The Art of Perfumery, Introduction & History I, by G.W. Septimus Piesse, 1857

*This introduction to The Art of Perfumery (1857) comes from the Project Gutenberg edition. We’ve referred to our author, G.W. Septimus Piesse before, quoting with great admiration his forward-looking thoughts on the problematic secrecy of perfumery–a quote that you will read in context here. This introduction to a comprehensive manual and recipe book for Victorian perfumers inspires a love of scent that is at the heart of Aromatica Poetica.*





By Nature’s swift and secret working hand
The garden glows, and fills the liberal air
With lavish odors.
There let me draw
Ethereal soul, there drink reviving gales,
Profusely breathing from the spicy groves
And vales of fragrance. —Thomson.

Among the numerous gratifications derived from the cultivation of flowers, that of rearing them for the sake of their perfumes stands pre-eminent. It is proved from the oldest records, that perfumes have been in use from the earliest periods. The origin of this, like that of many other arts, is lost in the depth of its antiquity; though it had its rise, no doubt, in religious observances. Among the nations of antiquity, an offering of perfumes was regarded as a token of the most profound respect and homage. Incense, or Frankincense, which exudes by incision and dries as a gum, from Arbor-thurifera, was formerly burnt in the temples of all religions, in honor of the divinities that were there adored. Many of the primitive Christians were put to death because they would not offer incense to idols.

“Of the use of these luxuries by the Greeks, and afterwards by the Romans, Pliny and Seneca gives much information respecting perfume drugs, the method of collecting them, and the prices at which they sold. Oils and powder perfumery were most lavishly used, for even three times a day did some of the luxurious people anoint and scent themselves, carrying their precious perfumes with them to the baths in costly and elegant boxes called Narthecia.

In the Romish Church incense is used in many ceremonies, and particularly at the solemn funerals of the hierarchy, and other personages of exalted rank.

Pliny makes a note of the tree from which frankincense is procured, and certain passages in his works indicate that dried flowers were used in his time by way of perfume, and that they were, as now, mixed with spices, a compound which the modern perfumer calls pot-pourri, used for scenting apartments, and generally placed in some ornamental Vase.

It was not uncommon among the Egyptian ladies to carry about the person a little pouch of odoriferous gums, as is the case to the present day among the Chinese, and to wear beads made of scented wood. The “bdellium” mentioned by Moses in Genesis is a perfuming gum, resembling frankincense, if not identical with it.

Several passages in Exodus prove the use of perfumes at a very early period among the Hebrews. In the thirtieth chapter of Exodus the Lord said unto Moses: “1. And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon; of Shittim wood shalt thou make it.” “7. And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning; when he dresseth the lamps he shall burn incense upon it.” “34. Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight.” “35. And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together pure and holy.” “36. And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee; it shall be unto you most holy.” “37. And as for the perfume which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof; it shall be unto thee holy for the Lord.” “38. Whosoever shall make like unto that to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people.”

“It was from this religious custom, of employing incense in the ancient temples, that the royal prophet drew that beautiful simile of his, when he petitioned that his prayers might ascend before the Lord like incense, Luke 1:10. It was while all the multitude was praying without, at the hour of incense, that there appeared to Zachary an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. That the nations attached a meaning not only of personal reverence, but also of religious homage, to an offering of incense, is demonstrable from the instance of the Magi, who, having fallen down to adore the new-born Jesus, and recognized his Divinity, presented Him with gold, myrrh and frankincense. The primitive Christians imitated the example of the Jews, and adopted the use of incense at the celebration of the Liturgy. St. Ephræm, a father of the Syriac Church, directed in his will that no aromatic perfumes should be bestowed upon him at his funeral, but that the spices should rather be given to the sanctuary. The use of incense in all the Oriental churches is perpetual, and almost daily; nor do any of them ever celebrate their Liturgy without it, unless compelled by necessity. The Coptic, as well as other Eastern Christians, observe the same ceremonial as the Latin Church in incensing their altar, the sacred vessels, and ecclesiastical personages.”—Dr. Rock’s Hierurgia.

Perfumes were used in the Church service, not only under the form of incense, but also mixed in the oil and wax for the lamps and lights commanded to be burned in the house of the Lord. The brilliancy and fragrance which were often shed around a martyr’s sepulchre, at the celebration of his festival, by multitudes of lamps and tapers, fed with aromatics, have been noticed by St. Paulinus:—

“With crowded lamps are these bright altars crowned,
And waxen tapers, shedding perfume round
From fragrant wicks, beam calm a scented ray,
To gladden night, and joy e’en radiant day.”
Dr. Rock’s Hierurgia.
Constantine the Great provided fragrant oils, to be burned at the altars of the greater churches in Rome; and St. Paulinus, of Nola, a writer of the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century, tells us how, in his times, wax tapers were made for church use, so as to shed fragrance as they burned:—

“Lumina cerates adolentur odora papyris.”

A perfume in common use, even to this day, was the invention of one of the earliest of the Roman nobles, named Frangipani, and still bears his name; it is a powder, or sachet, composed of every known spice, in equal proportions, to which is added ground iris or orris root, in weight equal to the whole, with one per cent. of musk or civet. A liquid of the same name, invented by his grandson Mercutio Frangipani, is also in common use, prepared by digesting the Frangipane powder in rectified spirits, which dissolves out the fragrant principles. This has the merit of being the most lasting perfume made.

“The trade for the East in perfume-drugs caused many a vessel to spread its sails to the Red Sea, and many a camel to plod over that tract which gave to Greece and Syria their importance as markets, and vitality to the rocky city of Petra. Southern Italy was not long ere it occupied itself in ministering to the luxury of the wealthy, by manufacturing scented unguents and perfumes. So numerous were the Unguentarii, or perfumers, that they are said to have filled the great street of ancient Capua.”—Hofmann.

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.

“On the subject of trade mystery I will only observe, that I am convinced that it would be far more to the interest of manufacturers if they were more willing to profit by the experience of others, and less fearful and jealous of the supposed secrets of their craft. It is a great mistake to think that a successful manufacturer is one who has carefully preserved the secrets of his trade, or that peculiar modes of effecting simple things, processes unknown in other factories, and mysteries beyond the comprehension of the vulgar, are in any way essential to skill as a manufacturer, or to success as a trader.”—Professor Solly.

If the horticulturists of England were instructed how to collect the odors of flowers, a new branch of manufacture would spring up to vie with our neighbors’ skill in it across the Channel.

Of our five senses, that of Smelling has been treated with comparative indifference. However, as knowledge progresses, the various faculties with which the Creator has thought proper in his wisdom to endow man will become developed, and the faculty of Smelling will meet with its share of tuition as well as Sight, Hearing, Touch, and Taste.

Flowers yield perfumes in all climates, but those growing in the warmer latitudes are most prolific in their odor, while those from the colder are the sweetest. Hooker, in his travels in Iceland, speaks of the delightful fragrance of the flowers in the valley of Skardsheidi; we know that winter-green, violets, and primroses are found here, and the wild thyme, in great abundance. Mr. Louis Piesse, in company with Captain Sturt, exploring the wild regions of South Australia, writes: “The rains have clothed the earth with a green as beautiful as a Shropshire meadow in May, and with flowers, too, as sweet as an English violet; the pure white anemone resembles it in scent. The Yellow Wattle, when in flower, is splendid, and emits a most fragrant odor.”

Though many of the finest perfumes come from the East Indies, Ceylon, Mexico, and Peru, the South of Europe is the only real garden of utility to the perfumer. Grasse and Nice are the principal seats of the art; from their geographical position, the grower, within comparatively short distances, has at command that change of climate best fitted to bring to perfection the plants required for his trade. On the seacoast his Cassiæ grows without fear of frost, one night of which would destroy all the plants for a season; while, nearer the Alps, his violets are found sweeter than if grown in the warmer situations, where the orange tree and mignionette bloom to perfection. England can claim the superiority in the growth of lavender and peppermint; the essential oils extracted from these plants grown at Mitcham, in Surrey, realize eight times the price in the market of those produced in France or elsewhere, and are fully worth the difference for delicacy of odor.

The odors of plants reside in different parts of them, sometimes in the roots, as in the iris and vitivert; the stem or wood, in cedar and sandal; the leaves, in mint, patchouly, and thyme; the flower, in the roses and violets; the seeds in the Tonquin bean and caraway; the bark, in cinnamon, &c.

Some plants yield more than one odor, which are quite distinct and characteristic. The orange tree, for instance, gives three—from the leaves one called petit grain; from the flowers we procure neroli; and from the rind of the fruit, essential oil of orange, essence of Portugal. On this account, perhaps, this tree is the most valuable of all to the operative perfumer.

The fragrance or odor of plants is owing, in nearly all cases, to a perfectly volatile oil, either contained in small vessels, or sacs within them, or generated from time to time, during their life, as when in blossom. Some few exude, by incision, odoriferous gums, as benzoin, olibanum, myrrh, &c.; others give, by the same act, what are called balsams, which appear to be mixtures of an odorous oil and an inodorous gum. Some of these balsams are procured in the country to which the plant is indigenous by boiling it in water for a time, straining, and then boiling again, or evaporating it down till it assumes the consistency of treacle. In this latter way is balsam of Peru procured from the Myroxylon peruiferum, and the balsam of Tolu from the Myroxylon toluiferum. Though their odors are agreeable, they are not much applied in perfumery for handkerchief use, but by some they are mixed with soap, and in England they are valued more for their medicinal properties than for their fragrance.