New Worlds: Perfume

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

When it comes to beautifying our bodies, we haven’t stopped at the visual. For millennia, people have sought to improve the way they smell, too — for a whole host of reasons ranging from masking unpleasant odors, to actively creating olfactory appeal, to achieving medical and religious effects. I was recently skimming a book on foreign trade in Tang Dynasty China, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand by Edward H. Schafer, and at the beginning of a series of three chapters on Foods, Aromatics, and Drugs, the author says:

Just as no hard and fast line can be drawn between cosmetics and drugs in the civilization of the medieval Far East, so any attempt to discriminate precisely between foods and drugs, or between condiments and perfumes, would lead to frustrated misrepresentation of the true role of edibles in T’ang culture […] Every food had medicinal properties […] Spices in particular — and exotic ones above all — because of their aromatic nature, infusing their wonder-working properties by means of unmistakable effluvia, were ranked high among the useful drugs […] spices and perfumes had their parts to play in religion as well as in medicine, and also in daily life, to preserve food, to repel unpleasant insects, to purify noxious airs, to clean the body and beautify the skin, to evoke love in an indifferent beloved, to improve one’s social status, and in many other ways.

Like Schafer, I’m going to arbitrarily talk about perfume as if that’s a wholly separable subject from food and religion and medicine, even though it never has been (as aromatherapy today attests). But we have to draw lines somewhere, or else one essay would go on for a whole book.

Our modern perfumes and related products such as deodorants, lotions, and soaps cover a much broader range of scents than they did in the past, because we’ve developed an array of techniques like distillation to let us extract the volatile components from different substances and add them to oils or other materials. We can make people smell like flowers, fruit, nuts, trees, herbs, resins — practically anything, including some things that probably would have really puzzled our ancestors, like cucumber.

But both then and now, the art is not just in extracting the scent and then applying it to the skin, but in how you combine various scents. Modern guides divide scents into categories like citrus, floral, fruity, woody, green, spicy, oceanic (a very recent and synthetic category), and the rather problematically-named “Oriental” grouping. Perfumes can be built within a category, or mix scents from different categories to create an interesting contrast.

In the past, though — as the Schafer quote suggests — other considerations would have come into play. I don’t have any specifics to hand for this, but I have zero doubt that Chinese aromatics were tied in with the general system of Taoist medicine, with elemental and yin/yang associations. I do know that Ayurvedic medicine assigns “warming” and “cooling” qualities to various scents, and therefore prescribes different perfumes for different seasons. Even now we class some scents as “masculine” or “feminine,” such that perfumes for women skew toward things like floral and citrus, while colognes for men are more likely to be woody or spicy.

And let’s stop to look at that word right there: “cologne.” It derives from “eau de Cologne,” which is to say a specific water (perfume) from Cologne . . . but in the United States it’s come to mean men’s perfume, because these days the notion of men wearing perfume is seen as effeminate. Men still do benefit from smelling good, though, so we’ve just rebranded the concept and assigned certain scent categories to them as being acceptably manly. And even with that precaution in place, in 1994 we coined the word “metrosexual” to describe men who invest serious effort in their grooming — including the use of scented soaps, shampoos, and lotions.

This would have been inconceivable to the people of a few hundred years ago, when both men and women wore perfume. Or at least rich men and women did: because perfumery requires exotic substances, complex processes for extracting scents, or both, it’s very much a luxury item. It’s one of the many ways they separated themselves from the unwashed masses — literally, as the scents were often added to bathwater or soap, as well as being applied after the fact.

Perfumery was therefore an acceptable art form for elites. They might not do the labor of extracting the aromatic compounds themselves, as that often requires quite a bit of scientific sophistication, but blending? That’s an ideal pastime for aristocrats. It expresses refinement and aesthetic sensitivity, and allows them to create not only substances that make them more attractive, but gifts for their fellow nobles. Since the precise composition of any given perfume might be a closely-held secret, those gifts could be valuable indeed.

But creating a perfume is only one half of the equation. The other half is the ability to identify its notes, or component scents, simply by smelling it. Much like music appreciation, this requires both good sensory acuity — olfactory in this case instead of aural — and a lot of practice, and developing that skill can win you acclaim. We’ve probably all heard of the chad? or “way of tea” (tea ceremony), and also kad? or ikebana, the “way of flowers” . . . but there’s a third classical art that Japanese elites used to demonstrate their sophistication, and that’s k?d?, the “way of fragrance.” Along with the tea ceremony and flower arranging, it developed properly in the Muromachi Period, but Heian-era nobles held parties where the attendees would be invited to bring the incenses they’d blended and compare the scents. You can even play competitive games to identify the components of a scent or guess which two out of a set of five are the same — complete with specialized symbols (k? no zu) to record your guesses.

Of course, there I’m veering off into incense instead of perfume. We’ll come back to that next week, but for the time being it’s enough to illustrate the high regard in which aristocratic societies of the past held the art of scent. We may have more options for what to smell like today, and have made those available to many more strata of society, but that doesn’t mean we’re uniquely obsessed with such things. On the contrary, if anything we care less about them than people did in the past, because we often see them solely as a matter of olfactory preference — what do you want to smell like? — rather than part of a whole system of long-distance trade and symbolic or practical significance.

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New Worlds: Perfume — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for more intriguing historical context. I just wish that people would stop wearing the strong commercial perfumes of today. And using the awful scents in everything like laundry soap, etc. So obnoxious, and they make some of us literally sick. Maybe back to older, natural sources for (please) Subtle scent??

    • I’m not sure that older perfumes were necessarily more subtle! A lot depends on how you wear it, too — just a dab at the pulse points will produce a different effect than spraying an entire cloud of it in the air and then walking through it (which is what my freshman college roommate used to do).

      But we defintely have more problems today with allergies — not just to perfumes, but to all kinds of things in the world around us — so yes, it can be a genuine health problem for people. And I’m with you in disliking a lot of the laundry scents and so forth, because to me they just smell unpleasantly chemical, nothing like the things they’re supposed to evoke. (A lot of that is the “oceanic” category of fragrances, which are your “fresh air” and “ocean breeze” kinds of scents, and which are wholly synthetic.)

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