Perfume: Egypt to the Modern Vanity Table

Perfume: Egypt to the Modern Vanity Table

by Deborah Washington
International Perfume Bottle Association
Perfume – The origins of the “juice.”
What exactly is perfume? How does it differ from fragrance? The academic/dictionary definition states that the word perfume derives from the Latin perfumare meaning “to smoke through.” The French gave the name parfum to the pleasant smells produced by burning incense. Perfume often indicates a strong, rich smell, natural or manufactured. Fragrance is usually applied to fresh, delicate, and delicious odors, especially from growing things such as the fragrance of lavender and other flowers. Aroma is restricted to a somewhat spicy smell like the aroma of coffee or musk. You never comment on someone’s aroma, at least not in polite company.
One of the earliest gifts of perfume occurred when the three Wise Men gave the baby Jesus frankincense and myrrh. Ancient Egyptians burned incense called kyphi – made of henna, myrrh, cinnamon, and juniper – as religious offerings. The Egyptians were huge fans of perfume, and used it for both ceremonial and beautification purposes: fragrance was thought to be the sweat of the sun-god Ra. They even had a god of perfume, Nefertum, who wore a head dress made of water lilies, one of the biggest perfume ingredients of the time.
In Greece perfume was already central to worshiping and pleasing the gods and goddesses. The Greeks believed that anything as wondrous must actually have come from the gods: vast quantities were used in religious ceremonies, and those too poor to afford fragrance for funerals simply painted a perfume bottle on the coffin. An entire book titled Concerning Odors – written by Theophrastus, “the father of botany” – was dedicated to fragrance and written somewhere between 300 b.c. and 200 b.c.
For many years, perfume or fragrant oils came from the Orient. From there it spread to Europe when 13th century Crusaders brought back aromatic materials (and perfumery techniques) to England, France, and Italy. The Italians perfected this art and took it to a whole new level. During this same time, Marco Polo brought exotic aromatics and scented goods back to his home city of Venice. The great explorer returned laden with fragrant treasures from the new civilizations he’d discovered on his voyage. For many years, Venice flourished as the center of the perfume world.

In the Middle Ages and later, perfumes played a particularly important role during periods of plague. Europeans discovered the healing properties of fragrance during the 17th century. Doctors treating plague victims covered their mouths and noses with leather pouches holding pungent cloves, cinnamon, and spices which they, incorrectly, thought would protect them from disease. People believed the plague was caused by “bad air” and thought the best ways to avoid bad air was to use pungent smells, such as perfumes and incense. The pomander – a small perforated container filled with spices and herbs and worn on the body – was meant to provide a continuous fragrant shield against disease.
But soon, the epicenter of perfumery moved from Italy to France, thanks to the influence of Queen Catherine de Medici. Until then, French enjoyment of the scent world was mostly in the form of little scented sachets (called “coussines”) or molded clay bottles (known as “oilselets de chypre”). But Catherine brought with her from her native Tuscany scented gloves, the perfume used to mask the unpleasant aroma of poorly-tanned leather.
Perfume then came into widespread use among the monarchy. France’s King Louis XIV used it so much that he was called the “perfume king.” Royal guests bathed in goat’s milk and rose petals. Visitors were often doused with perfume, which also was sprayed on clothing, furniture, walls, and tableware. Louis took the trend for perfumery to new heights, by commissioning his perfumer to create a new scent for each day of the week – the first “celebrity” perfume.
Perfumers began to sell their wares more widely through “perfumed pedlars.” They would tour the country, visiting larger towns with a horse and cart stocked with perfumes, while others were simple street peddlers/vendors. (Note: You can find “Perfume Street Peddlers” in many major US cities, particularly New York.)
It was at this time that Grasse, a region of southern France where many flowering plant varieties grow, became a leading producer of perfumes. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as bathing became more popular and ‚accessible, perfumes were no longer needed to mask stale body odors.
In early America, the first scents were colognes and scented water by French explorers in New France. Florida water, an uncomplicated mixture of eau de cologne with a dash of oil of cloves, cassia, and lemon grass, was popular.
Jump ahead a few decades, during the nineteenth century, perfumes, which had previously been worn by both sexes, became increasingly restricted to women. The supposedly frivolous nature of perfume was deemed to make fragrance more suitable for “frivolous” women than for “serious” men. Sweet floral scents, in particular, were considered appropriate for women, while men, if they wore any scent at all, were offered woodsy or spicy fragrances.
Modern perfumery began in the late nineteenth century with the first use of synthetic, ingredients brought together with natural products from new technologies. Houbigant and Guerlain were the first to use synthetic products: Fougere royale in 1884 and Jicky in 1889 are considered the first modern perfumes. They paved the way for the great works of the twentieth century.
Until the 50s, fragrance was something women mostly reserved for special days; holidays, birthdays and anniversary dinners. Until Estee Lauder introduced Youth Dew a bath oil that doubled as a skin perfume. And so perfume – without losing any of its magic and mystery – became something that women could indulge in every day of their lives. More affordable brands appeared on the shelves: Revlon, Coty, Yardley, Max Factor: big hits were Lentheric Tweed, Coty L’Aimant, Max Factor Hypnotique, and their Primitif. Yardley’s Lily of the Valley. And we can’t forget today’s “celebrity” fragrances.
How to hold the Juice – the Origin of the Perfume Container
Just as the art of perfumery progressed through the centuries, so did the art of the perfume container. Perfume bottles were often as elaborate and exotic as the oils they contained. The earliest specimens date back to about 1000 B.C. In ancient Egypt, newly invented glass bottles were made largely to hold perfumes. The oldest known perfume bottles came from the Ancient Egyptians. They used containers made of stone and alabaster which kept the perfume cool, and did not leak the precious liquids. The famous King Tut was buried with a myriad of perfume/oil containers.
They also used clay pots made into sculptures of people and animals. They were very creative in their designs. Glass bottles date back to the 15th century b.c. The glass bottles were also non-porous and lightweight. Eventually the glass bottles were created in brilliant colors.
Perfume bottles found in Palestine were also made of glass, and had narrow long necks. Large bottles of perfumes were often found in tombs, believed to cover the smell of the dead bodies. The Ancient Greeks made beautiful containers for perfume. They hand painted vases which were often shaped as animals. They used lidded bowls for holding less expensive perfumes. Glass bottles were again reformed upon the invention of blown glass. Bottles were designed in the shapes of animals, bunches of grapes, fruit, shells and fish. The Roman’s used hollowed-out precious stones to carry their most valuable perfumes.
The crafting of perfume bottles spread into Europe and reached its peak in Venice in the 18th century, when glass containers assumed the shape of small animals or had pastoral scenes painted on them. Europeans used many different containers to store their perfumes.
Some perfume containers were designed to be worn. Semi-precious stones held perfumes and were pinned to clothing. Silver earrings were worn that contained perfume soaked fabric inside them. Many containers were designed to be hung around the neck, from a belt, or from a finger ring.
Small wooden boxes were created to hold a sponge soaked with perfume. These boxes would fit inside a pocket and could be taken out and inhaled at any time. Porcelain was used in the 13th century. Many highly decorative bottles were created. Boxes were created that included perfume and other ‚essentials. Some boxes contained several bottles of perfumes, a funnel and a mixing dish.
Some would argue that the modern perfume bottle was born in 1906 when Rene Lalique was approached by the perfumer Francois Coty to design the bottles for his perfumes. At this time, Coty, like many other perfume makers, started to offer “over the counter” pre-packaged perfumes. Coty was well established in the perfume industry and desired both beautiful and affordable bottles to hold his perfumes. Lalique was successful in fulfilling Coty’s wishes, and continued to design bottles for his future creations. His most famous designs include Au Coeur des Calices, LíEntrainement and Ambre Antique. He also designed bottles for other perfumers. Some of his most famous creations were developed for Houbigant, Roger et Gallet, D’Orsay, Forvil, and Arys and Molinard.
Another large influence on the modern perfume bottle came when the Oriental Movement in Paris was begun in 1910 by Paul Poiret, a famous designer. Poiret introduced an Oriental style in clothing, furnishings and perfumes. Women who longed to wear the gowns he designed, but could not afford them, could still wear the perfume. For women who did wear his collections, the perfume was the final touch. Poiret developed a new perfume “Chez Poiret” with beautiful and innovative packaging. The bottle was made of clear glass with a colored glass stopper. It was decorated with gold tassels, and had a new label with a classic “R.” Poiret used his boxes as a tool for expressing the style of the fragrance.
Birth of the Vanity Table
The modern Vanity Table actually began with a box. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 exhibit “Vanities Art of the Dressing Table” documented the history of the vanity beginning not with a table but a box. From ancient times and across many cultures, ornate boxes have been crafted to hold a variety of beautifying paraphernalia, including jars for cosmetics, flasks for rare perfumes and exotic oils, implements for applying makeup, and mirrors. Egyptian storage boxes, for example, were made from an array of materials – wood, alabaster, ivory, bone, bronze, faience, or pottery – and were embellished with inlaid woods and gold or painted in beautiful designs. They were intended to be displayed as an indication of one’s rank and importance.
In late 14th century France, the boxes came to be called Necessaire, containing things necessary for the day. Others, particularly those for nobility and the wealthy, were works of art. Many were fashioned by the best cabinet makers and jewelers of the era. In the 19th century, these dressing cases also served men of the upperclass. They were designed to be carried during their travels, perhaps on their “Grand Tour” of Europe. The cases held cologne, aftershaves, creams and other essential grooming tools. The cases designed for women took on the name “vanity box.” Silks and gorgeous fabrics and jewels decorated the more feminine box.
The shift from boxes or portable cases to the tabletop and, eventually, to a broadly idiomatic form of furniture occurred in tandem with the evolution of the toilette, referring to the process of dressing and making up and the concomitant rituals of personal grooming. The origins of the term “toilette” (or toilet) can be traced to the Middle Ages, when men and women began spreading on a table a toile (French for cloth), or toilettes, as they became known, when the table was to be used for serving meals, correspondence, and game playing as well as applying cosmetics. For purposes of dressing, the table would typically be draped with a simple cloth that reached to the floor, and a second, more refined cloth (probably of linen) or even a piece of leather was then placed on top. But some were over-the-top designs of gold filigree, stones, crystal and so much more.
Self-adornment truly came into vogue among the European aristocracy during the Renaissance, and with it the desire for specifically designed accouterments. At court, ladies-in-waiting to the queen or barbers to the king carried such makeup accessories in small ornamental containers known as etuis, whereas the bourgeoisie kept their accessories in small cloth toilettes. The portable accessory eventually moved to the tabletop, and the dressing table was, in effect, born.
The levee (from the French word lever, meaning “getting up” or “rising”) has traditionally been a daily moment of intimacy and accessibility to a monarch or leader. The levee was used by men and women throughout history to announce their status and importance. Louis XIV used the process of dressing (lever) and undressing (coucher), as a type of royal favor to a select group granted the privilege of watching the great monarch prepare for the day or night. Perfumes, oils, creams and other fashion and beauty accessories would be displayed on a near a dressing table where guests could judge the wealth and importance of the owner.
The toilette, formerly an object, became an activity, one that today encompasses not only the act of getting ready for the day but also the cosmetics, accessories, clothes and jewelry that make up our daily appearance, our face to the world.
Vanity Thy Name is – Anything that makes you look good and smell good.
Deborah L. Washington is a long time collector of perfume and vanity items with a focus on filigree and jeweled bottles and vanity sets.  She is currently the Convention Chair for the International Perfume Bottle Association. If you want to know more about perfume, perfume bottles, vanity items of all types, check out their website at perfumebotles.org.

Perfume: Egypt to the Modern Vanity Table