In todays society, keeping fresh and hygienically appealing throughout the day is a requirement.  Brushing our teeth, applying deodorant or a spray of perfume keeps us approachable, but these rituals haven’t always been part of daily life.  For example, perfume is believed to have originated in correlation with religious practices. History shows that it was used in ancient Egyptian civilizations, in biblical times, and even to this day many use incense as offerings.[1]  Through time, perfume was used for other purposes, including medicinal healing and evidence of wealth and by politicians, like Queen Victorian and Napoleon.  Eventually, perfume and scent became used most specifically to cover odor and later, to make women more appealing and alluring.[2]

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Bottle, ca. 1860, blown glass, 5 3/8″x 2 1/4″x 1 5/8″, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Blanche Peaslee, N0207.1968a-b. Photograph by Cassidy Mickelson.

Found at the Iroquois Storage Facility and part of the New York State Historical Association’s collection, a small perfume bottle has a story to tell.  About four inches tall, this bottle still smells of the fragrance it once held. According to records, the bottle was made in the 1860’s and is an opaque light purple color.  Additionally, the bottle had small, intricate details, ranging from gilding around certain sections and a white flower design in the center of the bottle.  The detail put into the bottle shows that it was made by hand, meaning it was most likely an expensive buy for whoever purchased it. In comparison to a perfume bottles we see today, there are several differences.

The contents of this bottle could have varied drastically.  Unlike today where our scents are previously concocted with and sold in mass quantities in uniform bottles, a woman would have received her perfume in small batches.  In Europe, fragrance houses opened, and women could purchase their desired scent.[3]  There has also been an evolution from single scent fragrances to combining several different floral and spice smells to create colognes, perfumes, and body sprays.

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Bottle, ca. 1860, 5 3/8″x 2 1/4″x 1 5/8″, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Blanche Peaslee. N0207.1968a-b. Photograph by Cassidy Mickelson

The commoditization of scent is not only a response to a growing material demand, but also a social demand.  Today, society expects men and women to smell a certain way and hygiene is a learned habit.  Looking at one perfume bottle from the 1860’s, one can see the changes that have happened to the perfume industry since then.  Now fragrances are promoted by celebrities instead of political figures, and we conform to trends in scent, whether it’s Axe Body Spray, Chanel No. 5, or Victoria’s Secret PINK Eau de Parfum.  The evolution of the use and meaning of perfume is only one representation of the way that time has changed the importance and use of an item in history.

By Cassidy Mickelson

Works Cited:

[1] Piesse, G.W. Septimus. The Art of Perfumery, and Method of Obtaining the Odors of Plants. Philadelphia, Lindsey and Blakison, 1856.

[2] Verrill, A. Hyatt. Perfumes and Spices. Boston, L.C. Page & Company, 1940.

[3] https://www.parfumsraffy.com/perfume-history

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