The History of Perfume Is Not So Glamorous

By Scripps Howard News Service Barbara Hertenstein, of the Post-Dispatch, contributed to this story. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 28, 1996 | Go to article overview

The History of Perfume Is Not So Glamorous


Scripps Howard News Service Barbara Hertenstein, of the Post-Dispatch, contributed to this story., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


ON GLOSSY PAGE after glossy page of magazine advertisements, modern-day fragrances are touted as perfection in a bottle, luxurious elixirs capable of turning wearers into mysterious, seductive beings dressed either in the very finest or nothing at all.

And in antique shops, fabulous porcelain bottles like the 19th-century French ones pictured here are scooped up by collectors.

"These were all made in Paris between 1830 and 1860," says Robert Morrissey of Clark Graves Antiques in Clayton, referring to the collection he recently brought back from England. "There was a revival of Gothic, Oriental and Turkish influences, which you can see in some of the organic and fanciful shapes." People liked to collect the bottles as souvenirs of their visits to Paris. Now, priced from $250 to $950, they appeal to more serious collectors. The history of perfume is less glamorous than its containers might indicate. Derived from the Latin "per fumum," the word means "through the smoke" - a reference to the days when fragrant incense was used to smoke illness or evil spirits out of the body of a sick person. That perfumers often seemed immune to serious epidemics did not go unnoticed. During the Great Plague of Marseilles in 1722, a quartet of thieves doused themselves in a mixture of garlic and plant essences suspended in vinegar before filching valuables from the pockets and homes of the dead. They lived to tell the tale, and thus was born Four Thieves Vinegar, an early fragrance. Scents also were used by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and other cultures during religious rituals, entertaining and bathing. But perfume as we know it can be traced back to glovemakers working in France, in the 17th century, said Jan Morgan, author of "Fabulous Fragrances: How to Sele ct Your Perfume Wardrobe" (Crescent House Publishing, 1994). …

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