A Short and Smelly History of Perfume

Perfume isn't new. Marie Antoinette wore perfume when she was Queen of France. She wasn't even the first queen to wear perfume or engage the services of an official perfume-maker.

Catherine de Medici (also Queen of France, many years earlier) brought with her a man to serve as royal perfumer when she left her native Italy to marry Henri II of France. The perfumer she brought had served the Medici family for many years before embarking with Catherine to France. In Italy, he had been the Medici's official poison-maker. This was a man of considerable professional versatility.

Catherine de Medici was an interesting character. She was the richest woman in the world at the time, not particularly good looking, and the last of a great Italian dynasty that-as you remember-retained the services of a poison-maker on staff. Catherine did not grow up in a lovey-dovey household and her uncles quickly decided that it would be best for all concerned (and by "all" they meant "themselves") if Catherine were to marry into a powerful political family. Meanwhile, the Valois family was ruling one of the most powerful nations on earth, France.

The Valois were powerful, self-absorbed, extremely cultured, and broke. A deal was made to wed Catherine to Henri in 1533. (Both were 14 which was considered a grand age to be married in those days.) Catherine moved to France to be with her new husband. In a few years, Henri II was king, Catherine was queen, and the king had taken on his father's mistress, a woman many years his senior.

Catherine devoted her life to a variety of interests including being the patron of Nostradamus, perfume, and annoying her husband's mistress. When her husband died in a freak accident, she saw her sons ascend to the power while she was pretty much the power behind the throne. What happened in Catherine's day in the world of perfume was that a very skillful Italian perfumer was suddenly introduced to a world of new flowers, plants, and herbs. Back then, perfumers only had natural substances to work and this bounty of new botanicals naturally led to the creation of more floral fragrances. By the time the Bourbons came into power in France, perfume had not only risen to an art, it was regarded as medical necessity. Despite the opulence of the palaces of France, they lacked indoor plumbing.

According to historians who somehow report to know such things, it was not uncommon to find human excrement in the elegant carpeted stairways of the great palaces. Piles could be found in hallways and corridors. With bathing a rarity and a rather liberal interpretation of the word rest room, the world of the French court stank.

One way for the cultured nostrils of the day to survive such an environment was to constantly dab a bit of scent under the nose. It's similar to the approach some coroners use when they apply mentholated ointment to their noses before an autopsy. Besides that, perfume was thought to be antiseptic. When the plague hit Europe, it was thought that perfume would protect those privileged enough to be able to sniff it. This idea of rich people sniffing perfume to mask the gamey and diseased world around them soon gave rise to the perfumed glove.

French artistocrats once enjoyed a tradition of wearing perfume-drenched gloves that allowed them to merely lift a finger to nostril to sheild themselves from the oflactory assaults of their environment. In fact, to this day, glovemaking and perfumery are related arts in France. By the time Marie Antoinette came on the scene, floral perfumes were all the rage. Perfume was no longer seen as a miracle drug, but it was still believed to help dilute or kill the germs from the still-stinking world around the French court.

Perfumes were once restricted to the royal family but by Marie Antoinette's day they were in broader distribution. However, they were so outrageously expensive that only the richest of the rich could afford them. In those days of the court of Versailles, bathing was a rarity. It was not altogether unknown, but more likely reserved for special occasions like birth and death. It is true that men and women at court would wash, but they mainly concentrated on removing thick make-up from their faces using pitchers of cold water and wash basins in their room; scant attention was paid to washing hands or other body parts. Furthermore, clothing of the type worn at court was exorbitantly expensive.

Few people at court, except perhaps the queen, could afford to own more than one or two gowns. Corsets were sometimes worn to assist ladies in these garments but the undergarments we know as panties were unknown at Versailles. Marie Antoinette is known to have worked with a perfumer on a very floral scent.

The formula has been preserved and there is talk of re-creating the original fragrance. If it were available today, it would be used as a fragrance. But Marie Antoinette wore it more to disguise the fact that she never bathed, seldom changed clothes, and was around people who were actually less hygienic than she was. Meanwhile, over in Germany, a little shop in Cologne was working on a light citrus scent that would become more widely distributed. This scent, nicknamed 4711, would one day find itsway to medicine cabinet all over Europe. It's still available today.

Fragrance became more democratic. When regular bathing became vogue and sanitary laws were instituted (along with indoor plumbing) perfume became less "medical" and more cosmetic. At the same time, perfume prices declined. Ordinary people (well, ordinary people with money) could wear perfume and get away with it.

Now perfume has always been a luxury item. Even today, it's an expensive commodity. But the emergence of the middle class (and by that I mean that the world's money was now being controlled by a whole lot more people) and the rise in hygiene created an unprecedented situation in which perfume could be enjoyed for itself. Marie Antoinette wore perfume to protect herself, possibly from disease, certainly from the excretory odors at her home, and maybe to thwart the rampant body odor all around her.

For her, perfume was a way of staying healthy and maintaining a relatively pleasant atmosphere. By the 1800s, perfume was more common. Then in the 1920s, it became a consumer product. Today, we wear perfume for the sensory enjoyment of it. Few people today wear perfume to cover the stink of the world around them, but rather to enhance their sensory experiences. That's probably why the very heavy, almost thick, floral scents so popular during the reign of Marie Antoinette have given way to lighter, gentler, almost airy scents today.

Want to know more about perfume? Visit for exclusive articles by Joanna McLaughlin not found anywhere else. While you're there, visit our ship and get some fashionista accessories for the woman of fragrance. Joanna McLaughlin loves perfume and her favorite scent today is Gramercy Park by Bond No. 9.

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