The Fascinating History of Perfume

By Leanna Serras March 21, 2019
image of The Fascinating History of Perfume

The history of perfume usage goes back thousands of years. The exact origins of perfume-making are debatable, but examples of fragrances have been discovered in ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, Mesopotamia and the Persian Empire.

Certain cultures placed high importance on the creation of perfumes as they were thought to help with hygiene and cleanliness. Fragrances were also used ceremonially and as a symbol of indulgence, often a staple in the homes of nobility. Here we’ll explore the history of perfume in cultures around the world as well as its early creation and uses.

Illustrated pictures of ancient landmarks

Perfume History Around the World

People have used perfume in many different ways throughout the years. Before it was a staple in the fashion industry, perfume was used to distinguish nobility. In many cultures, only the upper classes had access to perfumed products as they were expensive and hard to come by.

The first perfume maker on record was a woman chemist named Tapputi. Stories about her have been found on a clay tablet from Mesopotamia, dating back to the second millennium BC. Throughout the ages, different civilizations used fragrances and perfumes in many interesting ways.

ancient painting of egyptians and perfume

Ancient Egypt

Fragrance was of great importance in Egyptian high society. In fact, Egyptian mythology even notes the god Nefertem as being the lord of perfume. He is often depicted carrying water lilies, which were a common ingredient in ancient perfume.

Egyptians made perfume by distilling natural ingredients with non-scented oils. The most popular scents were derived from local flowers, fruits and aromatic woods. Incense was also used ceremonially and the trade of incense and myrrh played a large part in Egyptian international relations.

It’s said that great Egyptian leaders like Queen Cleopatra and Queen Hatshepsut used fragrances to scent their bodies, quarters, baths and even took perfume with them to the grave.

stone carving of ancient persians and perfume

Ancient Persia

The ancient Persians were no less enchanted by fragrance. They ruled the perfume trade for hundreds of years and are credited as the inventors of non-oil based perfume. During the Sassanid period, the production of fragrance and infused waters was quite prevalent.

Perfume held a high place in Persian noble society. Persian kings often had their own “signature scents” that their companions and relatives were not allowed to use. In fact, King Persepolis Darius is often pictured holding his bottles of perfume or incense. King Xerxes has also been pictured with Lily of the Valley flowers which were often used in fragrances.

It’s been documented that perfume-making equipment and fragrance-making workshops were abundant in ancient Persia and they loved to experiment with different scents and distillation processes.

greeks and ancient perfume

Ancient Rome

The ancient Romans and Greeks carefully documented their perfume making processes, which is why several Greco-Roman fragrances are being recreated today. One of these fragrances is from the world’s oldest perfume factory dating back to around 1850 B.C.

The ancient cult of Aphrodite, goddess of love, used perfumes and scents in their temples and in their worship services. However, perfume was not only used for religious purposes. It was a large part of Rome’s transformation from a small farming village to a global epicenter.

Romans were estimated to use about 2,800 tons of imported frankincense and 550 tons of myrrh a year. These fragrances were used in their public bathhouses to scent the water and in body care items such as balms, oils and perfumes for skin and hair.

Some Romans, such as Pliny the Elder, condemned the use of perfumes because of their opulence and wastefulness. When Rome fell, such luxuries were banned and perfume was not popular again in Europe for hundreds of years.

ancient chinese and perfume

Ancient India and China

While Europeans turned their backs on perfumes for some time, other cultures enjoyed them regularly. For instance, perfume was at the heart of sacred Indian Tantric rituals, used in ceremonies and in their temples.

The ancient Chinese infused many daily items with perfume such as the ink they wrote with and the stationary they wrote on. They also used perfume in particular spaces such as homes and places of worship.

The Chinese also used perfume for disinfection and purity as they believed that perfume could help rid a room of disease. In general, they focused less on anointing their bodies with fragrance and more on using it to scent the world around them.

During the Sui and Song dynasties, noble Chinese began to use personal perfumes, importing ingredients via the Silk Road. By the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, fragrance use had begun to spread among the public. Oriental fragrances focused heavily on herbs and spices, many of which were also used for food and medicine.

the renaissance and perfume

Medieval Europe and the Renaissance

Around the 11th century A.D. during the Crusades, crusaders began to bring fragrance making materials and techniques back to Europe. They acquired these materials in the far and middle east, including the technique for distilling rose petals.

During the bubonic plague, doctors would wear bird-like masks filled with herbs, spices and oils to ward off the sickness. The belief that scented oils and fragrant materials could eliminate the “stench of pestilence” helped grow the popularity of fragrance use in medieval Europe?

By the 14th century A.D., Italians had almost perfected the perfume-making process and liquid perfumes began to replace solid ones. Marco Polo and his teams brought many unique aromatics back from their travels which turned Venice into a major fragrance trading post.

Catherine de Medici, a wealthy Italian who married the French king in 1519, is often credited with bringing perfume to the rest of Europe. Her Italian perfumer, Rene le Florentin, created a signature scent for her out of orange blossom and bergamot. Other nobles such as Queen Elizabeth of Hungary helped spread perfume’s popularity across Europe.

This is when perfume started to become a fashion accessory. European men and women would wear perfume on their bodies, clothing and wigs. People began incorporating more complex ingredients such as ambergris, civet and musk derived from animals. Since bathing regularly was still an unpopular practice, these scents were used to cover up the scent of body odors. The smell of perfume was in vogue because it helped distinguish the upper classes.

illustrated images of ancient vessels and perfume making equipment

Perfume Creation and Early Uses

The methods used to create perfume have changed drastically throughout the ages. Starting with the practice of carrying scented materials around in a sort of pouch and ending with the liquid perfume we have today, perfume creation and early uses are fascinating.

How Perfume Was Originally Made

Early perfume was made using natural materials such as bark, wood, roots, leaves, flowers and seeds. The first evidence of perfume making began in Egypt and Mesopotamia and was then picked up by the Persians and the Romans.

These ancient civilizations often turned fragrant materials into balms to use in religious ceremonies or to anoint their bodies. Myrrh and frankincense were extracted from trees and made into incense while other plants like rose and peppermint were infused in oils.

As trade routes spread, a wider variety of scents could be used such as exotic spices and herbs. These items were often stilled in water and made into aromatherapy products.

Perfume bottles began as containers made of wood and clay and graduated to beautifully colored glass bottles over the years. Hand-painted vases and even hollowed-out precious stones were also used to transport perfume and fragrance.

ancient painting of people making perfume

Interesting Early Uses of Perfume

Each ancient culture had different uses for perfume and fragrance. Most used perfume and incense in rituals, but they were also used to scent baths and bodies. Fragrances were even used in many culture’s burial practices, most notably the Egyptians.

Perfumes were also used for purification purposes. The ancient Chinese and medieval Europeans believed that fragrance purified the air and prevented diseases. Ancient doctors would even use perfumes medicinally to treat infections and even mental illness.

Other early uses of perfume include anti-aging and beauty enhancement. Scented gloves were worn and perfumes were added to soaps to “cleanse and strengthen the body”.

Perfume in the Modern World

Today’s perfumes and fragrances are used by millions of people and are a popular fashion accessory. Natural and synthetic ingredients are used to make rich perfumes that include several layers of scent and different complex notes.

There are hundreds of perfumes to choose from including timeless classics and celebrity perfumes (designed to capitalize on a person’s star power). Perfumes range in price from quite expensive to relatively inexpensive and there are different concentrations available as well.

Today, discount perfume stores are abundant, making perfume accessible to the masses. They are no longer reserved for the rich and noble. Wearing perfume and cologne is now a fun way to express your personal tastes and style! If you’re wondering what fragrances are available to purchase you can browse women’s perfumes and men’s colognes on FragranceX.

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