The first use of fragrance was aromatic plant matter burned as incense to gods and ancestors. The origin of the word ‘perfume’ comes from the Latin ‘per fumum’ meaning “through smoke”. This fragrant smoke was believed to carry prayers aloft, connecting the people with their deities.
Early bathing, too, is linked to religion as a means of purifying oneself, and scented oils were made by infusing in oils the resins and foliage of the coniferous trees used for the original incense.
EGYPT and the MIDDLE EAST
Ancient Egyptian records show that cleanliness and care of the body were of great importance. Priests were required to bath three times a day. Hmmm, just how old IS the saying “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”?
In the hot, dry, Egyptian climate skin dried and cracked easily, so following the bath with oil based lotions, pomades, and perfumes was common.
At the same time in Babylonia the first herbals were being written. These recorded the known uses and properties of plants and the earliest known systems to weigh and measure light materials such as those used in perfumery and medicinal preparations.
Meanwhile, in the Near East craftsmen had discovered how to make glass. This was of huge importance as glass is non-porous, non-reactive, and has no flavor of its own. Glass making soon spread to Egypt and by 1450 B.C. glass was one of the preferred materials for storing scented oils and perfumes.
GREECE and ROME
Knowledge of herbs and plants for medicine, food, and perfume, grew as men traveled farther and brought back the strange flora of other lands. Alexander the Great sent back specimens to to his teacher, Theophrastus, in Athens from the places he passed through as he conquered Persia. Theophrastus created a botanical garden and wrote the first book on fragrance, noting the use of the dried flowers and herbs as well as the use of various perfumes to influence various states of mind and health. Possibly the earliest aromatherapy.
Bathing and perfumery were a big deal in Ancient Rome. By then trade routes had opened to Arabia, India, and even China, bringing exotic plants such as sandalwood and oranges as well as the spices. So great was the demand for perfumes that glass making was given an unprecedented boost as glass containers were the most practical and popular.
In Alexandria, Egypt, around 200 A.D. while still under Roman rule, the science of alchemy was developed. Jewish mystics, Egyptian technologists, and Greek philosophers gathered to study the nature of natural materials in the hope of finding their divine spark or spirit. Their experiments with plants heated in water baths led to the development of the first primitive still and extraction of the first essential oils. Truly divine essences, but not quite what they were looking for.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, medical and pharmaceutical chemistry was continued by Persian and Arabian scholars. During this classical period of Islamic science, scent was part of everyday life. The most predominant was rose, used as oil for skin and hair and as rose water in cooking. The residents of Baghdad used some 30,000 bottles of attar of rose each year!
Babur (1483-1530), the first Mughal ruler of India, introduced Persian-style fragrant gardens to India and commented that, as to fragrant flowers, India “has so many that nothing in the universe can be compared to them.” The variety of climates in India provided a wealth of aromatic plants for perfumery and pharmacy. Frequent bathing and ritual washings were encouraged by the religions of the Jains, Buddhists, and Brahmins, with scented oils, powders & pastes applied after cleansing. Massage with perfumed sesame oil was a post bath ritual for athletes.
China, by comparison, had fewer botanicals, but gave a great boost to their dispersion through the establishment of various trade routes.
Trade goods traveled to and from India and the Arabian peninsula by land and sea. China exported flowering trees: citrus; camphor; peach and apricot. These played an important part in both fragrance and medicine. China also contributed fine porcelain with glasslike glazes that were as nonporous and non reactive as glass.
The Chinese improved upon distillation by introducing the process of cooling the condenser with cold water. This discovery ultimately inspired the perfection of the distillation process by Europeans during the Renaissance.
Before the Renaissance the only vestiges of perfumery, medicine, and pharmacy remaining in Europe after the fall of Rome were healing herbs grown by monks. Growing herbs for their fragrance was nonexistent and ornamental gardening was rudimentary.
During the Italian Renaissance, trade expanded. Exotic goods and new customs from the near and far East became vogue, including renewed interest in hygiene. Upper class Italians took to the habit of bathing and washing their hair once a week. At this time many volumes on plants as medicines, perfumes and cosmetics were published.
In 1533 the marriage of an Italian noblewoman to the King of France’s son introduced France to all the refinements of Italian culture. French interest in perfumery would grow ever more important, staying so to the present.
The interest in fragrance, health, and hygiene continued to expand over the entire western world, bringing us to its current level.
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