Everything’s coming up roses (and lilies and jasmine and violets)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man or woman in possession of natural body odour is most definitely in want of something to cover it up. At least, in today’s society, it certainly seems to be considered unacceptable to smell like unadulterated human in polite company (except in sporting situations or extreme, unavoidable situations – running from Godzilla comes to mind). In day to day life, we are expected to smell nice, or at least neutral, necessitating the application of a lot of perfume and deodorant in a never-ending crusade against the social iniquity of body odour.

It should come as no surprise to realise that this is not a new phenomenon, even if the use and popularity of perfume and deodorant has grown significantly in the past century. In the 19th century, certainly, the fragrance industry was a flourishing one. One (English) set of statistics from 1881, for example, claimed that Europe and British India consumed approximately 150,000 gallons of handkerchief perfume yearly (for something usually measured in drops, that is a LOT). Furthermore, English revenue from Eau de Cologne cashed in at around £8000 annually and the total English revenue from other imported perfumes at £40,000 per year, a fairly significant amount by the standards of the time (New Zealand Herald 27/08/1881: 7).

Perfume illustration and rhyme. Image:

Perfume illustration and rhyme. Image: Auckland Star 21/12/1929: 10.

The wonderfully named ‘scent farms’ on which the floral foundations of these perfumes were grown offer similarly substantial statistics on the provision of hundreds of thousands of pounds of flowers and blossoms to perfume distilleries throughout the world. One single distillery in France used approximately 100,000 pounds of acacia flowers, 140,000 pounds of rare flower leaves, 32,000 pounds of jasmine blossoms and 20,000 of tuberose blossoms in one year (Wairarapa Daily Times 26/03/1884: 2). I know, rationally, that these quantities must have been delivered and used over the course of the whole year, but I really can’t help imagining what that many flowers would look like delivered on the doorstep all at once (utterly delightful and horribly, traumatically allergy inducing, I think).

All of this perfume was eagerly and, in some cases, insanely, devoured by the bromidrophobic Victorian public (apparently, bromidrophobia is the fear of body odour – the things you learn in archaeology!). Contemporary accounts range from the faintly disparaging description of “the ballroom where the frou-frou of smart femininity exhales a violet fragrance” to tales of insane fads like the injection of artificial fragrance beneath the skin. To take it even further, one report on the “perfumes which ruin lives” recounts the stories of several people who inhaled or consumed perfume to the point of addiction, ill-health and death (Otago Witness 4/02/1897: 49).

Article on the popular fad of injecting perfumes subcutaneously. Image:

Article on the popular fad of injecting perfumes subcutaneously. Image: Auckland Star 11/03/1899: 2.

People didn’t just use artificial fragrance on themselves, however. Perfume was used to improve the smell of all manner of things, from clothing and handkerchiefs to notepaper and, memorably, butter. There were even perfume pills, made to be carried around in handbags and pockets as a neat and tidy repository of pleasant aromas. We’ve talked about the smells of life in the Victorian era here before on the blog, both inside and outside the house: in the perfumed accoutrements of daily life, there’s another smell to be considered (perhaps a response to some of the more unsavoury aromas people suffered through in the past).

Description of perfumed butter from 1894.

Description of perfumed butter from 1894. Image: Bruce Herald 19/10/1894: 3.

It’s interesting, then, considering the obvious popularity of fragrances amongst the Victorian population, to learn that we find comparatively few perfume bottles on archaeological sites here in Christchurch. They’re not rare, but they’re not common either. Those that we do find tend to be predominantly the products of European or English manufacturers, such as J. M. Farina, Eugene Rimmel and Piesse & Lubin. The one exception seems to be Murray & Lanman’s Florida Water, made in America.

Piesse & Lubin perfume bottle found in Christchurch.

Piesse & Lubin perfume bottle found in Christchurch. Piesse & Lubin were established in London in 1855 and continued to manufacture perfumes and related products into the 20th century. Image: G. Jackson.

Eugene Rimmel and Jean Maria Farina were both titans of the perfume (and cosmetics, in Rimmel’s case) industry during the 19th century. Rimmel was the son of a French perfumer, who moved to London in 1820 to manage a perfumery on Bond Street, before opening his own establishment in 1834 with his son (aged 14 at the time). The company became hugely successful, expanding from perfumes to sell a range of cosmetics, hair products and personal hygiene items: they’re still one of the biggest cosmetic manufacturers in Britain today (Rimmel 2015). As far as perfumes went, Rimmel sold a range of fragrances and related products, from perfume vaporisers and fountains to lavender water and “toilet vinegar”, advertised as a “tonic and refreshing adjunct to the Toilet or Bath, a reviving perfume and a powerful disinfectant” (Nelson Evening Mail 28/02/1884: 1). He secured a royal warrant for his efforts, being named as the official perfumer to both Queen Victoria and the Princess of Wales (Wellington Independent 10/04/1866: 3).

Rimmel bottle base found in Christchurch. Image: G. Jackson.

Rimmel bottle base found in Christchurch. Image: G. Jackson.

J. M. Farina, on the other hand, was famous as the name behind the ubiquitous Eau de Cologne, the fragrance that took its name from Cologne, Germany, the town in which the Farina family had been based since the early 18th century (Farina 2015). As it happens, one of the Farina bottles found in Christchurch, despite being associated with the family name, was in fact produced and named after the establishment of another Cologne based perfumery run by the Mulhens family. The famous 4711 eau de cologne was first made by Wilhelm Mulhens at the end of the 18th century and named for the building in which it was produced. However, before the 4711 brand was adopted in the 1880s, Mulhens marketed his fragrance under the Farina name, leading to some confusion and a lengthy battle with the Farina family (Newton 2013).

Bottle of Mulhens 4711 cologne (left) and the Farina Eau de Cologne (right) found in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

Bottle of Mulhens 4711 cologne (left) and the Farina Eau de Cologne (right) found in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

Interestingly, both the 4711 and the Farina Eau de Cologne seem to have had slightly more masculine overtones, with advertisements making note that – in contrast to Rimmel’s products – “the Prince of Wales has appointed, under Royal Warrant, Johann Maria Farina… to be manufacturer of Eau de Cologne for the Prince of Wales and his Royal Highness’s household” (Wellington Independent 19/11/1873: 3). The notion of perfume and fragrances as ‘gendered’ is a particularly interesting one, and something that I’ll talk about in more detail in next week’s post.

Contemporary descriptions of Eau de Cologne suggest that it had a strong citrus and bergamot fragrance, with one account listing the ingredients as “twelve drops each of essential oils neroli, citron, bergamot, orange and rosemary, along with one drachm of Malabar cardamoms and a gallon of rectified spirit” (Press 23/12/1887: 5). It seems likely that the 4711 had a similar fragrance, although the only description I could find just emphasised the particularly alcoholic base with which the cologne was made (Auckland Star 14/06/1890: 1).

Unfortunately, as far as the other perfumes go, unless the name of the fragrance is embossed on the bottle, we don’t know which ‘flavours’ of perfume were contained within them. Contemporary sources indicate that floral scents were popular, as they are today, with many manufacturers advertising fragrances like jasmine, rose, heliotrope, lily, etc. Others seem to have been specific to the 19th century, with one French company advertising a fragrance with the scent of ‘freshly mown hay.’ There’s even an advertisement for a ‘Geisha’ perfume.

A recipe for the 'celebrated lily of the valley perfume', one of the popular scents of the 19th century. Image:

A recipe for the “celebrated lily of the valley perfume”, one of the popular scents of the 19th century. Image: Lake Wakatip Mail 26/05/1893: 3.

Certain scents were frowned upon: musk was not well liked, with one 1891 article going so far as to suggest that “the King of Holland got a divorce from his wife because she used musk as a perfume. There are many people who think this sufficient cause…” (Oamaru Mail 1/08/1891: 3). And, amusing as that anecdote is, it’s symptomatic of a broader trend in contemporary (and modern) writing on the subject of perfume and the people who wear it. Several of the commentators that I came across talked of individual perfumes as an indication of a person’s character, particularly when it came to women. Even more than a sign of good or bad taste, a person’s perfume seems to have been seen (or sniffed, I suppose) as a manifestation of that person’s personality and place in life.

There’s something really interesting to be untangled here, in terms of how we – now and in the past – use personal fragrance as a way to define, maintain and reinforce individual and collective identity. Just think about how much your perfume says about you (or others): is it feminine, masculine, modern, old fashioned, cheap, expensive, designer, celebrity, professional, flirty, playful, down to earth, clean or any one of the other identity markers we use to describe the way we smell? It’s a really fascinating aspect of social behaviour but, for the sake of space and our attention spans, one that we’ll save for next week’s post.

Jessie Garland


 Auckland Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Farina, 2015. Farina: the birthplace of Eau de Cologne. [online] Available at www.farina1709.de.

Nelson Evening Mail. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Newton, D., 2013. Trademarked: A History of Well-Known Brands, from Airtex to Wrights Coal Tar. The History Press, Gloucestershire.

Oamaru Mail. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Otago Witness. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Rimmel, 2015. About Rimmel. [online] Available at www.us.rimmellondon.com.

Wairarapa Daily Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Wellington Independent. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

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