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Just for the Smell of It - A History of Fragrance

We live in a world of smells. It’s one of our five senses and the one we’re most obsessed with. From ancient civilizations to now, we’ve been busy creating smells to hide other smells. Eliminating the funk for fabulous is the goal.

From the primordial sludge, life began. The broth of creation surely didn’t smell like perfume. We didn’t evolve from a vat of Estee Lauder. There’s no record of its aromatic fragrance since whoever was crawling out forgot to take a sample. Scientists say the closest to the original gaseous mixture they’ve found is Campbell’s Hungry Man Soup. 


Neanderthals and Cro Magnons weren’t big on keeping notes so we know little about prehistoric hygiene practices. Unfortunately, the one remaining family of Neanderthals, who lived in a trailer park in Tooberville, GA, disappeared in 1965. The family of Bob and Chrissy Homo-Erectomins, fled their Airstream when scientists started sniffing around. 


Anthropologist, Margaret Mead, visited the trailer. She noted it appeared the family bathed in Jean Nate and shaved their unibrows to fit into the community. She followed the distinct scent to a train station, and discovered the family purchased tickets to California.


Several decades later, a team of researchers, including Marty Mead, Margaret’s grandson,  located the missing link in L.A. They’d changed their name to Kardashian. “Who else but Neanderthals would display such primitive behavior and want to make a reality show? They do everything but squat in the woods and that’s probably just edited out of the broadcast,” Marty said in a 2010 interview. 


Scientists use cave paintings and archaeological digs to learn what life was like in prehistoric times. In a 60,000-year-old cave near Barcelona, Spain, scientists discovered a hole which they assume was used for hot baths. During the excavation, clay bottles of caveman beer were  found. Ugh Lite appeared to be the brew of choice. 


A daily routine of hunting for food and moving around rocks, left evenings free. Without T.V. or social media, early Neanderthals stared at each other or drew on cave walls. Having hot tub parties showed a leap forward to wet and wild nights.  


Archeology Professor, Bartholomew Bonedigger, uncovered a cave painting in France which shows stick figures falling into a field of flowers. “This depicts the moment humans discovered they smelled worse than the bison they hunted. Man found out he wasn’t as fresh as a summer’s eve,” Bonedigger said. 


It’s believed the first perfume maker was a woman chemist from Mesopotamia. Chanel Nº. 5 B.C. was a revelation to Mesopotamian elite. Soon after, the Egyptians were also using perfumes to attract eligible pharaohs.


Cleopatra demanded a signature fragrance be created for her. She was the first woman to have her own perfume— Serpent. Advertised in hieroglyphics as the scent that made every woman feel they had the most alluring asp in Egypt.  


While Middle Eastern cultures used spices, herbs, burnt incense and the occasional dung beetle for an earthy bottom note, The Europeans, during the Middle Ages, turned to floral and garden scents. Lavender and rose oil was popular among the upper crusties. A bottle of rose oil was expensive. It could cost as much as two strong serfs, a buxom virgin and a mule. 


Only royalty took baths on a semi-regular basis. They had servants to plunge their stinking bodies into tubs and slather them in fragranced oils. The slippery little rulers stuck cloves up their noses when forced to make an appearance before their subjects. They reluctantly traveled to funky town. 


It was a sweaty, grimy, putrid life for the village people. There was no YMCA where you could get yourself clean. The best you could do was grind flower petals and stick them in places that were the most offensive. 


Young maidens would sew rose petals into their undergarments hoping to attract a man. When they married, the rose petals were removed. It was the dream of every young girl to be deflowered. 


When brave, brawny, knights went off to fight in the Hundred Years’ War, they would shove pine boughs into their suits of armor. The tin can outfit was kept forest fresh. It trapped offensive body odors percolating inside. Many knights on horse powered transporters were saved from keeling over. The tradition continues today with the tiny pine trees we hang in cars.


Andre Jovan, a member of the Knights Templar, was suspicious of his wife’s fidelity because of the red lights she lit in their chateau’s windows when he was away for the knights. To insure her celibacy, when called to battle, he doused her with the scent of a musk oxen to keep her odiferous to anyone checking out the lights. 


Jovan Musk had a resurgence in the 1970’s. It seemed the animal smell drove women crazy under the red disco lights. The mating rituals of the musk oxen men were portrayed in the film Saturday Night Fever


By the 17th century, France was the center for perfume manufacturing. Royalty and the wealthy flocked to the Paris to bathe in the new scents. A carefully placed handkerchief sprinkled with perfume was used to mask the body odors of less than sanitary conditions. Stinky was the head that wore the crown. But, it was good to be the king. No one could tell him he smelled. Heads rolled when anyone stated, “Something royally stinks!” 


Marie Antoinette, bathed in cream to keep her skin soft. She’d then drenched herself in flowery fragrances. No one dared tell her she smelled like a cheese factory filled with lilacs. 


When several young women in Marie’s court snuck perfume out of Versailles, the lower classes began bragging they now smelled like a Queen— sour milk included. Le Pew Marie, the less expensive cologne version, was on every peasant’s Christmas list. The news carried back to the palace and Marie sent Royal Guards to confiscate all of the new cologne. The Queen scoffed, “Let them wear Avon!”


The villagers revolted leading to a six-month skirmish known as the War of the Noses. The dispute ended when village chemists formulated their own cologne, Marie Sans Tete, which translates to Headless Marie. It smelled of hyacinth, lilies of the valley with a base note of revolution. 


The popularity of perfume and all things fragranced boomed in the industrial age. New factories left workers exhausted and drenched in sweat. Women and men disguised odors by tying sachets into their clothing. Often a handsome gentleman would turn heads with a carefully placed packet of cloves, sandalwood and cedar. An interested passerby would query, “Are you endowed by the gods or is it just that same old spice?” 


The titans of Wall Street and men of the Gilded Age needed a masculine fragrance. They thought to smell like an old leather boot or damp Jodhpurs was manly. The aroma of the locker room at the Knickerbocker Gym was distilled into men’s cologne. The scent was strong, pungent and named after its creator— William Wanker. Every man on Fifth Avenue wanted a bottle of Wille Wanker. 


The demand was so high, Wanker couldn’t crank it out fast enough. Pushing his factory to the limit, a fire started while mixing flammable ingredients. William lost his life and his willie went up in flames. The remaining bottles were purchased for hundreds of dollars. Most of the stock was hoarded by tycoons. 


Cornelius Vanderbilt was rumored to have ten Willies hidden in his closet. When a few Fifth Avenue mansions were demolished, old bottles of Willie Wanker were found hidden under floorboards. An auctioneer for Christie’s stated, “Anyone sitting on an old Willie could have a gold mine.” 


Perfume prices continued to escalate with time. Bottles can sell for hundreds of dollars. Blue collar workers and immigrants wanting to rid themselves of the factory floor smell needed cheaper products. Luckily, Michele Bidet, a French immigrant, began bottling toilet water. She discovered mixing water, alcohol, flowers or citrus could create a wearable smell. Michele purchased several toilets and started her own business. 


Eau De Toilette could be purchased in variety stores, pharmacies, supermarkets, truck stops and funeral homes. Evening in Paris became a favorite among the toilet water wearers. Night in Poughkeepsie and Affair in Yonkers did not impress consumers as well. Now, everyone could claim a signature fragrance no matter what was in their wallet. 


Today, the fragrance market in the US is worth 53.7 billion. There’s a lot of odors out there and we’re willing to spend the bucks to spritz them away. We have put fragrance in everything. The only item we want odorless is deodorant so it won’t clash with our shampoo, shower gel, after-shower body mist, foot spray, laundry detergent and perfume. We cover ourselves with so many layers of scent we’re like an onion, which by the way smells, so we have to eliminate that odor too. 


We want our homes to be palaces of fragrance. We buy incense, essential oils, candles, room sprays, potpourri, diffusers, fragrance beads and scent machines. If you enter someone’s home and you smell old garlic, broccoli, or cat litter, they’ve immediately failed the test. No Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for them. If you ask where’s the cat and they say they don’t have one, head for the hills. We’re adults and should have learned to control residential rancidness.


Let’s face it, most of nature stinks. It’s oils and chemical smells we’ve learned to love. Flowers are delightful, but they get putrid after a week in a vase. Manufactured fragrances never lose aromatic power. Stick a dryer sheet in your pants and see how long it stays fresh. You’ll notice strangers sniffing you on the subway, not unlike two golden retrievers checking each other out. If you’re approached from the rear, get off the train. 


Products to make every inch of our bodies smell like a botanical garden, are flooding the market. New shampoos for pubic hair are being advertised. It’s a little jarring to watch dancing, singing pubes reminding us to celebrate the hair down there. Evidently, regular body shampoo just misses the mark. This special formulated mixture will transform your nether region into a rose bush. What’s next? Little blow dryers? 


We’ve evolved into a species basking in the aromatherapy of life. You can smell like anything you want. From a candy store, an English rose garden, the temples of Babylon to a vacation, it’s all a spray away. 


How do you smell like a vacation? There’s a new toilet water that’s supposed to smell like sunscreen and swimming pools, with hints of coconut, banana, pineapple. To finish it off there are base notes of swimsuit lycra and pool toys. 


We’ve truly surpassed the art of perfumery when the smell of a wet swimsuit has been bottled. Have they perfected a bikini or thong scent? By the way, pool noodles with a hint of chlorine have a much better bouquet than pool floats. 


When the first recorded Mesopotamian chemist ground spices and combined it with natural oils, she would never have imagined her process would be carried far into the future. Someday there’d be an eau de toilette to spray on our bodies, smelling like something we wear on our bodies. It’s a conundrum.


The Egyptians knew what they were doing when they took perfumes and used Cleopatra as the first spokesperson. She knew how to sell it to the crowds. With a stylish bob, some well-placed beads, gold snake jewelry, and colorful eye makeup, she looked and smelled like a million golden calves. Perfume and the business of fragrance became a commodity. 


A Pharaoh likes the queen’s fragrance, buys it for his queen and another Pharaoh buys some too. Then a bottle of Serpent travels down the Nile where a merchant buys it and starts his own perfume business. He hires several peasants to go hut to hovel, sell his fragrances and recruit new perfume peasants. “Ding, Dong! Amun Calling!” Selling perfume becomes the first Pyramid Scheme. 


The allure of living among the top one-percent is still as enticing as it was when old Cleo lounged on her barge. A favorite scent can make us feel like a million dollars even if it was purchased at Big Lots. We watch celebrities endorse major perfume brands thinking a spray of Shalimar or Acqua Di Gio will make us as attractive as Charlize Theron or Chris Hemsworth. That might be possible if we spray it in our eyes before looking in the mirror.


Fragrance commercials show beautiful women slithering through cocktail parties in designer dresses. Shirtless hunks run on the beach, in the South of France, with a bottle of designer cologne. These ads suggest luxury, sensuality and opulence. We fantasize a bottle of aromatic liquid will fulfill our dreams. 


Guess what? The best we’re going to do is slink through the line at the DMV or run down the aisle of the supermarket with a bottle of Diet Coke in our hand. But, we’ve been sprayed at the perfume counter at Macy’s. So, doesn’t life smell good?



















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