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  • Elizabeth Little

What did the Victorians Smell Like?


Image via the Boston Public Library


I don’t know about you, but when I think of the past, I don’t imagine pleasant smells. Due to overcrowding and the Industrial Revolution, cities were plagued with disease, and for far too many people, regular baths just weren’t in the cards. Their solution? Perfume. And lots of it.

Prior to the French Revolution in the 1790s, perfumeries were everywhere, but only for the extremely rich. In fact, King Louis XVI was often referred to as “The Perfumed King.” However, following the removal of the king, perfumeries were doing everything they could to distance themselves from the infamous royals, going as far to name their new perfumes, “Parfum de la Guillotine,” and, “Nation.”

The beginning of the 19th century was when perfumes were mostly used to hide peoples’ lack of cleanliness; in addition to their traditional form, perfumes were also being sold in powders which could be more easily applied to the wearer’s foul smelling body and/or hair. Scents popular at this time were light and floral. Flowers were some of the most popular ingredients, with thyme, rosemary, and clove also often added. Queen Victoria’s personal favourite perfume was by then brand Creed. The scent was called, “Fleurs de Bulgarie,” and was a mix of rose, musk, bergamot, and ambergris (which is, if you’re unaware, whale secretion. It is highly valuable meaning most perfumes today use a synthetic form of ambergris to keep costs down.). She wore this scent throughout her reign, and in 1885 she presented Creed with a Royal Warrant to acknowledge her patronage.

As the Industrial Revolution intensified during the mid-1800s, so did the science behind perfume. This was the first time in history in which scientists were able to develop synthetic scents. The process, which is similar to how perfume is made to this day, breaks down molecules to develop more consistent smells. Perfume and Cologne brand Guerlain adopted these practices and soon became one of the most successful perfumeries in the business, with its instantly iconic scent Jicky. The choice of scents expanded, with choices like cinnamon, vanilla, almond and musk (all artificial, of course). As these processes became more widely used, suddenly everyone could afford to buy perfume.

The 19th century was arguably one of the most influential periods of history when it comes to perfume and its development, although I have to say, I’m happy to live in a period where *most* people know wear deodorant.

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