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History of Perfume

Updated on May 26, 2010

References to perfumes are found in the earliest records of historic civilizations. The ancient Chinese used perfume on their robes and burned incense at funerals. They discovered musk, one of the most valuable perfume agents of all time. The ancient Egyptians also offered incense to the gods and anointed the bodies of the dead pharaohs with odorous oils. Later the use of perfumes spread extensively among both royalty and commoners, and the demand for such materials aided the development of foreign commerce. Herodotus reported that the Babylonians were great consumers of aromatics and perfumed their bodies with the most expensive odors.

The Greeks and Romans both developed the art of perfumery to an extraordinary degree. Hippocrates, father of medicine, mentions the therapeutic value of numerous perfume substances. In Greek mythology, Circe held Odysseus with the aid of perfume, and Helen of Troy acquired beauty through a secret perfume revealed by Aphrodite. The women of Greece used perfume liberally, and the men bathed in scented oils and used different fragrances for various parts of their bodies. The Romans also made extensive use of perfumes. At banquets perfume was sprayed from statuettes. Bathing in perfumed waters became a sensuous rite and was followed by massage with scented oils and balms.

For the early Hebrews, perfume held a deep religious significance. The Bible has many references to perfumes as sacrifices to God and as beautifiers of men and women. Moses was given instructions by God to erect an altar of incense and to compound a special holy oil and perfume. In the New Testament the magi carried gifts of frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child.

During the Middle Ages in the West, the art of perfumery was restricted largely to the Arabs, who prepared attar of roses. The Crusaders introduced perfume to medieval Europe, and before long perfume began to be manufactured in various parts of the Continent. King Philip II (Philip Augustus) of France granted the first charter to a perfume maker in 1190. Charles V (Charles the Wise) in the 14th century planted acres of flowers in France to secure perfume materials. In the 15th century, King Charles VIII was the first French monarch to have a court perfumer.

The first alcoholic perfumes were reportedly prepared by Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in 1370, hence this type of preparation came to be called Hungary water. It was apparently distilled from rosemary.

During the Renaissance, perfumery flourished, particularly in Italy. Catherine de Medicis brought the Italian art to France in the 16th century, laying the foundation for the cosmetic industry that developed there in the 17th and 18th centuries.

France soon became the center of modern perfumery. Favorable conditions of climate and soil combined to make the French Riviera the natural capital for the cultivation of flowers for perfume oils. Extensive essential-oil and flower-oil industries arose there in the latter part of the 18th century. The rise of Paris as the center of fashion in the mid-19th century aided in establishing France's supremacy in perfumery.

By this time many new oils had been found, and improved methods of production were developed. Blending became an art, and the use of alcohol as a solvent became widespread. With the rapid development of organic chemistry in the 19th century, attempts were made to isolate and duplicate perfume specifics. Nitrobenzene was used briefly as a substitute for almond oil but was found too toxic and too crude in odor. The first important successful synthetic, coumarin, was prepared in 1863 by the British chemist Sir William Henry Perkin. In 1876 the German chemist Ferdinand Tiemann duplicated vanillin. Soon a large number of duplicates of natural perfume substances were produced from natural or synthetic sources. In addition, many new substances were synthesized that resembled scents occurring in nature or had perfume odors previously unknown to man. The first of such materials, ionone, which has the odor of violet, was prepared by Tiemann and Paul Kruger in 1893.

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