A Victorian lady was not known for wearing an excess of scent. Nevertheless, perfumes were as much a part of a Victorian woman’s beauty regime as hair and skin care. These perfumes were generally simpler than the ones we know today and consisted, in large part, of florals and other botanicals, such as rose, violet, bergamot, lemon, and lavender. They were rarely applied directly to the skin. Instead, Victorian perfumes were used to scent handkerchiefs, gloves, and clothing, and even as a fragrant additive in cosmetic products like hair pomade or lip salve. Some fragrances were 19th century mainstays. Others were popular for a time and then fell out of favor. This article (the fourth in my series of Victorian Lady’s Guides) serves as a brief primer on some of the most commonly used perfumes of the Victorian era.
At the beginning of the Victorian era, the predominant scent was Eau de Cologne. Consisting of a base of neroli oil (an oil derived from orange blossoms and flowers from the bitter orange tree), Eau de Cologne had risen to popularity during the 18th century. In her 2015 book, How to Be a Victorian, author Ruth Goodman describes Eau de Cologne as “a sharp, clean scent that cut through other smells.” Unlike true perfumes, it was diluted with distilled water—hence the name toilet water—and was sold as a relatively inexpensive scent for both Victorian men and Victorian women.
Natural scents like florals, herbals, and oils derived from the rinds of citrus fruits were also very popular—and would remain so throughout the era. As an 1840 edition of the Saturday Magazine reports:
“Herbs, drugs, and flowers, are made to yield their aromatic odours for our use. Among the former we may mention marjoram, sage, thyme, lavender, &c., while of drugs, frankincense, mace, cloves, benzoin, storax, and many others, are held in great esteem. Orange-flowers, jonquils, jessamine, roses, violets, and other fragrant flowers, are also largely employed, and thus, by a judicious use of some of these various essences, we may impart to our dwellings or our dress, the delightful odours of our favourite flowers, at any period of the year.”
One of the most well known floral scents was the famous Otto of Roses. Made from the petals of the “hundred-leaved rose”—or rosa centifolia—the Saturday Magazine calls Otto of Roses “the most costly of all the perfumes and the most powerful.” Though its title as most expensive perfume would soon be eclipsed by the fashionably complex scents of the 1880s and 1890s, Otto of Roses would remain a favorite fragrance throughout the Victorian era and into the 20th century.
By the middle of the Victorian era, bergamot and lemon oil had surpassed Eau de Cologne to become the most popular fragrance for women. According to Goodman:
“Bergamot and lemon oil, sometimes employed separately but more often used in combination, was the signature smell of the middle years of the century. Almost everything was scented with this mixture from hand creams and hair pomades to pincushions.”
Readily available at local apothecaries and chemists’ shops, bergamot and lemon oil was much more reasonably priced than Eau de Cologne had been. As a result, Goodman explains:
“The fashionable scent of the mid-century was within the grasp of more people than eau de cologne had ever been. Even a working-class home, as long as the adult male was in full-time employment, could boast a pot of lemon and bergamot in some form.”
The advent of inexpensive synthetic fragrances resulted in perfumes being available to an even wider range of Victorian women. Wishing to distance themselves from the perfumes used by the lower classes, wealthy ladies began to demand more complex, and as yet unsynthesized, perfumes. This demand did not go unanswered. By the 1890s, Goodman states that single scent perfumes had given way to fashionable perfumes made of “eight or twelve different extracts” and sold in “slim, beautifully decorative glass vials.”
These expensive, late Victorian perfumes frequently contained spice oils and animal essences, like musk, ambergris, and civet. Animal essences were heavier than botanical scents and their fragrance lasted far longer. The Book of Perfumes describes musk as a secretion found in a “pocket, or pod, under the belly of the musk-deer.” Civet was also an animal secretion. As The Book of Perfumes states:
“Civet is the glandular secretion of the Vicerra civetta, an animal of the feline tribe, about three feet in length and one foot in height, which is found in Africa and India. It is now chiefly imported from the Indian Archipelago; but, formerly, Dutch merchants kept some of these cats at Amsterdam in long wooden cages, and had the perfume scraped from them two or three times a week with a wooden spatula.”
Unlike musk and civet, which were secreted by land mammals, ambergris was found in the sea. Initially the Victorians were puzzled by the exact origin of the waxy substance, but The Book of Perfumes reports:
“It is now ascertained beyond a doubt to be generated by the large-headed spermaceti whale (Physeter macrocephalus), and is the result of a diseased state of the animal, which either throws up the morbific substance, or dies of the malady, and is eaten up by other fishes. In either case, the ambergris becomes loose, and is picked up floating on the sea, or is washed ashore.”
While wealthy Victorians ladies were wearing complex perfumes made of musk and spices, the rest of the Victorian female population was, according to Goodman, “awash in lavender oil.” It was used to scent everything, from hair products and cosmetics to soaps and water, and became so popular that a new industry of lavender growers in England and France rose up to meet the demand.
Perfumers and chemists
When it came to purchasing perfumes, Victorian women had a wide variety of choices. In her 2014 book, Fragrance and Well-Being, author Jennifer Rhind states that, at the beginning of the Victorian era, there were approximately 40 perfumers working in London alone—the same amount as in Paris at that time.
Not only did these perfumers sell Eau de Cologne and other popular fragrances of the day, they frequently came up with their own perfumes as well. For example, in 1861, the House of Guerlain created Eau de Cologne Imperiale for the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III. In 1872, the London perfumer Penhaligon’s launched the fragrance Hammam Bouquet. Fougere Royale was produced by Houbigant Parfums in 1882. And in 1889, the House of Guerlain created their famous Victorian perfume, Jicky.
Of course, no perfume article would be complete without mentioning Floris in Jermyn Street, London. Founded in the 18th century, and still in business today, Floris is the oldest perfume house in the world. In her 2001 book, For Appearance’ Sake, author Victoria Sherrow lists several Floris fragrances produced during the 19th century, including Malmaison and Special No. 127.
For many Victorians, however, expensive products from fashionable perfumers were simply out of reach. That did not mean that the poor and working classes had to forego their fragrances. In fact, chemist’s shops and pharmacies did a robust business selling inexpensive perfumes, toilets waters, and other scented products to those of moderate means. As an 1895 edition of the Bulletin of Pharmacy reports:
“The sale of perfumes in chemists’ shops is also a very large one, as the middle and poorer classes especially go in for cheap lines of perfumes which have lately been extensively imported from the Continent, particularly Germany. The intrinsic value is small, and the principal attraction consists in the get-up of the bottle and label. The sale of perfumes is evidently a very profitable transaction, if we may judge from the very large space devoted to these articles in the show-cases of most chemists.”
Florals, Herbals, and Citrus
Though the popularity of certain perfumes changed throughout the Victorian era, there were some botanical scents that never went out of style. I’ve listed a few of these perennial favorites below along with brief descriptions.
A very popular scent during the middle of the Victorian era, bergamot was derived from the rind of the fruit of the Seville orange tree. It was frequently combined with lemon oil.
Eugene Rimmel’s 1865 Book of Perfumes describes Jasmine as “one of the most agreeable and useful odours employed by perfumers.” While an article in the 1876 edition of Gardener’s Monthly reports:
“The odor of this flower is delicate and sweet, and so peculiar that it is without comparison, and as such cannot be imitated. For this reason the odor is very costly, — fifty dollars per fluid ounce.”
The Book of Perfumes classifies lavender as an aromatic herbal, describing the fragrance as “a nice, clean scent, and an old and deserving favourite.” Lavender was hugely popular in the last decades of the Victorian era. It was grown in both England and France—though The Book of Perfumes claims that English lavender, of the kind produced in Surrey and Hertfordshire, was far superior.
The Saturday Magazine describes orange-blossom oil as “a very fine, delicate, and expensive perfume.” The orange-blossoms used for perfumery were those of the bitter orange tree. When distilled, these blossoms produced neroly. Essential oils could also be obtained from the edible orange-tree, but The Book of Perfumes states that these oils were “very inferior” in quality.
The rose was known as the queen of flowers and its fragrance was often called the queen of perfumes. An 1878 edition of Vick’s Monthly Magazine claims that the rose “gives the sweetest, the most lovely and loved perfume.” While The Book of Perfumes states:
“We next come to the queen of flowers, the rose — the eternal theme of poets of all ages and of all nations, but which for the prosaical perfumer derives its principal charms from the delicious fragrance with which Nature has endowed it. And well does the perfumer turn that sweetness to account; for he compels the lovely flower to yield its aroma to him in every shape, and he obtains from it an essential oil, a distilled water, a perfumed oil, and a pomade. Even its withered leaves are rendered available to form the ground of sachet-powder, for they retain their scent for a considerable time.”
In 19th century publications, the tuberose is often paired with jasmine. Both were heady, exotic scents, and as the Saturday Magazine explains:
“The oils of jasmine and tuberose are of so delicate a nature, as to be impaired by the most careful distillation. The perfumes of these flowers are, therefore, obtained from them by steeping the blossoms in perfectly inodorous fixed oil, which becomes imbued with their fragrance, and from which the odour may be transferred to alcohol, so as to form a spirituous essence.”
Gardener’s Monthly calls violet “one of the rarest odors in nature.” While The Book of Perfumes states:
“It is a scent which pleases all, even the most delicate and nervous, and it is no wonder that it should be in such universal request.”
A FEW FINAL WORDS…
As always, I hope you’ve found the above information helpful. If you would like to learn more about the history of Victorian era perfumes, I suggest you have a look through Eugene Rimmel’s 1865 Book of Perfumes. For instant gratification, you might visit the websites of Floris and/or Penhaligon’s. Both perfumers have been in business for well over 100 years. At Penhaligon’s, you can even still purchase their 1872 scent Hammam Bouquet.
Works Referenced or Cited in this Article
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
For exclusive information on upcoming book releases, giveaways, and other special treats, subscribe to Mimi’s Quarterly Newsletter by clicking the link below.