Aroma Victoriana: Flowers, Explosives, and the Mysterious Secrecy of Perfumery

Portrait of Queen Victoria with crown of flowers.Often we associate the Victorian Era with a degree of primness that falls helplessly into parody–nowhere better illustrated than in Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)–but as with all eras, the Victorian offers a dark underbelly as well as a laced-up exterior. I shan’t elaborate on the entirety of this dichotomy, but content myself with the extremities of Victorian perfumery, from the nosegay to the nether regions of the civet, and from the ancient coaxing of flowers by enfleurage to the explosive manipulations of chemical compounds.

Let’s start with the era’s namesake, who set the tone for the ladies in her realm and beyond. As the Perfume Society says in a delightful article called The Victorians, From Violet Posies to Va-Va-Voom, “Queen Victoria was ‘not amused’ by plenty of things, including the over-lavish use of fragrance. Anything too ‘sexy’ – along with the use of cosmetics and wearing of make-up – was associated with ‘fallen’ women, prostitutes, those of questionable morals.” Hence, simple fragrances suggesting a single flower such as rose or lily were often preferred (even if the formulas were complex and sometimes, as we shall see, artificial).

However, as the Perfume Society goes on to relate, even Queen Victoria enjoyed a racy scent when it was given her: “Creed actually presented Victoria with a surprisingly heady scent, in 1845, ‘Fleurs de Bulgarie’, which she wore throughout her illustrious reign:  a waltz of Bulgarian rose, musk, ambergris and bergamot.” Fleurs de Bulgarie still exists today, though it is unlikely all the ingredients are the same as they once were…

Unlike many of its familiar citrus kin, Bergamot (Citrus bergamia), is not generally consumed, though its peel gives Earl Grey tea its distinct flavor, and its essential oil offers a bright uplifting scent that has been used extensively in perfumery for centuries. It was a key component of the original Eau de Cologne (1709).

As G.W. Septimus Piesse puts it in The Art of Perfumery (1857), “When bergamot is mixed with other essential oils it greatly adds to their richness, and gives a sweetness to spice oils attainable by no other means, and such compounds are much used in the most highly scented soaps. Mixed with rectified spirit in the proportions of about four ounces of bergamot to a gallon, it forms what is called “extract of bergamot,” and in this state is used for the handkerchief.”

Bunch of Bergamot on the vine.

As we shall see, a great deal of aroma Victoriana went onto the hanky, and hence the lasting power of a dearly bought fragrance elevated its value.

Our nineteenth-century perfumer, Septimus Piesse, writes this of Rose (Rosa damascena, R centifolia): ” This queen of the garden loses not its diadem in the perfuming world.”

Rose may be thanked for the development of modern perfumery, as it was likely one of the first materials to be distilled by the Medieval Arab alchemists. The authors of Aromatherapy summarize:

Rosewater purified the mosque, scented gloves, flavored sherbet, and Turkish delight, and was sprinkled on guests from a flask called a gulabdan. Prayer beads made from gum Arabic and rose petals released their scent when handled. … Following the translation of the Western classics into Arabic in the seventh century, Arab alchemists in search of the “quintessence” of plants found it represented in essential oils.

As discussed in The Spirit of St-Germain, distillates or Spirits, whether of alcohol or plant matter, symbolized a pure and incorruptible manifestation of the mundane and corruptible world. Hence, the Medieval alchemists took a great interest in distillation, which crossed the disciplines of perfumery, medicine and booze making. It is likely that rosewater/oil, along with distillation and Greco-Roman learning, (re)entered Western Europe as one of the many treasures brought back during the Crusades, which in turn sparked the Renaissance.

Ambergris is not for the faint-hearted! In his section on “Perfumes of Animal Origin, Septimus Piesse explains that there is still in his time a great debate concerning the origins of these foul-smelling lumps which periodically wash onto shores from Ireland to Japan, but offers this first: “[Ambergris] has been particularly found in the intestines of the spermaceti whale, and most commonly in sickly fish, whence it is supposed to be the cause or effect of the disease.”

The stuff is then puked by the whale into the ocean where it floats for a long time and is pickled by the salt water and finally washes ashore.

As Wikipedia tells it:

Ambergris occurs as a bile duct secretion of the intestines of the sperm whale and can be found floating upon the sea, or lying on the coast. It is also sometimes found in the abdomens of whales. Because the beaks of giant squids have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorized that the substance is produced by the whale’s gastrointestinal tract to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whale might have eaten. The sperm whale usually vomits these, but if one travels further down the gut, it will be covered in ambergris.”

Now that we know what it is, we must ask (with less auspicious results) what clever bloke thought of using the stuff for perfume, for it seems not to smell very nice. In fact, using the assertions of others, Piesse suggests it smells like shit. Literally…

A modern compiler, speaking of ambergris, says, ‘It smells like dried cow-dung.’ Never having smelled this latter substance, we cannot say whether the simile be correct; but we certainly consider that its perfume is most incredibly overrated; nor can we forget that Homberg found that ‘a vessel in which he had made a long digestion of the human fæces had acquired a very strong and perfect smell of ambergris, insomuch that any one would have thought that a great quantity of essence of ambergris had been made in it. The perfume (odor!) was so strong that the vessel was obliged to be moved out of the laboratory.’ (Mem. Acad. Paris, 1711.)

Hence, our friend Septimus includes ambergris in his book not because he uses it himself, but because other perfumers do:

Nevertheless, as ambergris is extensively used as a perfume, in deference to those who admire its odor, we presume that it has to many an agreeable smell.

Like bodies of this kind undergoing a slow decomposition and possessing little volatility, it, when mixed with other very fleeting scents, gives permanence to them on the handkerchief, and for this quality the perfumer esteems it much.

Essence of Ambergris is only kept for mixing; when retailed it has to be sweetened up to the public nose…

The “sweetening” apparently adds rose and vanilla, which make sense, and musk, which does not, as it too derives from the interstices of an animal–from a glandular sack located near the anus of the poor little male musk deer.

The animal secretions find their use as fixatives on the hanky:

This perfume has such a lasting odor, that a handkerchief being well perfumed with it, will still retain an odor even after it has been washed.

The fact is, that both musk and ambergris contain a substance which clings pertinaciously to woven fabrics, and not being soluble in weak alkaline lyes, is still found upon the material after passing through the lavatory ordeal.

While we’re on the unsavory subject of animal secretions as fixatives, we might as well pay homage also to the harried civet cat whose butt was scraped for its odorous secretion and used similarly to ambergris and musk.

Happily, by the end of the Victorian Era, chemistry figured out how to create synthetic fixatives. In 1888, Albert Baur discovered a musk-like odor while attempting to create a more effective form of TNT, and the first synthetic musk blasted into the world of perfumery! As musk is one of the foundational base notes in perfumery, and because today the killing or torturing of animals is no longer tolerated–for cosmetic purposes anyway, synthetic musks are used almost universally in modern fragrance. In this case, I think we can all agree that synthetic trumps all-natural!

Septimus Piesse tells us that it was fashionable even in his day to pooh-pooh the use of musk, though “nevertheless, from great experience in one of the largest manufacturing perfumatories in Europe, we are of opinion that the public taste for musk is as great as any perfumer desires,” and he assures his readers that “Those substances containing it always take the preference in ready sale—so long as the vendor takes care to assure his customer ‘that there is no musk in it.'”

Besides telling customers that an ingredient that they believe themselves not to like is not present, the Victorian perfumer mangled truth in advertising by creating fragrances named for flowers that are reluctant to give up their scent. For example, “The Parisian perfumers sell a mixture which they call ‘extract of jonquil.’ The plant, however, only plays the part of a godfather to the offspring, giving it its name.” He goes on to give a recipe for this “Jonquil” which includes jasmine, tuberose, vanilla, and fleur d’orange (orange blossom).

Likewise Lily perfume is but imitation:

The manufacturing perfumer rejects the advice of the inspired writer, to ‘consider the lilies of the field.’ Rich as they are in odor, they are not cultivated for their perfume. If lilies are thrown into oil of sweet almonds, or ben oil, they impart to it their sweet smell; but to obtain anything like fragrance, the infusion must be repeated a dozen times with the same oil, using fresh flowers for each infusion, after standing a day or so. The oil being shaken with an equal quantity of spirit for a week, gives up its odor to the alcohol, and thus extract of lilies may be made. But how it is made is thus…

The Art of Perfumery cover, 1857.Septimus Piesse gives a recipe for “Imitation Lily of the Valley which adds rose, cassie and otto of almonds to the fake jonquil recipe. Interestingly, he does not shy from imitations, or from sharing the recipes of deceit.

Before leaving you and Aroma Victoriana, I wish to impart a bit of wisdom found in two books separated in time by nearly a hundred and fifty years that convey nearly the same criticism of the historically secretive perfume/fragrance industry.

First, I’d like to quote the entirety of the introduction of Perfumes, wherein the case is made for treating fragrance like we do other art forms (in order that perfumes be critiqued and analyzed with all the vigor we do films, books, cuisine, etc.), but I will content myself with this:

The perfume industry, in a hoary, unbroken tradition of self-defeating behavior, has done everything it can to avoid viewing its work as art. Perfume companies do not generally keep archives. They change formulas without telling customers. They discontinue their classics. They lie about contents. They hide the perfumers and art directors responsible. They shill shameless copies of great ideas and hope no one notices. They’ve even withdrawn advertising from magazines that criticized their work.

As the book’s authors suggest, with the help of the internet, where recipes for natural perfumes and critiques of industry standards are the norm, the fragrance industry will (have to) bust out of its dark laboratories and join in on all the scrutiny and exhilaration the public sphere has to offer.

I will leave you with our Victorian perfumer, Septimus Piesse, who saw this necessity even back in 1857:

As an art, in England, perfumery has attained little or no distinction. This has arisen from those who follow it as a trade, maintaining a mysterious secrecy about their processes. No manufacture can ever become great or important to the community that is carried on under a veil of mystery.

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine for Distill My Heart, a column about all things aromatic and alcoholic*