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At the end of Part 2 in this series, we left our Regency heroine in her family’s still-room surrounded by the materials she has gathered for making a new supply of perfume. What has she harvested? Not apple blossoms, for gathering those would destroy the fruit crop. But perhaps roses? Violets? Lavender? Other herbs from the herb garden? Natural scent sources include flowers, buds, leaves, fruits, rinds, roots, wood, resins and bark of plants and trees, as well as animals.

Lavender, by Jeromecold – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Her choices are limited, in part because of England’s climate. If she lived in the south of France, near Grasse or Nice, she would be in the heart of some of the world’s best “perfume lands” and could have her pick of richly aromatic flowers and fruits, including orange blossom and jasmine. But even then, there are flowers she cannot use. In the Regency, there were not yet any “synthetic” scents that could substitute for an elusive natural fragrance, and there are a number of those—scents that defy extraction by any known method. (The reason can be a low concentration of fragrance in the material, but most often, it’s because the extraction process itself alters or destroys the scent.)

Lily-of-the Valley is one such flower. Its scent is very popular today and was even in earlier times. So how did Floris sell a scent under this name starting in 1765? They created a unique blend of other fragrances to approximate the desired scent. Floris’s formula for its famous Lily-of-the-Valley perfume was a highly guarded secret. The perfume was later taken off the market (I have not discovered when, but think it was pre-Regency), but it was re-launched in 1847 and has been sold ever since. The timing makes me suspect they took advantage of the development of chemical synthetics which began in the late 1830’s).

Other flowers that defy scent extraction include honeysuckle, pinks/carnation, sweet pea, lily, magnolia, lilac, mignonette, wallflower, sweet hawthorn, wood violet, muguet and gardenia. Modern chemistry has developed substitutes. Many people who are sensitive or allergic to “perfumes” are actually reacting to the chemicals in modern synthetic scents, so these are good ones to steer clear of in that case!

Lilac, by Marisa DeMeglio from NYC, USA – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Whatever our heroine has chosen, she’ll need a significant quantity. (Wild strawberry might be great, but where will she harvest enough of it?) To capture the fragrance of the materials, she’ll need to make essential oils, but she might also have a home-made supply already stored on hand or have purchased some if she requires an imported scent. (Such oils could also be used to flavor foodstuffs, especially confectionery.) Most interesting perfumes are a mix of more than one scent, so having a good “nose” for creating pleasing combinations (or good recipes to follow) is helpful along with the store of oils.

She will also need a quantity of alcohol, and one of the many things she’ll need to know, or need to have noted in the recipe she consults, is whether that alcohol should be distilled from wine, vegetable or grain sources. Some essential oils only work well with a particular one. Purified alcohol that won’t add any fragrance to the mix is ideal. It may be used both for the extraction and for creating the oils –some oils, including rose, orange, and jasmine can be considered unpleasant in concentrated forms, causing headaches and other symptoms until diluted.

In Part 2 we mentioned the four methods of extraction that were in use during our period. Great advances in the techniques were developed later in the 19th century, which helped to lower the cost of commercial perfumes, as did the introduction of synthetic scents. But our heroine would choose whichever method she knows will fit the material she’s chosen.

For instance, lavender or peppermint (which both grow well in England) and rose leaves are sturdy enough to be distilled. This process using heated liquid and condensation can be dated as far back as 1200 BCE in Mesopatamia (where, incidentally, it was being used for perfumery). Our heroine’s still might be as small as this pottery still seen at Ham House (courtesy Deana Sidney via Sharon Lathan),

but given the amount of liquid in some recipes (for instance, one for rose water calls for 4lbs of rose leaves and 20 pints of water), much larger ones must also have been in use. The Ham House inventories from the 17th century list “pewter stills with glass heads” and also note chafing dishes and Bain Maries for heating the stills. I wish we could see those!

Large home-made modern-day stills follow the same age-old principle

The other methods are also ancient –getting into all of them technically is another whole side-tunnel. (See how many rabbit tunnels this topic has?) But many flowers are too delicate to undergo distillation, even when kept above the water by a sieve—either the heat or the liquid/steam destroys them. Their essential oils are extracted using either maceration (rose petals, violets, etc), which involves repeatedly mixing the flowers into grease such as lard or an oil such as distilled bitter almond, or absorption (the most delicate, such as jasmine), where the flowers are spread on grease coated-plates or cloths soaked in oil. In both cases, the fragrance transfers into the grease (pomade) or oil and can be further processed with alcohol from there. Citrus fruits, such as lemons or oranges, best yield their fragrant oils by expression (also called cold-pressing) –the grating of the rinds and applying pressure to break down the material.

Once our heroine has invested the time and effort to have a store of essential oils, she is ready to mix her scents. Whether she decides to make “eau de parfum” or “eau de toilet” is a matter of how diluted with alcohol or scented water her finished product will be –the process to make them is the same until that step. She might have smelled a lovely perfume on someone she’d like to try to copy (perhaps at Almack’s in London she caught a whiff of Princess Esterhazy’s scent?), or she may have a recipe on hand. Depending on the quantity she is prepared to bottle and store, she might have to adapt the quantities to what she can manage.

This recipe is one for “approximating” the oldest perfume still being used today, Eau de Cologne, which lent its name to the more generic term “cologne” as a particular strength of perfumes and to “cologne alcohol,” a term used for the alcohol distilled from wine. Based on an Italian formula from the 17th century, Eau de Cologne was first made commercially as a wash and body rub in Cologne, Germany in the early-to-mid 1700’s and became popular after the French court adopted it. Like the French kings, even Napoleon is said to have bathed in it. The original recipe is still secret, but these are agreed upon as basic ingredients:

Oil of bergamot2½ oz.
Oil of lemon (hand-pressed)6 oz.
Oil of neroli pétale3½ oz.
Oil of neroli bigarade1¼ oz.
Oil of rosemary2½ oz.
Alcohol30 qts.

The bergamot and lemon oils are dissolved in the alcohol and distilled, and the rosemary and two types of blood orange are added afterwards. Also key is that only alcohol distilled from wine will give the desired results.

Have you ever used Eau de Cologne? (I remember being given tiny bottles of it as a child.) Do you have a favorite scent you enjoy? Or do you use essential oils for aromatherapy? Or are you allergic, or have you given up using scents in view of the many events that now prohibit them? Please leave me a note in the comments!

Coming in Part 4 (May 24): The Art of Perfumery, Scents for the Sexes, and the Truth about Bay Rum!

We’re at Part 4 in this series –thanks for still reading!! I’m squeezing three different bits of this topic into today’s post. Each one could be a post and covered in so much more detail, but they sort of go together. Bear with me?

MIXING SCENTS

The best perfumes are achieved by combining scents. But how do you know which goes well with which? This is where real artistry, a sensitive nose, and the value of treasured recipes come into the process. Part of the challenge of mixing scents is the very subjective nature of how different people perceive them and the difficulty in categorizing them, something still being studied.

Michael Edwards’s fragrance wheel from 1983 (public domain: Wikipedia.com)

The “fragrance wheel” (aka aroma, perfume or smell wheel or fragrance circle) was invented by an Austrian perfumer and published in 1949 to show the families of smells and their relationship to each other. The concept has undergone multiple revisions since then as science and perfumers have added to our knowledge. But combinations of scents must account not only for the blend of odors, but also how and when the scents in the mix reveal themselves.

Among the many terms in perfumery are the concepts of “top/head”, “middle/heart” and “bottom/base” notes, which refer to the differences. Top notes are lighter and usually are the first impression, which may evaporate in as little as 15 minutes. Middle notes can take some time to develop, but then usually last for a while, giving the perfume its primary identification. Base notes are the longest lasting, often acting as a fixative to prolong the overall effect of the other scents.

See source

The “fragrance pyramid” tries to capture these qualities. Some fragrance wheels try to incorporate these characteristics along with the descriptive categories and can become very complex. You can find many different ones online. I particularly like the one here. But these are modern measures. In the Regency, making perfumes was still more art than science.

Keeping track of combinations that worked well was important. Perfumery as an art goes back at least 5,000 years to the ancient Egyptians, but the first-known written record dates to 1200 BCE in Mesopotamia. Indians, Persians, Arabs and Romans all left written records about making perfumes. The first “modern” perfume, meaning essential oils dissolved in alcohol, was developed in 1370 for the Queen of Hungary. So-called Hungary Water became known across Europe but supposedly the recipe was lost (although the 1784 Toilet of Flora mentions it as a remedy to both cleanse and strengthen the body, made from rosemary, pennyroyal and marjoram flowers mixed with conic brandy.

Remember Floris, where this series began? Nearly three centuries of custom-blended formulas are recorded in ledgers stored carefully and still kept strictly secret. Our heroine’s family recipe for the scent she is making in her stillroom (be it personal perfume, smelling salts, or scent for soap) might have been handed down through many generations and could be a family secret. I mentioned Princess Esterhazy’s perfume in Part 3, after discovering this entry in E. Rimmel’s 1867 book on perfumery which calls “Bouquet d’Esterhazy” “an old renowned perfume, a rival of Cologne water; the name derived from a noble Hungarian family.” Two quite different formulas, one French and one German, are given for it.

Household recipe books in the Regency might include perfumes as medicinal remedies, beauty aids or grooming products. Despite the Toilet of Flora’s claim to be “for the ladies”, the separation of particular perfumes into distinct categories as well as the idea of identifying them as male or female was only just beginning in the first quarter of the 19th century.

(applying hair powder –illust from E. Rimmel’s book)

SCENTS FOR THE SEXES

In Part 3 I mentioned Napoleon’s bathing in Eau de Cologne by the gallon. (Apparently he also drank it.) Wikipedia says that he used “Two quarts of violet cologne…each week, and…sixty bottles of double extract of jasmine every month.” You might think that his use of what some consider “feminine” fragrances was eccentric (or simply French), but you would be wrong. During the Regency, barbers might just as easily have used a rose pomade on a man’s hair or a jasmine scented shaving lotion as one with a more “masculine” woody or spice scent.

Interestingly, Napoleon’s wife Josephine was said to have favored musk, a very strong scent, one used often as a base note and fixative in modern men’s scents. The same Wikipedia article says “she used so much that sixty years after her death the scent still lingered in her boudoir.” Other sources say she also liked to use vanilla, woody scents, and imported patchouli and tonka bean (fragrances not now considered as feminine as floral scents would be.) Patchouli (a woody herb in the mint family that smells “musky-sweet”) was also used by the Indian exporters of fine cashmere shawls to scent their products. I read an account of a French maker of imitation shawls who went to great lengths to obtain the scent to make his shawls seem more authentic. (Muslins, too, were scented with a special characteristic sachet powders).

Commemorative medal of Empress Josephine

As with so many other things in the transitional 19th century, assigning gender identity to different scents really sharpened when the large scale commercial production of perfumes and the discovery of synthetics increased the availability of perfumes and inspired marketers to promote the concept. It’s “modern” and also mostly just in Western culture. The fact that our Regency characters could wear any scent they liked free of gender associations presents one of those conundrums we writers run into from time to time—the conflict between what is accurate to the period and what is acceptable to our readers.

If we present our manly romance hero smelling like jasmine or violets, what does that do to his masculine image for the uninitiated reader? Certainly we can solve it by swathing him in the scents of cedar wood and cloves on the basis of his personal preference, but I do wonder if the lack of any specifically “men’s” scents in the Regency period might have led to the controversial use of Bay Rum by heroes in some of our books?

I have a theory, and won’t mind at all if I am proven wrong, but I just wonder if the idea of Bay Rum for Regency heroes might have started with Georgette Heyer. Does anyone know? I think I used it in one of my early books, and know I’ve read it in others. It sounds rather manly, doesn’t it? It did become popular in the 19th century and was still very popular for men when GH was writing, so the theory doesn’t seem crazy.

bay tree oil and leaves

THE TRUTH ABOUT BAY RUM

The truth about Bay Rum is more complicated than you might think. The reason is simple: bay tree (aka bay berry tree) leaves were used for a variety of purposes for centuries by native West Indies people without any particular written record. (note this is not the same leaf or plant as the bay leaves used in European cooking). Islanders used the leaves as an aromatic, fumigant, and insect repellent, hanging branches in their homes or burning the leaves to drive away mosquitoes. They used it as an emollient sponged on the skin to fight fevers or pain, but also to heal cuts or bruises, as the oil has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties besides being soothing and refreshing. They believed it could stimulate hair growth and fight dandruff. Slaves and pirates rubbed the leaves on their skin to heal sunburn and in close living quarters to fight body odors from long hours of hard work under a hot sun.

Bay rum smells so good it has been touted as an anti-depressant, creating a sense of well-being and confidence. Scents commonly identified with it include cinnamon, clove, allspice, oak, sweet vanilla, eucalyptus, musk, and other spices.

No one knows for certain when or by whom the leaves were first soaked in rum to extract and liquefy the oils and prolong the scent, but production of “Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil” in the West Indies dates to the early 17th century. Was it rum-swilling pirates as some theorize? Native islanders? Or slaves whose labor produced the rum? At any rate, it seems likely that a basic form of bay rum was known and in use in the islands soon after. No one knows when other ingredients such as lime or spices were first added, either. Certainly, the British were intimately involved with slavery and trade in the West Indies, so the local cure-all must have been known to them.

antique print -St John (public domain)

Does this mean your Regency hero can wear Bay Rum? Probably not (unless he’s a pirate, or…). Given the mindset of most 19th century British men, the fact that the local people or the slaves used it might automatically taint it as unfit/unfashionable for their own use. I suspect supply was also an issue, as it was most likely only produced within households for the locals’ own use. It was not available commercially.

That only changed sometime after 1838, when a Danish chemist (Albert Heinrich Riise) in the islands began exploring the distillation process and refined the technique and recipe for producing bay rum as a standardized, diluted commercial product. (On this basis some sources claim he “invented” it.) He started selling it under the name A.H. Riise Apothecary, primarily as a cologne/after-shave and manufactured in large quantities. How long this took is not clear, but by 1861 bay rum was well-known in the U.S. but still little-known in Europe, according to an article about it in the American Journal of Pharmacy. That Riise won awards for it (the Centennial Medal in 1876, plus awards in New Orleans and Chicago) can’t be disputed. Nor can the fact that it gained a foothold in Britain at about that time, and became a standard offered in barbershops in the late Victorian era and into the early 20th century. As mentioned, very popular at the time Georgette Heyer was writing. It is still sold today by quite a few companies.

We’ve one more important aspect about this topic I didn’t want to skip—the amazing bottles used to hold and store the perfumes. I’ll be posting about that in Part 5 on June 14. I’ll include a list of more sources, too, but here are a few I recommend:

An excellent and comprehensive source for more information about scent and perfumes is: https://perfumepower.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Perfume_Power-Ebook.pdf

For more about essential oils and aromatherapy (also a great fragrance wheel), try: https://www.sacredsoulholistics.co.uk

For more about the classification of different scents and their qualities, try: https://beautyjunkiejax.com/fragrance-classification/

Or this site, which has posts about individual scent ingredients as well as interesting history notes by each century.

Note: all images without attribution in this post are sourced from public domain through Wikimedia Commons.

Did you learn something you didn’t already know in today’s post? Have any answers to my questions? I invite you to leave a comment! Thanks for reading!

We’ve already covered so much in the first four parts of this series since April (see links below), but there’s one more aspect of this topic I just can’t leave out: how to store the scents that were either purchased or home-made. The fabulous perfume containers used by Regency people who could afford them are works of art in themselves, but they also served an important purpose. After all the trouble and expense of creating a wonderful perfume, what good was it if you couldn’t keep it long enough to enjoy using it?

Labradorite, gold, & cameo decorated 18th c bottles

As we saw in Part 1 about Floris (the famous 18th century London perfumery that is still in business), records show that their wealthy clients often brought in their own containers to be refilled on the premises with their custom-blended signature scent. Preserving the quality of those scents was paramount. Let’s see what some of those containers might have looked like! But let’s also consider the practicalities of the storage problem and take a quick glimpse of how past ages met the problem, too.

Scent essential oils need to be protected from four things: air, light, heat, and contamination from other scents. Perfumes combine any number of these oils, but the combined scent achieved must still be protected. A wide variety of materials and sealant techniques have been used since the earliest times to accomplish these aims.

Despite Shakespeare’s eloquence, glass was not always the most ideal choice, especially once distilling in alcohol or using a vinegar base for certain perfumes was introduced, as those substances could etch or erode the glass. Still, glass remained one of the popular choices along with types of stone (alabaster, agate, rock crystal, travertine marble, laboradite), ceramics (faience, terra-cotta, porcelain), metals (silver, gold, even copper in very early periods, and later enameled metal). Historically, scent containers have often been as much—or more–of a luxury item than the perfumes to put in them!

The Egyptians learned glass-making from Mesopotamia, and used both core-formed glass, stone and ceramics for their perfume containers. The lids or stoppers are less well-documented; they may have used wood, leather, straw or clay that did not survive the ages. The Greeks were fond of ceramic containers in shapes from nature, but also used core-formed glass. It was the Romans who invented the technique of blown-glass, and the path to modern glassware opened.

6th century Greek perfume containers
Roman blown glass perfume bottles

By the 16th and 17th centuries, the growing popularity of liquid perfumes meant scent bottles became more elaborate…. And by the 18th century the trends in perfume containers followed the prevailing trends in art. This means a wide variety including enamels and porcelain, but also gold and any combination of fine materials including gemstones and pearls…

1) A small scent bottle meant to be worn as a pendant, of agate, gold, and gemstones (rubies). This 17th-century bottle was added to in later years. (Photos: © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)  

2) Two distinctly different styles of 18th century French ceramic perfume bottles

German and English porcelain in shapes were popular, and many bottles came with their own case, which protected from breakage but also helped protect clear glass bottles from light. This “figurine” style bottle from the mid-18th century (below), is something a Regency miss might have been given by her grandmother!  The auction description notes: “2¾in (7cm) long Derby porcelain perfume bottle and stopper, decorated with a striped cat pursuing two turtle doves up a tree, the base with a seal of a prancing horse and angel. In a shaped leather case”

Elsewhere I found mention that “[perfume bottles] began to be produced in cut glass patterns in the Georgian period, whereupon they were sold in fitted plush-lined cases…. Typically, scent bottles in the 19th century were crafted out of cut glass and then topped off with silver lids. These early glass examples were often made in a flask-shape, and featured a fine chain for suspending them on a chatelaine.”

The pair below have gold tops, which probably cover a smaller glass stopper inside with a ground glass shank to make it as air-tight as possible. (Cork was never used, because it has an odor of its own that could corrupt or contaminate the original perfume in the bottle.)

Ground glass stoppers seem to have been in use from quite early –that’s a side rabbit hole I did not successfully navigate! But at times both the stoppers and the bottle necks might have been covered with animal membrane or vegetable parchment to improve the tight fit, and an outer cap of white glove leather could have been added, as protection from evaporation.

Pendant-style mini-perfume bottles that could be worn (or carried in one’s reticule) continued to be popular throughout the 19th century.

A few more examples of Regency-era bottles that reflect the changing taste of the times:

Regency era perfume bottles (1,2,3, below)

1) an “Empire” brass and crystal perfume bottle. The French particularly favored crystal and cut glass.

2) an oval Louis XVI perfume bottle in gold and enamel decorated in a similar style as pocket watches and snuff boxes of the period often were, “the blue ground inset with a grisaille portrait, and classical figure on the reverse” with jewels (real or paste) decorating the stopper and borders.” (auction description) Note: the gold metal top is probably not the “stopper” but a removable lid/cover that protects and helps to hold the stopper in place. It is probably glass. Such lids often had a chain to keep it attached to the bottle.

3) this one is made of rock crystal with elaborate gold casing.

 Two examples of enamel work: (left) an “18th century Bilston (South Staffordshire) pear-shaped enamel perfume bottle, with topper and chain” and (right) German, also 18th century and formed like an actual pear.

As the 19th century progressed, perfume bottles became another medium for designer artwork and styles became identified with particular perfume brands. But the market also opened up for less expensive perfumes and customers with far more modest incomes, so perfume containers had to be created that would still be attractive and perform the necessary protection while costing less. Today’s perfumes are far less volatile because of the synthetics used in them, but they are still subject to evaporation due to the alcohol content. Wouldn’t you love to have perfume in a fabulous container like some of these beautiful old classics?

In this series I have introduced you to the fascinating world of Regency perfumery, but by necessity I have left a great deal unexplored. Vinaigrettes, for instance. Scented vinegars (aka “toilette vinegars”) were made by combining scent essences with white wine vinegar—rose, for example, or essence of orange-flowers. Smelling salts were developed with the discovery that ammonia crystals, mixed with certain compatible scents, lasted much longer than the liquid variety of smelling bottle or vinaigrette with a soaked sponge. Scents related to rose, nutmeg and cinnamon were recommended. One recipe I saw also used bergamot, lavender, and clove in addition.

I also didn’t talk about all the various kinds of products that were scented in the 18th and 19th centuries. All kinds of toiletry items, of course, including “Venetian chalk” (face powder) and freckle lotions, but my favorites are the items like scented writing desks, sewing baskets, and various boxes for storing other items. How did they make the scent last? These items had no space to accommodate the actual source of the scent.

They did it ingeniously: a piece of very thin leather, such as chamois, or heavy blotting paper was soaked in the desired perfume and then additionally treated with the scent, allowed to dry, and then was encased in a very thin  silk cover, creating a sort of “perfume skin.” This could then be inserted into a desk pad or incorporated into the cover of a sewing basket, stationary or handkerchief box lid, or placed amidst sheets of stationary. They also used perfumed pastes to rub scent into leather goods like belts or other items.

To read more:

Candice Hern’s website has four separate articles worth reading, and she includes good bibliographies:

Other articles online (there are many more):

https://rauantiques.com/blogs/canvases-carats-and-curiosities/aromatic-artistry-perfume-bottles-through-the-ages

https://www.acsilver.co.uk/shop/pc/scent-bottle-history-d129.htm

Books:

Edmund Launert, Scent and Scent Bottles, Barrie & Jenkins, 1974.

Heiner Meininghaus and Christa Habrich, Five Centuries of Scent and Elegant Flacons, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 1998.

I highly recommend the following, both of which are available from Googlebooks:

Eugene Rimmel, The Book of Perfumes, London: Chapman & Hall, 1867

The Toilette of Flora, London: J. Murray and W. Nicoll, 1784

I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed this series! A deep dive down a rabbit hole, but the exploration has been fun. Here are the links to the other four articles in the “Smelling Sweet in the Regency” series and the dates they appeared here at the Risky Regencies blog:

Part 1: Beyond Floris April 12, 2021

Part 2: Beyond Floris part 2 (Stillroom Magic) April 26, 2021

Part 3: Making Sense of Making Scents May 10, 2021

Part 4: The Art of Mixing Scents, Scents for the Sexes, and the Truth about Bay Rum May 24, 2021

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