Perfume: The power of fragrance (1916)

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Perfume: Beauty harbinger

by Antoinette Donnelly

The anti-perfume woman and her sister, Miss Shiny Nose, may rightly claim that perfumes are heathenish in origin, but have they stopped to consider that we owe many wonderful and beautiful things to those maligned heathen? And if they but know, perfume has a religious origin; then it was incense, to be sure, but much like that used in some churches today. As far back as history dates, aromatic resins, barks, and roots were associated with the purest and highest emotions and formed an important part in ancient forms of worship.

It was but a short step in those days from religion to romance, and be it is that the history of perfume has come to be synonymous with romance. If your nature is anti-romantic, then it means naught to you to catch a whiff of violets as she goes flitting by. But, fortunately, most of us have still some latent heathenism in our makeup, and to us the mystic odors of the wonderful combinations unearthed since ancient times breathe beautiful tales of romance.

If nature has been so lavish in spreading her perfumes all over the face of the earth, then doesn’t it follow that she meant for us to enjoy them for all time? The senses of man in their crudest state responded to the delicious perfume of flowers, spices, resins, and aromatic plants, and with the advance of civilization, times have not materially changed, except that nowadays we pay phenomenal prices for what then cost little.

The business of fragrance

It a serious matter, this perfume business. History is filled with proofs of the overpowering influence exercised upon man by perfumes; their use and disuse have marked the rise and fall of nations, but, mind you, the “rising time” was when they were used most lavishly. Not only in life, but in death, did these ancient peoples surround themselves with sweet odors.

Rather behind the times is the present day realization of the efficiency of various perfumes as disinfectants and protectors from disease. For we have it on good authority that in Queen Elizabeth’s time a little ball of perfumed paste, the pomander, was worn about the neck as a preventive of contagion. And, too, it has long ago been shown that workers in perfume laboratories were exempt from disease during the prevalence of cholera epidemics, and hospital nurses have escaped contagion by carrying musk about them.

In this latter case, some might say the cure was worse than the disease, but there are ways of preparing this rather offensively strong odor so that it is completely disguised. But let us rejoice in the fact that the medical profession now agrees that the free use of perfumes is beneficial to the general health, that certain ones are almost a specific as protection from contagious diseases, and that nothing purified bad air better than spraying a room with volatile extracts or burning aromatic substances.

The incense burner should be restored to general use, and there is no necessity in using vile-smelling moth preventives when sachets of dried lavender or of cloves and allspice are more efficacious.

The origin of the perfumes

And where are most of the real perfumes of the world made? Perhaps I would better say “where were,” for in these gruesome war times, the little French town of Grasse, on the “azure side of the Mediterranean,” is occupied with other thoughts and duties. But time was when the population of this little town truly spent all its time gathering roses and other sweet-scented flowers. From March to November, they gather them in, from violets to cassia flowers. Over three millions of roses alone are gathered each year, and as many more orange flowers. Indeed, they say, ten billion pounds of flowers are converted into extracts and essences every summer.

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The process of manufacture is much the same for all natural perfumes except those made from rose or orange petals. Glass sheets held by frames a few inches apart are smeared thickly with lard, and be- tween these sheets, the freshly-picked blossoms are scattered. In one day, the oil exudes and the lard absorbs the precious drops. Before the grease is fully saturated, the flowers are changed many times. If the flowers are plentiful, they may be changed as often as every six hours. When the lard has absorbed as much oil as possible from the flowers, it is melted and dissolved in purified alcohol made from grain. This mixture is filtered, and then the concentrated extract used in any way desired.

Twenty thousand pounds of rose petals are required to make one pound of attar of roses, valued at about $200, and the distillation process by which this is reached entails endless labor.

Aromatics nothing new

Even though the people of the past did not make any of their perfumes chemically or by electricity, yet it must be admitted that they had some varieties which have never been surpassed. For example, Hungary water, which dates back to 1370. Of course, the chemist has done much to icduce the cost of perfumery by his imitations, but the weak point about all this manufactured product is that it doesn’t improve with age as does the real. Those chemically prepared sometimes cause nausea and headaches, so, milady, be careful how you choose. Let the “whiff” be a real one.

You know and I know there always have — and always will be — styles in perfumes, but we also know that the fastidious woman should find out what to her is the sweetest odor of all, and then fix her affections permanently upon it. She should individualize it by using among all her possessions, and avoid the disagreeable effect of rose perfume in her glove box, orange flower in her veils, violet in her gowns, etc.

Just as there should be harmony of color, so there should be in odors. If your olfactory nerves have not been cultivated to a keen appreciation of this harmony, it’s up to you to train them, for by your taste in odors will ye be judged.

Harmony in scents

All strong, overpowering odors are tabooed by good form, and no further reason should be needed for this than that founded on courtesy, which forbids us to offend our neighbors.

It is a pretty fancy to select an odor which harmonizes with your most becoming color. All the orange and citron odors belong to that portion of femininity which dotes on yellow. And carnation for the pink ladies! Fasten some tiny sachets into your gowns, place them in the nooks and corners of your dresser and trunk, have larger ones hanging around the sides of your closet, insert a tiny pad into your hat lining, and you will have attained the “last word” in perfumed effects.

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