A Short History of Perfume

Posted by Emily van Oosterom on

The Concept of Perfume

Perfumes are a part of human history that dates back thousands of years. The word "perfume" itself is derived from the Latin "per fumum," which means "through smoke." This nods to our ancestral practice of burning aromatic herbs and incense for religious rituals and medicinal purposes. However, over time, the purpose and craftsmanship of perfume have dramatically evolved.

Ancient Beginnings: Perfumes in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian Civilizations

The earliest recorded use of perfume comes from the Mesopotamian civilization, nearly 4000 years ago (Classen, Howes, & Synnott, 1994). It was in Mesopotamia where the first-known perfume maker, a woman named Tapputi, used flowers, oil, and calamus to create aromatic concoctions. However, it was in ancient Egypt that perfume began to gain significant cultural importance. The Egyptians used fragrant oils and incense in religious ceremonies, with specific scents reserved for different gods. They also used fragrances for embalming, utilizing aromatic resins to mask the scent of decay (Manniche, 1999).

Divine Fragrances: The Role of Perfumes in Ancient Greek and Roman Rituals

Following the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans incorporated perfume into their society but with even more diverse applications. The Greeks used perfumes for personal beautification, religious rituals, and even athletic events - winners of the Olympic games were crowned with fragrant olive oil. Additionally, renowned Greek philosophers like Theophrastus wrote about fragrances, indicating a keen interest in the study of scent (McHugh, 2012).

Roman society took the Greek love for perfumes a step further. Bathing in perfumed waters became a common practice in Roman society, and they were fond of scenting everything from their bodies to their dogs and furniture. Romans also used perfume in funeral rites, filling funeral pyres with fragrant spices (Stoddart, 1990).

The Middle Ages: The Rise of Personal Perfumes and Scented Oils

In the Middle Ages, perfume's significance shifted towards personal use due to increasing emphasis on personal hygiene and cleanliness. The Arabs, credited with introducing the distillation process, enhanced perfume production by creating scented oils with distilled alcohol, which had a longer shelf-life (Roudnitska, 1991).

During this period, trade routes were established, enabling the exchange of exotic spices and resins between the East and the West, enriching the variety of available scents. Europe's royalty and wealthy classes favored these exotic scents, and wearing a distinctive perfume became a symbol of status and wealth.

The Renaissance and Enlightenment: Refinement of Perfume Crafting Techniques

In the Renaissance, a surge in scientific exploration and artistic expression led to a greater appreciation for sensory experiences, including scent. Italy was the center of perfume development, with Venice becoming a significant hub for the trade of ingredients and fragrances. The profession of "perfumer" was recognized as a distinct craft during this period (Groom, 1999).

During the Enlightenment era, perfumery evolved even further with advancements in chemistry. This led to the development of new extraction techniques, like enfleurage, which allowed for more delicate scents from flowers to be captured.

The Industrial Revolution: Mass Production and the Birth of Modern Perfumery

The Industrial Revolution marked a significant shift in perfumery as new synthetic aroma compounds were developed. This allowed perfumers to create new, complex scents that were not possible with natural ingredients alone (Le Guérer, 1992).

Moreover, mass production and improved transportation meant perfumes could be manufactured on a large scale and distributed globally, making them more accessible to the general public. The birth of modern perfumery was marked by the creation of the first synthetic perfume, "Fougère Royale," by Houbigant in 1882.

The 20th Century: Signature Scents, Designer Brands, and Synthetic Components

In the 20th century, perfume became a massive global industry, with fashion designers and celebrities launching their signature scents. Synthetic ingredients became more common, leading to the creation of entirely new scent families like aldehydic and aquatic fragrances. Innovations in chemistry enabled the creation of scents that mimicked natural smells like ocean air or fresh-cut grass (Gilbert, 2008).

Furthermore, the marketing and branding of perfume drastically changed. Perfumes were no longer just about the scent; they became statements of personal style, identity, and aspiration. Iconic fragrances like Chanel No. 5 came to symbolize elegance and luxury.

Conclusion: The Ever-evolving World of Perfumery and its Future Trends

As we step into the future, the world of perfumery continues to evolve. Sustainability is increasingly important, with more brands sourcing ethically produced ingredients and adopting eco-friendly packaging. There's also growing interest in personalized fragrances, with brands offering custom-blended scents based on individual preferences.

Perfumery has indeed come a long way from its ancient beginnings. As we continue to explore new frontiers in scent, one thing is clear - the fascinating journey of perfume is far from over.


Classen, C., Howes, D., & Synnott, A. (1994). Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. Routledge.

Gilbert, A. N. (2008). What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life. Crown.

Groom, N. (1999). The Perfume Handbook. Springer.

Le Guérer, A. (1992). Scent: The Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell. Turtle Bay Books.

Manniche, L. (1999). Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. Cornell University Press.

McHugh, T. E. (2012). Smell and the Ancient Senses. Routledge.

Roudnitska, E. (1991). The Art of Perfumery. Perfumer & Flavorist.

Stoddart, D. M. (1990). The Scented Ape: The Biology and Culture of Human Odour. Cambridge University Press.

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