Feminine, masculine, grounds for divorce: the social effects of wearing perfume in the 19th century

When it comes to personal fragrance (continuing on from our post a couple of weeks ago), exactly which perfumes and deodorants we choose to wear can reveal a lot about us, as individuals and as a society. How we define ‘smelling nice’, for example, can vary depending on factors like the identity of the individuals present, their gender, the strength of the perfume or the context in which it is worn. A strong perfume in an enclosed space (on a plane, perhaps, with no chance of escape) can be the opposite of nice, for example, and it’s no secret that there are noticeable differences in the smells deemed attractive for men and women. In truth, many perfumes can be said to reinforce gender distinctions, through socially acceptable or traditional notions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ scents.

There’s a certain level of subjectivity – we do, after all, wear scents that we like personally – but perfumes are, unquestionably, involved in a wider social discourse in which the way we choose  to smell says something about who we are, whether we want it to or not.  Really, we only have to look at modern advertisements for perfumes and deodorants to see how much the way we smell is entangled with popular notions of, say, femininity or masculinity (and other aspects of social identity – wealth, status, elegance, refinement, desirability, etc). Whether those advertisements do this by choosing to challenge those stereotypes (Chanel, I’m looking at you) or reinforcing them (Old Spice, without a doubt), they’re still very much working from the basis that our personal fragrance is not just a fragrance.

Old Spice advertisement. The manliest of fragrances, apparently. Image:

Old Spice advertisement. The manliest of fragrances, apparently. Image: Riggs Partners.

People have been wearing perfume for a very long time, and it’s always been a marker of personal identity. In older societies, for example, perfume would have said something about the wealth of the wearer and their ability to afford frivolities like artificial scent. It still does, to a degree, just not for all perfumes: wearing an easily recognisable and expensive perfume today immediately implies that the wearer has a certain level of disposable income (or is willing to skimp on other things to afford it). Many perfumes today play to this, using images of wealth and luxury to see their fragrances (Dior, looking at you this time).

In the 19th century, perfume became inextricably entangled with gender. Some studies have suggested that the gender distinction in the perfume industry emerged out of early 19th century changes in society and social structure. With the growing prominence of the ‘bourgeoisie capitalists’ came a new set of social values, which included new perspectives on masculinity and femininity. In particular, one researcher suggests that “it was absolutely not done for men to spend their money on such ‘wasteful frivolities’. To put it bluntly, the modern (male) capitalist had better things to do, and with the exception of a small group of male artists and dandys [and there’s a stereotype all in itself], perfume became the exclusive domain of women” (Aspria 2005).

By the latter half of the 19th century, a brief scan of contemporary writing indicates that perfume was becoming more and more gendered, especially towards women. Although men did wear artificial fragrance (something that became increasingly acceptable in the early 20th century), perfume seems to have been a large part of the Victorian ideal of the proper, feminine woman (and, it follows, the absence of floral scents with an ideal of masculinity). It’s not so much that every perfume wearer was a proper lady, but rather that every proper lady wore perfume – of the correct strength and correct fragrance, of course. Lord help anyone who wore musk.

More than just a fragrance, the wrong perfume (musk, again, no surprises there) could even be blamed for the breakdown of a marriage, the transformation of “affection into aversion”, the “unwillllingness to marry which is one of those difficult questions which modern Governments at census times periodically have to consider .”

More than just a fragrance, the wrong perfume (musk, again, no surprises there) could even be blamed for the breakdown of a marriage, the transformation of “affection into aversion” and the “unwilllingness to marry which is one of those difficult questions which modern Governments at census times periodically have to consider.” Image: Hastings Standard 19/03/1904: 2.

There were numerous articles and advertisements in which various scents were discussed in correlation with certain feminine ideals, some even going so far as to describe the character traits found in women wearing particular scents. Significantly, all of these descriptions used terminology like ‘dainty’, ‘warm-hearted’, ‘unassuming’, ‘quiet temperament’ and ‘lovable if not very strong nature’ (ouch). One article described how “the suggestion of an ethereal atmosphere in which a slight and delicate fragrance has a part” immediately spoke of the wearer’s refinement, charm and a ‘gracious personality’.  Another writes that  “delicate odours, such as violet, heliotrope or orris root, are always permissible…a moderate use of a faint, suggestive odour, such as wood violet, for instance, is all in the way of a perfume that is allowable by a really refined woman.”

Article on the various character traits associated with the use of certain perfumes. Image:

Article on the various character traits associated with the use of certain perfumes. Image: Timaru Herald 31/03/1900: 6.

This positive ideal to which women were encouraged to aspire is reinforced again by descriptions of the negative image: the “superabundant use of the cheap stuff” is discussed in terms of “artificiality, vulgar and unredeemed [women]” (New Zealand Herald 19/09/1913:10). The claim that “a woman who saturates her belongings with strong perfumes…is likely to be mean-spirited, over-ambitious, strong-willed, but uncertain in temper” becomes an automatic judgement and dismissal of a person’s character, derived entirely from the way she smells. It simultaneously defines the identity of that person and reinforces the social ideal that is her contrast: the refined, demure, calm and content woman who only ever wears the appropriate level of perfume. It’s also, in a Victorian context, tied into the widely held belief in the importance of moderation and the physically, morally and socially debilitating effects of excess in any aspect of life.

Of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the reality of life accurately reflected these social ideals as they were discussed in the written record (or vice versa), even if they were seemingly widespread. No matter what we read in historical accounts, we don’t know that people actually believed that perfume could develop character, that someone meeting a new acquaintance would smell roses and think “she must be imaginative and warm-hearted”, or that the ‘ideal of femininity’ discussed so often in writing was as prevalent or as valued in day to day life.

The archaeological record is important here, as another data set against which we can compare written information. The contrast allows us to tease out the similarities and differences between the ways in which people present themselves (and others) in writing and the ways they do so in the physical world. Even more importantly, we can examine why those differences exist: the disconnect between written and physical history can be as important in understanding human behaviour in past societies as the actual records themselves.

For example, despite the increasing popularity of perfumes in the written record towards the end of the 19th century, especially for women (the number of perfume advertisements increases exponentially in the 1880s and 1890s), we don’t find that many perfume bottles on archaeological sites here in Christchurch. And we have to wonder why. Is it because of something specific to Christchurch? Were people here less into perfumes than elsewhere in the world? Is it the result of other social behaviours: i.e. rubbish disposal practices, reuse of perfume bottles or other ways of obtaining perfumes?

We do know that it was possible to make your own perfumes. There were several recipes and detailed instructions available for the self-sufficient Victorian woman (they’re always directed at women) who wished to make her own fragrance. Perhaps this was happening in Christchurch? I don’t know. As an aside, there’s another ‘ideal’ perpetuated through these do-it-your own perfume instructions for women: as well as constructing and reinforcing a concept of femininity, they also touch on the ‘industrious woman’, part of the ideal of domesticity that was so prevalent in the 19th century.

Instructions on how to make your own perfumes.

Instructions on how to make your own perfumes. Most perfumes, as this article suggests, were alcohol-based, leading to several accounts of people drinking them recreationally. Image: Clutha Leader 8/01/1892: 7.

In another example, one might be inclined, given the large quantity of literature relating perfumes to femininity, to see perfume bottles on archaeological sites as an indication of the presence of women. Yet, many of the perfume bottles we’ve come across (and I’m only talking about the small proportion that can be identified to brand, here) are brands or fragrances that were used by men as much, if not more than, women. Eau de Cologne, in particular, is increasingly associated with the ‘masculine toilette’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although it’s certainly also used by women (Star 16/7/1904: 3West Coast Times 2/5/1907: 2) . Both Florida Water and the 4711 fragrance also appear to have been used by men as well as women.

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. Both of these appear to have been used as much by men as by women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Image: J. Garland.

What does this mean? Is it just a result of our sample? Maybe all the unlabelled, unbranded perfume bottles contained stereotypical feminine floral scents and we just don’t know. Or does it follow that notions of femininity and the ‘proper woman’ were different in Christchurch? That notions of masculinity were different? Are we seeing an example of a division between a social commentary largely derived from life and society in Britain and the distant reality of life in New Zealand? Am I speculating too much? Possibly. In truth (and we don’t have enough information to figure it out yet), the answer is probably more complex than any one of these possibilities. It usually is.

All the same, questions like these are an excellent reminder of how much the tangible things we use in our daily lives – like perfume – are connected to the intangible social constructs we navigate through every day, be they gender, personal identity or moral values. This material culture that we’re recovering from these sites, these pieces of broken glass, broken ceramic, broken rubbish – they’re more than just physical objects. They were part of a socio-cultural discourse – active agents in the construction, maintenance and transformation of human behaviour, of our social ideals and perceptions, especially regarding the perception of certain social stereotypes – in this case, the ‘ideal’ Victorian woman.

Basically, things aren’t ever really just things: they’re (in every sense of the word) artefacts of our lives, past and present, intrinsically entangled with who we are and, often, who we want to be.

Jessie Garland


Aspria, M., 2005. Sociologist Marcello Aspria: interview about perfume and gender. [online] Available at: www.boisdejasmin.com/2005/10/perfume_and_gen.html.

Aspria, M., 2005-2009. Scented pages. [online] Available at: www.scentedpages.com/default.html. 

Lindqvist, A., 2012. Preference and gender associations of perfumes applied on human skin. In Journal of Sensory Studies 27(6): 490-497.

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

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

West Coast Times. [online] Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

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