Currently, the use of perfume is something completely normal and every day. We use fragrances or cologne to smell good, to please others, to feel good … But since the beginning of our times has not always been like this.
You will know Perfume origin, what it was used for, how it was made, with what ingredients. How its evolution has been, traditions, myths that have surrounded the world of aromas and many more curiosities. Do you fancy it?
History of Perfume
Origin and meaning of the word perfume
To begin we want to inform you where the word perfume comes from. Well, it comes from the union of two Latin words: ” per ” and ” fumare “, whose meaning is “produce smoke”.
This is so since in its origins, the only way to obtain pleasant smells was burning certain substances whose smoke had a pleasant aroma. Already in our times, the term “perfume”, by definition, refers to an aromatic liquid used by both women and men.
Origin of perfume
The first indications that we have that man already used fragrant aromas or perfumes date from the sixth millennium BC in the Middle East (8,000 years ago). Burning myrrh, cassia or tuberose supposed obedience and respect. So the perfume, which at first worked also as deodorant, was an element of luxury.
In the year 3,500 BC the Sumerians anointed their body with oils and alcohol of jasmine, honeysuckle, lily and hyacinth. But it was not something that was left to chance or to the criteria of each individual.
Each part of the body required a different aroma. Sumer was at that time the most complex and advanced civilization in the world and the Sumerians are considered the first to create and develop perfumes and ointments.
1,500 years before Christ, in ancient India, in the millennial religious books of the Vedas. You can find the word tie that means smell, but also breath, smoke, and essence. It also had cosmetic uses and embellishments.
The Phoenicians were the first to trade in perfumes almost 4,000 years ago: vials and essence bottles of flowers and plants were transported from East to West by the Mediterranean. It was a versatile product, used in different areas of social and religious life, but also as a medical substance.
Of the primitive religious ceremonies, where the smell was very important, some of those perfumes, such as the incense and the botafumeiro, have survived to this day. There was the talk of the smell of divinity as we still speak today of the smell of holiness.
From this point on, the most important civilizations and peoples used the perfume and perfected it, both in quality and variety. There were both perfumes for women and perfumes for men. Let’s see them with a little more detail:
History of perfume in Egypt
In Ancient Egypt, the basis of the first perfumes and the first medicines was the same thing: juices, fruit pulp, juice of the succulent part of the plants, the starch of oil seeds, honey, oils. A bas-relief preserved in the Museum of the Louvre, from the seventh century BC, describes how the lily flower was harvested and pressed to obtain its perfume.
In ancient Egypt the religious use of aromatic substances was basic. Something that will not surprise you since the origin of the perfume is liturgical: the waters used in the ritual and management of the temple were odorous waters, and with perfumed water, the sacred images were cleaned.
In general, the use of perfumes required a burner because, as the etymology of the term explains, the fragrance was spread or diffused through the smoke: perfume (remember what we have explained earlier in origin and meaning of the word perfume). The faithful thus received their aroma and stopped perceiving less pleasant odors.
Cleopatra herself authored a cosmetically unfortunately lost treaty, smeared her hands with rose oil, saffron, and violets: the kiafi, and perfumed her feet with a lotion made of almond extract, honey, cinnamon, orange blossom, and henna.
History of perfume in Greece
The Greeks mastered the art of spaghetti = extract and then unite the essences of medicinal plants to create lotions and medicines from them. The healing was done by the simple fact of sucking them deeply, thus curing bronchitis or melancholy, physical ills, and evil spirits.
In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates (460 BC – 370 BC) treated certain diseases by perfumed fumigation and aspiration of odors. Even today, osmotherapy is based on the smells that heal and the smells that make you sick.
In Classical Greece men aromatized hair, skin, clothes and even wine. And is that, although they were friends of naturalness, they were interested in perfume. Two thousand and four hundred years ago. It was recommended to rub with peppermint arms and armpits, cinnamon for the chest, almond oil for hands and feet, and marjoram extract for hair and eyebrows.
To such an extreme was the use of perfume in the Hellenic country by young people that the wise and governor Solon (638 BC – 558 BC) came to prohibit for a time the sale of fragrant oils and certain types of perfuming substances.
History of perfume in Rome
In Ancient Rome, the soldier anointed himself with perfumes before entering combat. As a conquering people, it assimilated not only new territories but also new beliefs, techniques, and customs.
The ancient Romans were enthusiasts of perfume. They introduced into Rome, from their campaigns in distant and exotic lands, perfumes unknown until then as glycine, vanilla, lilac or carnation. Under the influence of oriental cultures, aromas then unsuspected such as cedar, pine, ginger, and mimosa acquired importance.
In Ancient Rome, the first union of perfumers was established, the influential ungüentarii, which manufactured three types of ointment:
- Solid, whose aroma had only one ingredient at a time, such as almonds or quince.
- A liquid ointment made with flowers, spices and crushed rubbers in oily support.
- Powdered perfume made with powdered flower petals to which certain spices were added.
Like the Greeks, who surely took their hobby to a great extent, the Romans abused the perfume. They impregnated their belongings, perfumed public places like the theater. You can see the history of the theater to get more information about it.
Nero (37 AD-68 AD), who created the fashion of rose water in the first century, spent more than € 30,000 today (about $ 30,000) in oils for himself and for those invited to a night party. At the funeral of his wife Popea (30 AD-65 AD), he spent the perfume that the perfumers of Arabia were able to manufacture in a year, going so far as to perfume even his mules.
It tells the Latin naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-75), of the first century, that his countrymen were throwing up so much perfume that it was possible to notice their presence at a great distance, and of course, not only women, smelling cinnamon was the masculine fashion of his time. Both excesses alarmed the nascent Christian Church, which condemned waste.
The arrival of Christianity and its messages concerning modesty and humility caused that the use of perfumes by women (the largest consumer of fragrances) practically disappeared. This fact that we have just commented, together with the fall of the Roman Empire, caused the perfume to enter into a great decline in the West.
History of perfume in the East
The next step in the history and evolution of perfume is found in the East, specifically in the Byzantine empire of the fifth century, the natural heir of Rome. As for the fragrances, Byzantium took over when the art of perfumery is concerning and displayed a flourishing industry. Even much larger than that of the Roman Empire. Since it had more proximity to the raw materials for the manufacture of perfumes.
It also helped that they had the collaboration of the aboriginal population of their eastern neighbors, who had a great perfume tradition. Quite the opposite happened with Ancient Rome, which was above all an importer. But it would not be many years before a new perfume power arose: the Arabs.
History of perfume and the Arabs
Although at the moment the territory of Arabia of the south is practically all desert, in antiquity it was completely different. There was abundant vegetation, gardens, and lush forests where a great variety of trees and aromatic plants grew.
Distant Arabia was called by the old classics as ” the land of perfumes “. And it was not for less, because after crossing the desert, to the shores of the Mediterranean continuously came large camel caravans carrying essences and incense. There were multiple commercial routes of perfume from East to West.
But with the arrival of the 7th century in Arabia, a new culture was to emerge, a new civilization with a new religious dogma. Islam is founded and the prophet Muhammad teaches his doctrine, which would rapidly expand from the Middle East to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal).
Muhammad, the founding prophet of this new religion, was a great lover of perfumes. In fact, in the holy book of Islam, the Koran, you can read that when you reach paradise. It will be made up of large gardens and trees, large rivers and a great smell of musk.
It was the Arab civilization that experimented with new perfumes thanks to a new science: alchemy. Applied to the perfume industry, alchemy tried to get “the fifth essence” of plants, extracting the essence of their properties.
The procedure was to distill many times a plant until its qualities were found in another state.
The Arabs perfected the still to distill the alcohol, which they used to obtain the perfume base. In this way, they worked without difficulty these matters, which meant that they elaborated essences quickly. This meant the rapid expansion, commerce, and popularity in the Middle Ages and a revolution in the way of making perfumes.
A short time later, those returning from the crusades with the numerous merchants who returned from the East were also responsible for introducing perfumes throughout the West.
The commercial exchanges between the West and the East had a turning point in the Crusades (1096-1291). The soldiers who returned to Europe from their military campaigns in the Cuzadas brought with them perfumes and essences unknown in their countries.
In the same way, oriental merchants did not stop bringing and offering new fragrances, new smells, and spices to Westerners. So much so, that he returned again the forgotten habit of perfuming as a complement to body grooming.
History of perfume in the Middle Ages
As we have said before, the history of perfumes in the Middle Ages suffers a strong setback. The beginning of this era is strongly influenced by two historical events: the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Christian religion.
The Church, with its commands of modesty and austerity, made the personal aromas and fragrances fall into disuse. The superficial and sensual component that evoked the perfumes was not well seen by the ecclesiastical high places. But it was only for a period of time, the perfume returned and this time it was going to be forever.
The increasingly numerous and strong commercial exchanges between the West and the East, together with the cultural exchanges for the Crusades, made the attitude and sensitivity towards personal hygiene, the use of the bathroom and the fragrance of the body gradually take root. You can see more in the history of the toilet and the bathroom.
This was a milestone for the world of aromas. You must bear in mind that at the beginning, perfumes were used to disguise bad smells. It was a period in which many diseases, such as plague or scurvy, were very common, the streets of the cities had no sewer and gave off some horrible smells.
For that reason, they were born the pomas or pomanders that were basically used by the nobility. And you will ask: what are pomas? Well, a poma is a type of jewel usually made with precious stones, gold or silver, with the shape of a tiny box, kite or container closed with holes. You can see one in the following image:
And … what are pomas for? Inside them essences, herbs or perfumes were introduced. Things that gave off a good smell or soft fragrance. When the person who carried it was with a bad smell, it approached it to its nose and in this way, it could breathe perfumed air for a time.
Normally they were worn hanging from the neck or waist or adorned with elegant chains they held with their hands as if it were a rosary. In this way, with the movement, the fragrance of the essence that was inside was released.
In this period, the dresses and clothes of the ladies of the nobility were made with delicate and very heavy fabrics. For this reason, they were not washed or cleaned with water to avoid damaging them. To always smell good, pomas were also used.
The essences most used at this time to introduce into the pomas were the rose, the agalia, the musk, the lavender, the violet, the sandalwood, and the amber. Curious thing is that currently, all these aromas are still the most used.
In the Middle Ages, there was a concrete event that would mark the history of perfume forever. And is that in 1190 King Philip II of France (1165 – 1223) granted a statute and recognition of the special profession to all perfumers. A fundamental point in the history of perfume in France and throughout the world.
This surprised pleasantly to the union of perfumistas since until that year they were not considered like professionals or craftsmen. From now on they would be recognized as true professionals and could sell their citizens their fragrances at the points of sale that the king had established.
In the same way, the first perfumer schools emerged where young boys learned the profession. If an apprentice managed to finish the four-year studies he was considered a master perfumer.
A master craftsman perfumer is responsible for obtaining the precise formula to obtain the desired aroma and knowing how the perfume is made. He is in charge of reviewing the tasks of mixing ingredients, macerating flowers or pressing petals.
With all this, France was considered in the Middle Ages as the country of perfume. The neighboring countries copied the actions taken by the French monarch and followed his example.
So much so that even some began to make perfumes, such as Queen Elizabeth Piast of Hungary (1305 – 1380), who in 1370 made the first alcohol-based perfume in history: The Water of Hungary or L’eau hongroise.
History of perfume in the Renaissance
Arriving in the Renaissance period (15th and 16th centuries), a rediscovery of Greco-Roman customs began. In addition, the invention of the printing business meant the possibility of printing and easily copying old perfumery treaties.
They were also translated and published in Italian and French, which made it possible for the people to know all the possibilities that ancient fragrances and perfumes had. They could even know how to make homemade perfume.
But surprisingly, at this time one begins again to “forget” personal hygiene. This makes much more recourse to perfumery to disguise the body stench.
For example, instead of bathing assiduously, the ladies placed themselves between the legs and in the armpits perfumed sponges.
As an anecdote of the time, we have that of King Henry IV of France (1553 – 1610), which was neither washed nor perfumed. His wife, on the wedding night, almost fainted. And in some letters of their lovers, you can read nausea they suffered when sharing a bed with the monarch.
In Italy, the cities of Venice and Florence took over from Paris and were the new perfume capitals. With the disappearance of alchemy in favor of chemistry, perfuming art developed remarkably. The quality of the perfumes and the distillation processes of the essences were improved.
Inspired by ancient oriental techniques, the first bottles of blown glass perfume were made in Venice. Later, some glass craftsmen from that area moved to emigrate to Bohemia (part of the current Czech Republic) and Germany. There they found more suitable materials that allowed them to make containers for essences and perfumes that were authentic works of art.
In Renaissance fashion, the use of gloves was necessary (see history of haute couture ). Of course, this garment that was in contact with almost everything should be perfumed. A tiny town in the south of France was famous for the quantity and quality of the gloves it made.
When deciding that they left already perfumed of the factory they began the cultivation of mimosa, jasmine, lavender, roses, and their famous orange trees (to see how it is the orange tree ). Currently, more than 3,000 perfume technicians work in this French town.
History of Perfume in the Baroque
During the Baroque era (seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries), as would happen with customs, science, philosophy, architecture, music (see music history ) and art, the world of perfume was still exploring new concepts and possibilities.
The list of ingredients used in the manufacture of perfumes was increasing. Fragrances, aromas, and perfumes never before “smelled” saw the light for the first time in history.
The same happened with the containers or bottles of perfume. New materials, forms, and concepts were used in its manufacture. Pear-shaped bottles, colored glass, carved, with embedded metals, with illustrations and engravings, etc.
The waters of smell took root in all strata of society and in more nations. Naturally much more in the nobility and aristocracy, since they had more economic power. For example, the French king Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) who was in love with perfumes. The same as Louis XV (1715 – 1774), is known as “the perfumed court”.
Such a peculiar time that there is even a movie of the year 2006 set in the France of the XVII entitled The perfume: the story of a murderer. Based on the novel by Patrik Süskind, his main character has an exceptional sense of smell, which helps him to enter and work in the world of perfumes and colognes.
History of perfume and the French Revolution
In the year 1789, the French Revolution began. Period of great confusion and violence that would bring great changes in France and in many other European countries. As expected, during this period the perfumery market suffers stagnation, but only temporarily.
The people revolted against the monarchy and part of the nobility and ended their lives by passing them by the guillotine, which cut the perfumed heads of these aristocrats. As a curiosity, a new scent with the name of “Guillotine” appeared at this time.
The French Revolution came to an end in 1799 through the coup d’état of Napoleon Bonaparte, giving way to new and hopeful times for the people. As expected, with the arrival of Napoleon’s throne, perfumers would once again boost a large industry by creating new jobs.
From this point, everything went to a higher level. Not only was the pleasant smell of a fragrance important, but it was also so much or more the packaging, the bottle and the advertising that was made of the perfume (you can see history of advertising). This starts to look familiar, right?