The first evidence of any kind of perfume being made dates all the way back to 2000 years before the birth of Christ, with the creation of a vast perfume factory in the middle of an ancient Cypriot city. Although the people who worked their and their recipes have been lost, the evidence of their factory – and therefore the demand that there must have been for great-smelling concoctions – can still be found and is available for the public to see. It’s safe to assume that this enormous laboratory wasn’t the site of the invention of perfume, and so perfumers must have been around much earlier plying their wares and scenting the people of the ancient world as best as they could.
The first chemist in recorded history was a perfume manufacturer working for the ancient Egyptians known to us only as Tapputi. Tapputi and her assistant worked with different aromatic flowers, oil and myrrh; heating and purifying the mixtures and handing the final sweet smelling, oily concoctions on to the ruling classes. Tapputi’s work, whilst basic when compared to the work of modern perfumers, was revolutionary for the time; Tapputi would have been a very skilled and respected woman indeed.
Whilst she is the earliest recorded chemist, it’s unlikely that Tapputi’s work was confined to just her lab. There is evidence of amateur perfumery all over the Ancient Egyptian world, particularly using the common flower of the Nile, the blue lily, which has a characteristic sweet smell and is used in perfumes still in the modern day! The blue lily was associated with the spiritual world due to it’s slightly psychoactive properties, and it’s likely that this property, along with it’s scent, is what encouraged ancient perfumers to extract its oils and scent themselves and their home with it.
The Romans refined the art of perfume making when they conquered the Egyptian world, and became so very popular that the emperor Cicero claimed, “the right scent for a woman is none at all”. We don’t think we would have really got on with Cicero. Still, in Rome the practise was widespread and most homes were scented by a mixture of flower scents extracted by adding alcohol to ground flowers and heating again and again. The Romans even had their own deodorants, made from alum, iris and rose petals.
During this period, perfumes where also common in Asia – incense, spices and extracted perfumes had great spiritual value during the ancient Chinese dynasties, and were used enormously in both private shrines within the home and in larger religious festivals and buildings. One historian of medieval China has this to say of the Chinese use of perfumes:
“…there was little clear-cut distinction among drugs, spices, perfumes, and incenses – that is, among substances which nourish the body and those which nourish the spirit, those which attract a lover and those which attract a divinity.” Edward H. Schafer
So, the Chinese were far from strangers to the more delicate scents of flowers and perfumes. Indeed, modern day perfumes that are made today owe some of their most popular ingredients to oriental herbs, spices and flowers that were used in ancient formulations.
The next significant advance in perfumery (and in chemistry as a whole) was invented after the spread of Islam across the Middle East in around 800AD. Steam extraction – the method of pumping steam through flowers and other sweet-smelling mixtures that often go into perfumes – was invented. Additionally, the interest of the Islamic world led to an enormous increase in the available ingredients that could go into perfumes, with various citrus species introduced to the science. Citrus fruits are to this day one of the favourite ingredients to the formulations of perfumers, due to their distinctive scent and the high acid content creating complex and varied molecules within the perfumes. As seen with Roman, Chinese and even earlier civilisations, it’s likely that religious ceremonies and Mosques were heavily perfumed, and residential areas had their own perfumes and perfumers as well.
Later, the art of perfumery spread into Europe from the East and soon became a hobby and point of dispute among the ruling classes. In Hungary, ‘Hungary Water’ – a mixture of fragrance oils in alcohol and so the first modern-style perfume – became common as a scent and as a medicine, and was in high demand for people to drink for their health. As the silk road between Europe and Asia developed, more and more ingredients; spices, herbs, flowers and other plants; became available to the new perfumery guilds, and the science grew very quickly.
As European cities grew in size, they also became more and more smelly. The Medieval European city had very little sewage system and similar infrastructure, and so would tend to smell and smell bad. With the availability of affordable home fragrance, many houses would liberally scent everywhere in order to have some solace from the smells of the city. The royalty across Europe developed a penchant for holding scented handkerchiefs in front of their noses when visiting areas of the city, and perfumers everywhere thrived.
Since then, perfume has developed at the same pace as the rest of chemistry, and perfumes became more and more advanced and complicated, with ever-more-careful ratios of multiple ingredients and chemicals. To be a perfumer takes years of careful training, and the quality of the product is unprecedented – scenting your home is a painless but fun experience that we all do – simply by lighting a candle or opening an reed diffuser bottle.
Today, perfume is alive and well as a science and industry and perfumers are far better equipped than they’re ever been to create delicate, complicated scents with a whole world’s worth of ingredients at their disposal. Perfume is a complicated thing to make and the extraction processes for the often-delicate ingredients has become a true art form. The home fragrances we stock here at Love Aroma have been carefully designed by modern chemists in modern labs using modern equipment, but we always like the thought that what we are selling was first thought of – at least in some way – by Tapputi working away in her small lab in Ancient Egypt, four thousand years ago.