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Tag Archives: Perfume History

(This rabbit hole sprouted a few tunnels and wound up as a multi-part series! I hope this topic interests you as much as it did me.) We’ll start with Floris first, before we explore everything else.

If you don’t already know, Floris was the premiere London supplier for perfumery in the Regency, and it is still operating at 89 Jermyn Street in its original elegant St. James location, still family owned and heading into the 9th generation of management! Sadly, I missed a chance for a virtual tour via Instagram just over two weeks ago led by the current family “nose.” How far we have come from Regency times!

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27045701

The shop was founded in 1730 by an enterprising immigrant barber from the Spanish-owned island of Minorca, Juan Famenias Floris. Originally employed in a London hotel, he soon seized the opportunity to open his own barber shop in the midst of the men’s clubs district where business was sure to thrive.

He met Elizabeth Hodgkiss in London and after they married they lived above the shop, soon expanding the business to sell perfume and hair combs imported from Minorca, as well as shaving brushes, hatpins, toothbrushes, fine-tooth combs and razor straps all made on the premises, plus scented mouthwashes, hair products and shaving products. Floris recreated scents from his homeland for clients using a refreshing alcohol base, offering among others jasmine, orange blossom, and ‘Lavender’, the one that made him most famous (still available today).

He and Elizabeth had seven children. When the sons were old enough, they studied the perfumery arts in France. Son Robert traveled through France, Spain and Italy to source and send back exotic ingredients the perfumes required. The firm’s website shows one of Robert Floris’s “crossed” letters (written in two directions to save paper) from this pre-Regency era.

Combs, a simple item we take for granted today, were difficult to make in pre-industrial times, hand crafted from ivory or tortoiseshell. (for a look at some Regency combs, see this 2018 post of mine) The fine quality of combs provided by Floris actually earned them their first Royal Warrant (of 17) in 1820 as ‘Smooth Pointed Comb-makers’ to George IV, not long after his ascension to the throne. The much-photographed shop front on the ground floor dates from that time, proudly exhibiting the original coat of arms that came with that first warrant.

Although the beautiful Spanish mahogany cabinets inside the shop are Victorian (purchased from the Great Exhibition in 1851), the flavor of what the shop must have been like earlier is still preserved, down to the iron boot-scraper outside the door. (There is also now a small museum room at the back.) Many famous (and infamous) personalities from British history have been connected with the shop. According to Floris, Admiral Lord Nelson kept a room on the third floor for Lady Emma Hamilton and would write orders to be placed for her while he was oversees. As you might imagine, Beau Brummell would discuss his current fragrances at length with Mr Floris. Wikipedia says “Mary Shelley, whilst abroad, sent friends instructions to purchase her favourite combs and toothbrushes from Floris.”

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37074064

Perfumes from Floris were a luxury item for the wealthy or for very special gifts. The well-heeled patrons could purchase perfume by bringing their own bottles to be filled with their fragrance of choice. (We’ll take a look at those bottles in a later installment.) A wealthy aristocrat in Regency London could commission the parfumers at Floris to create a custom scent especially for them. How decadent do you want to get? Naturally, having something that no one else had or could have was an essential mark of status. The formulas were recorded in the company’s special ledgers and archived so they could continue to be made on demand for each customer.

Interestingly, Floris in recent years has revived this “bespoke” service from their past. London Perfect has a 2017 interview with Edward Bodenham, the latest descendant to be put in charge of perfumery at Floris, where he talks about the process.  The company has also revisited its extensive formula archives to issue its recent “Ledger Series” of eight scents, which includes two available in the Regency era, Stephanotis (1786), and Red Rose (1807). Some of the products still on sale date back to the mid 18th century, such as White Rose, Limes, Lilly of the Valley and No. 89.

But having a unique scent was not an exclusive luxury reserved for only the wealthiest in society. Many a young Regency miss (or her brother) from a reasonably prosperous family might have worn a scent of her own, or at least of her family’s, devising, created in the still-room at home. We’ll take a look at this aspect of the topic in part 2 of this series in two weeks.

Meanwhile, do you ever use perfume? Have a favorite scent? Have you ever had a chance to visit Floris in London? Please let me know in the comments! Oh, and P.S.! My last post (March 5) was only “out front” for two days because of a scheduling mix-up, but it included the reveal that I’m offering a free Regency short story now to anyone who signs up for my newsletter. Here’s the link for that if you’re interested: Gail’s newsletter

The heroine in my current work-in-progress, an earl’s daughter, is an athletic, active, outdoors-y sort of young woman but she does have one bit of domestic expertise. After her bookish sister has lectured on the medicinal properties of some spring flowers, Honoria tells the hero, “I do have some skills in the still-room, but I will confess I am more likely to make an essence of violets to flavor biscuits or sugar drops, and to turn the cowslips into wine before I would use them as medicines.” (Yes, her sweet tooth has a role in the story. <g>)

17th century still room

Making wines and distilling flavor essences as well as making medicines were all tasks performed in a large home’s still-room (alternatively “stillroom”, and “still room”). As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, well-to-do Regency people who didn’t wish to purchase expensive perfumes from merchants like Floris might make their own scents in their estate still-rooms as well.

Exactly what was a stillroom?

I love this description from Wikipedia: “a working room, part science lab, part infirmary, and part kitchen.” It was always a separate room, really a small “auxiliary kitchen” that provided space for making herbal remedies and other health products, creating essential oils, brewing and distilling beer and wines, making jams and preserving food by fermentation and pickling, among other functions, all out of the way of the business taking place in the main kitchen. It would usually be equipped with its own fireplace/stove, work table, still, shelves and storage cupboards or dresser and racks for hanging dried herbs, etc. Finished products might be moved to a storage room or stored in the stillroom if space allowed.

The name is a shortened form of “distillery room.” According to author Sharon Lathan (whose wonderful article (The Georgian Kitchen) includes a section on the still-room), The History of Hengrave claims “The earliest recorded “still-room” was at Hengrave Hall, Suffolk, in 1603….” Merriam-Webster’s dictionary dates the word (not hyphenated) to 1710. But distillery rooms are ancient. They were not only features in medieval castles (sometimes as a separate structure), but even date back as far as the Romans and Greeks, who had dedicated rooms for creating herbal medicines and distilling essentials oils from plants including roses, lavender, and rosemary.

Definitions of the still-room as “a room connected with the kitchen where liqueurs, preserves, and cakes are kept and beverages (such as tea) are prepared” (Merriam-Webster) are referencing the modern role the stillroom took on when its former functions gradually became obsolete. Some 21st century hotels and restaurants still have a “stillroom” used for these later purposes, and lists of equipment and definitions can be confusing because of this fact. But the most basic purpose of the stillroom is intact –it removes these functions and procedures from the busy main kitchen and gives them their own space.

Late period still-room at Tatton Hall (photo: wikimedia commons)

What changed? The commercial availability of items that were at one time made in the still-rooms of estates—medicines, perfumes, cosmetics, cleansers, alcoholic beverages, even the essential oils used in all these things and as flavorings for food. As physicians and apothecaries (even barber shops, as we saw in Part 1) became more numerous and widespread, the need for these items to be made at home diminished, and in many cases, including perfumes, the quality of the commercial products (at least then) was better than could be achieved at home because of the greater access to ingredients. By the mid-19th century (1860’s) references relegate the still-room to the province of the housekeeper or stillroom maid, but also note that “our grandmothers” used to be the ones who presided there –in other words, the lady of the house in the Regency part of the century and earlier.

For centuries, the lady of the manor was responsible for handing down the precious knowledge from previous generations and teaching her daughters the skills to produce the life-saving substances the household and all its dependents (staff, servants, tenants…) needed. Treating illnesses and preserving food were skills that also enhanced a young woman’s value as a marriage partner. Work in the still-room required the ability to read the receipts, keep records and follow precise procedures, so an educated woman was still required even after the responsibility devolved to servants. In the later 19th century, the position of stillroom maid was a possible precursor to one day becoming a housekeeper, a very respected position.

Starting the process…

Let us now picture our young Regency miss in the still-room at her parents’ country estate, with a basket full of flowers she has gathered from the garden or the fields. Perhaps she has a family receipt for a particular scent that her mother and grandmother also enjoy, or perhaps she plans to experiment with such a receipt to try to create a new scent that will be her own.

(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

What will she need?

To begin, she’ll need an “essential oil” that captures a fragrance for the basis of her scent design. More than one if she plans to create a mix. Common flowers, herbs, spices and fruits are her most likely available sources—she wouldn’t have access to the exotic ingredients the commercial perfumers would have, like these:

48 aromatic oils from India shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851

She’ll need to know which of these ingredients are easier or harder to work with to produce the oils. In our period, there were four ways to extract those: 1) distillation, 2) expression, 3) maceration, and 4) absorption. So, she’ll also need to know which of these methods works best for the substances she’s planning to use.

In Part 3 (May 10), we’ll look at Recipes and Family Skills –how scents were made (including why Lily-of-the-Valley would not be one your heroine could make at home!).

Lily-of-the-Valley

Meanwhile, what stillroom skills have you practiced? Have you ever canned your own produce, made beer or wine, created a tincture, or even distilled an essential oil? There is a movement to go back to home-made perfumes and remedies today, because of all the chemicals now used in commercial products. (Some commercial businesses are also catering to this trend.) I would love to hear about what you’ve done!

P.S. Sharon Lathan’s article (The Georgian Kitchen, linked above and here) has some great photos I’m not sharing here because of copyright concerns. Well worth a look, however! She also includes a great list of items that a stillroom might produce. Since my focus in this series is specifically on scents, I resisted sharing that here. (rabbit hole side tunnel!!)

I also found these on another source that was slanted much later than Regency, but still pre-dates refrigeration and was based on records from various estates: “some products of the Stillroom could be Cherries in Brandy, Strawberries in Madeira, dried Apricots, and pickling anything from onions to cabbage. Spicey chutneys influenced by contact with the Indian sub-continent and Piccallili. In those days there was also the need to pickle eggs, as hens naturally go ‘off lay’ during winter.”

Pickled eggs are not a favorite of mine, but cherries in brandy? Yes, please! Perfumes, soaps and medicines were only part of the magic being practiced in the still-room.

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!

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