Perfume is timeless and some of the perfumes we sell have been in production for a long time, such as Muelhens 4711 Cologne, which first hit the market in 1792. But perfume, skincare and cosmetics go back way longer than you might think. Even during the stone age, long before Eau de Toilettes, scented shower gel or even regular washing even was a thing, early humans would seek out well-smelling roots and plants and rub themselves with them to smell fab. In this series, we are taking a look at the history of perfume from the dawn of man until now.
There is historical evidence that people in the very early civilization of ancient Mesopotamia, around 2000 BC, made and sold perfumes and in India and Asia many would wear scented oils and the like. The Egyptians, who were very neat people and obsessive bathers, enjoyed perfume, at least the rich and powerful who could afford it. They would also use it in rituals and buried their mummified Pharaohs with jugs of it. Imagine that smell!
As perfume spread throughout the ancient world, the Greeks and later the Romans would become big fans of olive oil-based scents. It is said that people in Greece would use a different perfume for each body part. The Romans were even more crazy about the stuff and would use strong perfume on themselves and their clothes, in their houses and even rub it on their animals for some reason. Emperors would sometimes have fountains with perfumed water at parties.
In the Arab world many advances in perfume-making were made and through the rich trade routes running through the middle east perfume makers could get hold of all sorts of ingredients, including the extremely rare ambergris, which is produced in sperm whales and still used as a fixative in some of the perfumes we sell today.
Around the year 700 people had begun experimenting seriously with distillation and filtration. One could, for example, collect the scent of a plant in concentrated form which made combining fragrances in perfume much easier. We’ll go into depth about this some other time, but basically these early perfume-makers would let steam pass through plants and herbs so that the fragrance-particles could be collected.
Soon, they could sell perfumes and incense with all kinds of smells and their knowledge soon spread across the world as they sold their goods to the west. Floral fragrances became very popular in Europe. A vocabulary and theory of perfume started to develop and many of the notes that were created then are still in use. During the renaissance, when Western culture entered a golden age, the art of perfume would develop further, first in Italy and then France, especially in Paris , which would go on to become the perfume capital of the world in later years. That’s a story for later though – see you next time when we’ll look at perfume in the middle ages!
In the mood for more history? Although there sadly aren’t any ancient brands of perfumes still in production, you can come pretty close to what they must have smelled like by looking for scents with ingredients like styrax, myrrh, rose, marjoram, cinnamon and especially labdanum, a sticky resin said to be the main ingredient in the cologne Julius Ceasar himself wore! You can find it in YSLs Opium, Eau Des Merveilles by Hermes and Acqua di Gioia from Armani.