God Sweat, Whale Guts, And Foot Scents: The History Of Perfume

Perfume came a long way before Chanel N°5. These days, many people dab on a touch of perfume or cologne every morning, but perfume in the past was a luxury item associated with deities. Egyptians even called perfume the sweat of the sun god, and Romans believed perfume connected them to the divine.

Perfume history isn't all roses. In fact, many popular perfume recipes contained oil found in a whale's intestine or liquid from the anal glands of cats. Today, many of the best fragrance makers use synthetic ingredients, but in the early days, perfumers hunted down exotic scents to impress buyers like Catherine de Medici and Napoleon - who went through a shocking amount of cologne each month.

Perfume wasn't just a luxury item, however. Doctors warned people to use perfume to ward off disease since they believed that even royalty suffered from bad smelling environments that could transmit plague - medieval castles were especially dirty. Many elites carried scented ornaments at all times to protect themselves from foul smells, preferring the scent of beaver glands to human body odor.

Photo: Dennis Jarvis / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

  • For Centuries, Elites Rubbed Whale Vomit On Their Bodies

    Perfumes from the medieval period through the modern era relied on animal-derived ingredients, including oils extracted from the glands of musk deer and civet cats. Ambergris was also a common perfume ingredient. Ambergris is an oily mass coughed up by sperm whales that originates in their intestinal tract.

    The prized and rare substance was used in luxury perfumes that were often thought to hold medicinal value. In fact, the pungent substances reportedly freshened breath.

  • Animal Scent Glands Made Attractive Perfume Ingredients
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Animal Scent Glands Made Attractive Perfume Ingredients

    Base notes stay on a person's skin the longest and hold all the other scents together - and throughout history, they were often made from animal scent glands. Europeans sought secretions from deer, cats, and beavers. They came from the anal or scent glands, which the animals used to mark their territory.

    Perfume makers preferred to use civet, a liquid found in the glands of a civet cat, castor from beavers, and musk from musk deer.

  • Doctors Believed They Could Protect Themselves From Plague With Perfume
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Doctors Believed They Could Protect Themselves From Plague With Perfume

    When the Black Plague struck Europe in the 14th century and affected about 60% of the population, Europeans believed the illness was carried by tainted air known as miasma. As a result, doctors began using perfume for medicinal purposes and protection

    These doctors wore outfits designed to counteract the bad scents they thought were the cause. The outfits included a mask with a hooked nose that contained dried flowers, spices, herbs, and vinegar to protect them from miasma. Perfume was in high demand because of the belief that fragrances could counter the epidemic. 

  • The Poisoner Queen Also Popularized Perfumes
    Photo: François Clouet / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Poisoner Queen Also Popularized Perfumes

    Catherine de Medici brought her love of Italian perfumes with her when she became queen of France. Catherine was just 14 when her family arranged her marriage to Henry II in 1533. In commemoration, Florence's Dominican monks created a perfume for Catherine, which they called "Acqua della Regina," or Water of the Queen. When Catherine moved to France, she even brought her perfume maker with her.

    The queen soon built a reputation for using laced gloves against her adversaries. It's true that Catherine popularized perfumed gloves - but soon rumors circulated that she sent tainted gloves to her opponents. 

  • The Romans Liked To Perfume The Soles Of Their Feet

    In early Rome, perfume was a luxury item associated with the gods. The oldest known perfume factory in the world was found in Cyprus and may have made scents for Roman temples. The factory is thought to be associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

    During the height of the Roman empire, perfume makers went through nearly 3,000 tons of frankincense each year. Perfumes scented Roman public baths, and Romans also enjoyed rubbing perfume on the soles of their feet.

  • The Ancient Egyptians Called Perfume The Sweat Of The Gods

    In ancient Egypt, perfume was closely associated with the gods. Egyptians believed that perfume came from the sweat of Ra, the sun god. In their pantheon of gods, the Egyptians also worshiped Nefertum, the god of perfume. He wore a water lily on his head, representing one of the most important ingredients in Egyptian perfume. 

    The Egyptians used plants to create scents, including henna, cinnamon, roses, and lilies. These ingredients were often soaked in oil and sold to the wealthy.