, f. par-, †perfumer (whence perfume vb. XVI) — It. †par-, †perfumare (now pro-), lit. smoke through; see PER-1, FUME.
Hence perfumery XVIII.


views updated Jun 27 2018

perfume Substance that produces a pleasing fragrance. The scents of such plants as rose, citrus, lavender, and sandalwood are obtained from their essential oils. These are blended with a fixative of animal origin, such as musk, ambergris or civet. Liquid perfumes are usually alcoholic solutions containing 10–25% of the perfume concentrate; colognes and toilet waters contain about 2–6% of the concentrate.