The History of Perfume

Original Eau de Cologne flacon 1811, from Johann Maria Farina

Cologne and perfume are both a part of men and women’s beauty ritual. The beginnings of this beauty product will surprise many.

Before 6000 B.C., perfumes started in shrines and sacred ceremonies. It graced the tables of Priests not everyday people. Perfume comes from two Latin words “per” and “fumus” which means “through the smoke”. And this is exactly how the smell got to the people. The fragrance came from inside a burning animal carcass.

Early man believed to appease the Gods that he needed to sacrifice a slaughtered beast. Perfume was used as a deodorizer to help lessen the smell of the burning flesh. This is noted in the Bible with the sacrifices of Noah. When the “Lord smelled the sweet odor”, that was incense not the carcass.

With this early beginning perfume and pleasant smells became regarded as a highly prized commodity in their own right. The transition from incense to perfume occurred about 6000 years ago. Egyptians bathed themselves in oil and alcohols of hyacinth, honeysuckle, iris, and jasmine. There are Greek documents that recommend mint for the arms, cinnamon or rose for the body and almond oil for hands and feet.

Perfumers known as Unguntarii

Perfumers in Rome used wisteria, carnations, vanilla and lilac for the Roman Empire. Cedar, ginger, pine, and mimosa oils were popular in the Far and Middle East. Shop owners who produced perfumes were called” unguntarii”.

This name meant “men who anoint” and the word “urgent” is derived from this name. Nero, who often started fads with his unusual fashion sense, spent the equivalent of $160,000 in 2010 dollars on rose oils, water, and petals for a party in one evening. It has also been noted that at the funeral of Poppaea in 65 A.D. used more perfume than Arabia could produce in a year.

This wastefulness incensed the Church and perfume soon became associated with decadence and debauchery. During the second century, perfume was banned for Christians. It took the Crusades for Europe to become interested in perfumes again. During this time, animal oils were introduced and pharmacists learned that certain animal secretions seemed highly enjoyed by humans. Musk, civet, ambergris, and caster are all still used in modern perfumes. These animals’ oils come from glandular and sexual secretions and are very pungent when used alone.

Toilet Water

By the 1700s Germany saw the arrival of Jean-Baptisete Farina in Cologne. He wanted to earn a fortune in the perfume trade. One of his special creations used alcohol, lemon, orange and mint. He called it “water of Cologne”. The word “cologne”, “perfume”, and “toilet water” soon became part of the local language and France soon took over as the leader of the perfume industry.

It was French soldiers who were stationed in the city of Cologne during the Seven Years’ War and started sending cologne home that caused the Farina family to start their successful perfume business. It was this same observation later during World War I that caused Francois Coty to realize the U.S. infantrymen were obsessed with French perfume. Jeanne Lanvin took the French perfume Mon Peche, which had flopped in France and in 1925 had a great success in America by simply renaming it My Sin.

Avon, which is widely recognized as one of Americas largest perfume sellers, was actually launched by a man. David McConnell came from New York and started Avon Calling in 1886 to offer women cosmetics from the privacy of their own home. He started off selling books but when that didn’t go over well he thought he could offer a free gift for trying the books. He used a local pharmacist to help him make perfume.

Avon’s First Avon Lady

The perfume was a hit but the books still bombed, so David abandoned the books all together. He named his company after Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon because the New York state David lived him reminded him of the Shakespearian town. The first female Avon lady was Mrs. P.F. Albee from New Hampshire. By 1987 McConnell had 12 women selling a line of 18 fragrances. Avon Products Incorporated, today, still ranks near the top of sales nationwide with millions of Avon Ladies still selling door-to-door and internet sales soaring.

Many celebrities such as JLo, Britney, and even Elizabeth Taylor all have signature scents on the market today. While many fragrances disappear before they are even remembered the use of perfume today has become more widespread than when early man used incense to cover up the smell of a rotted, burning animal carcass. Marilyn Monroe one of the best known sex goddesses of all time is quoted as saying when asked what she wore to bed, “ Chanel No. 5”


  1. Morris, Edwin. The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel. New York. Scribner.
  2. Lester, Katherine. Accessories of Dress. New York. Manual Arts Press. 1940