Perfumery and the use of scents for personal or ritual enhancement is a very ancient art, dating back to at least biblical times in the West and perhaps even farther back in Africa and the East.
But the history of the ‘Eu de Toilette’ Parfum and Cologne that we have now has a very specific origin and is intertwined with the history of France and royal houses across Europe.
The Greek, Pliny the Elder, describes recipes ‘for use in perfumery’ in his various histories and writings, but the modern method still in use today, was, according to several sources, brought to Europe by the Arabs, who used aromatic oils to scent themselves, in the 14th Century. The first record of the formula for perfume, as defined as a mixture of essential oils in a base of alcohol was first produced and recorded by Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in 1370, and was know at that time as ‘Hungary Water.’ The techniques used in hungary were discovered and further refined by the Italians during the Renaissance of the 16th Century.
But it was Catherine de’ Medici, the Italian born Queen of France who brought the secret recipes to French high society and made them famous. Her personal perfumer, Rene le Florentin, even had a hidden underground tunnel from his apartments to her palace, so that he might bring them to her undisturbed.
The courts held by Louis the 14th were often named for a specific scent used at each, with scents being applied daily to courtesans, not only to the skin but also to clothing, fans and furniture. They were even sometimes used as a replacement for soap and bathing.
Napoleon too loved cologne. The King’s personal favorite? Violet and double extract of jasmine, f which he was said to go through sixty bottles a month.
The center of perfume production in Europe, then and now is the town of Grasse in the South of France. Interestingly perfumed gloves were once so popular that the trades of glove and perfume making shared a combined guild.
On a darker note, perfume makers were at times called on to make poisons, using the same botanical extraction techniques that went into the perfumes. These poisons were used as weapons of war and in more than a few high profile murders including one French Duchess who was killed by poisonous oils applied in secret to her clothing which slowly absorbed into the skin.
Queen Elizabeth the First of England was said to have such a sharp nose, she had all public places throughout England scented as she could not tolerate foul odours. She also trained the ladies of her court in the making and mixing of their own personal scents alongside the usual artistry of painting, writing, and music, practiced by the upper classes.