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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Scents for the Senses: Perfumes of the 18th century

Publication Date: June 26, 2021

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Sketch of a Perfume Merchant
Perfume Merchant

Previously, we chatted about hygiene in the 18th century, so let's focus more specifically on the perfumes and scents we might find our heroes and heroines wearing. Perfumes were exceedingly popular, and most could be made at home with relative ease. There were water-based perfumes for a subtle scent, alcohol-based perfumes for a stronger scent, as well as oil-based and wax-based. Most modern perfumes are alcohol-based, but it was far more common in the Georgian era to use water-based or wax-based, depending on the purpose (scenting a handkerchief versus hair pomade, for example). There were not gender-specific or gender-divided scents, so one would not associate a floral scent with being feminine or a musk scent with being masculine. We would just as easily find a hero scented with jasmine as we would a heroine scented of camphor.

Perfumes weren't only used as we think of them now, as a solitary scent-application spritzed on one's person, rather they were more commonly added to soaps, hair pomades, basin and bathing water, etc. It's more likely that our heroes and heroines would use scented soap, water, and/or pomade than to squirt perfume onto their body or clothes, but that's a personal choice. Subtlety would have been the goal, not saturation.

Given the preference for subtlety and the popularity of water-based scents, perfumes would be applied to objects, such as handkerchiefs, wigs, wig powder, gloves, rugs, bedding, cut flowers to help a room smell fresh, jewelry, and so forth. You might recall that Lizbeth scented her letters to Sebastian in The Earl and The Enchantress. Many servants (especially in the houses of nobility and royalty) used perfumes as part of the cleaning process, which can be traced back quite a few centuries, and by "perfume" this might simply be rose water to launder the clothes or an orange-jasmine combination added to water to clean rugs.

Behind the Scenes of a Perfumery
Behind the Scenes of a Perfumery

Homemade (or servant-made in most cases) perfumes were more popular, so both ladies and gentlemen would have water, wax, or oil infused with their favorite aroma or a mixture of their favorite aromas (or perhaps just something unique). For the person more interested in purchasing their perfume rather than making it, the best places to purchase would be the barber shop and the apothecary. Something that increased the popularity of a barber shop was the scents he had available (made in-house, of course, and unique to his shop).

The scents one might enjoy when attending a soiree would be unique to the person rather than everyone wearing the same popular scent. The more unique (in a good way, of course), the better, as the wearer could garner attention from both ladies and gentlemen by having a new and personalized scent, something they weren't likely to share with anyone else. Floral, musky, spicy, and citrusy scents were all popular. A few (not all) scents you might encounter when attending a soiree: jasmine, mint, rose, violet, cinnamon, bergamot, myrrh, lemon, orange, basil, chamomile, lavender, pennyroyal, sage, cloves, camphor, hyssop, rosemary, fennel, marjoram (or a combination!). Rather than a hero or heroine smelling like jasmine, for instance, it would be more in keeping historically for the MC to have an essence of floral with hints of jasmine, orange, and...a third and unidentifiable aroma that intoxicates the hero/heroine's senses. But to keep it simple, the author might simply say jasmine.

Sketch of an 18th century barber shop
Barber Shop

Hands down the best post I've come across on Georgian-era perfumes is by The Pragmatic Costumer. It is detailed in all the right ways. I've linked to it before, namely in the hygiene research post, and I just might link to it again in the future. Another page that’s a must-read is this one, as it goes into not just perfumes but other beautifying, hygienic, and even somewhat naughty items that might be found in a hero or heroine’s dressing room.

This page offers a terrific and brief history of the origin and timeline of perfumes as they made their way to England. It might not come as any surprise that the most significant influence (and source) for the perfumes and scents popular during the Georgian era came from France; a luxury was turned into a booming industry. The page also explores some of the most popular perfume makers at the time (including where their shops were located!). Speaking of great pages, check out author Laurie Benson's visit to two of the shops that were popular during the Georgian era.

This page offers some recipes for making your own Georgian-era perfume. One of the most often used scents for soaps and basin/bathing water was rose water. If you're interested in making your own rose water at home, check out this recipe.


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