When thinking about the history of scent, put the image of a liquid in a bottle on a ladies dressing table to one side for a moment. In times past, scent was much more than that. In fact, Hungary Water, an alcohol-based prophylactic against the plague created about 1370, is really the first product that begins to resemble our modern idea of perfume. Before the medieval period and even in later centuries, perfumes were likely available in solid, semi solid or powdered form, based on vegetable oil such as olive oil, almond oil or sesame oil. The methods used to make a perfume included various means of extraction and straining: expression, hot and cold steeping for example. The addition of an astringent, such as ginger grass better known to us today as rooibos (the leaves of which are used to make an herbal tea) made the base mixture more receptive to the fragrance. Any number of flower petals, seeds, leaves as well as resins and even animal excretions could be added to impart an agreeable odour: roses, bergamot, quince blossoms, lilies, spikenard, myrrh, and frankincense to name but a few. Many of these fragrances would remain popular over the centuries subject to the ebb and flow of fashion, economics and even the politics of the time.

Woman perfume seller with a lavender bag (1828), Coloured lithogragh by Charles Philipson. (Common and Uncommon Scents, Amberley Publishing)

The uses to which perfume was put in the past went far beyond personal adornment. Perfumes in a world without the benefits of modern medicine doubled as remedies: fragrances were used to not only protect against disease but also to cure its symptoms. Smelling pleasant while emphasising bodily attractiveness and the freshness of youth was an indication of good health and, in the case of women, fertility. Perfume was also seen as a physical and material symbol of wealth and social position. Decorative containers made from expensive materials were intended to impress, to emphasise the value of their contents and, in turn, define the status of the owner.

A cocktail bar perfume box by Jean Patou. (Courtesy of Tim Evenson under Creative Commons 2.0) (Common and Uncommon Scents, Amberley Publishing)

To illustrate the historical importance of fragrance, let’s take a whistle stop tour of scent through the centuries starting with the Bronze Age peoples and the Ancient Egyptians. These civilisations valued scent burnt as incense in religious ceremony and applied scented oils to prevent and treat disease. For these early peoples, perfume was also a symbol of wealth and power. So much so, that the administration and production of perfume was often centred on the royal palaces. In the classical world, wealthy Greeks and Romans continued to use scent as a key element in religious festivals. They also used fragrance extensively in their homes, adding scent to their oil lamps and sprinkling soft furnishings with perfume. At public events they used scent to counteract unpleasant smells: for example, the stench of death in the arena or the mingling food smells and animal odours in the market place. The Arabs developed the art of distillation and preserved the knowledge of scent in medical textbooks during the medieval period. The church, despite its dislike of perfumes, was instrumental in encouraging interest in fragrance. Perfume was employed liberally in church services and the Church hierarchy claimed that a fine fragrance was evidence of sainthood. Making scented mixtures was an accepted pastime for Renaissance women. So-called Books of Secrets claimed to contain valuable knowledge on this subject which others could absorb and reproduce.

Perfume burner in shape of St Mark’s Treasury, Basilica di San Marco, Venice (twelfth century). (Courtesy of Dimitris Kamaras under Creative Commons 2.0) (Common and Uncommon Scents, Amberley Publishing)

The seventeenth century brought the ravages of the plague. Perfume was used as fumigation to prevent and cure outbreaks: While many still made their own fragrances at home, the eighteenth century saw the creation of famous perfume houses including Creed, Floris and Houbigant and in the nineteenth century mechanisation speeded up the production of scented goods while a proliferation of advertising in magazines and newspapers promoted their sale. In the twentieth century perfume aligned with fashion as French fashion houses produced their own perfumes to match their stylish clothes. Film stars advertised perfumes and strongly influenced the markets. In this, the twenty -first century, the beneficial effects that the Romans and other earlier civilisations ascribed to a pleasant smell live on in the burgeoning modern interest in aromatherapy. Some traditional fragrances appear as popular as ever. The scent of roses for example seems never to have gone out of fashion The history of scent is not only varied and long but influential.

Susan Stewart's book Common and Uncommon Scents is available for purchase now.