The Scent of Allure: A Short History of Perfume

Friday, February 6, 2015

On the 11th of February at 7:00 pm, Rhodes is hosting an interactive lecture based on scents of the 20th century. Given by fragrance historian Lizzie Ostrom, aka, Odette Toilette, this talk will focus on how smell relates to the fashion, music, film, food, science and social changes of the times, certainly a lecture not to be missed (or sniffed at)!

Here at Bishop’s Stortford Museum, we have been researching the fascinating topic of perfume history, a subject with great relevance to our own collection. Writing approximately 1200 years ago, the Roman author Pliny claimed ‘the pleasure of perfume is among the most elegant enjoyments in life.’  Whether it is appreciating a good wine or sniffing a lilac, it is hard to imagine life without all its pleasant smells. Indeed, the history of fragrances, perfumes and aromas are deeply intertwined with our own human history.

Ancient Egypt is the first recognized civilisation to use perfume for personal use. Contained in valuable and exquisite pots of glass, ebony and porcelain, perfume manifested as oil, ointment and incense for use in religious rituals and for cosmetic purposes. The use of perfume spread across the world to Greece and Rome. However, following the fall of the Roman Empire, perfume was banned by the church across Europe as a symbol of decadence.  Yet the art of perfumery remained alive in the Islamic East, kept in ‘apples of amber’ which were hanging balls of gold and silver, encrusted with rare gem stones.  It was only during the Renaissance that perfume really gained importance back in Europe again, firstly in Italy during the Renaissance and later in France. Indeed by the time of the 17th century and the court of Louis XV a guild of master perfume makers had been established; there everything was drenched in perfume, from people and clothes to fans and furniture.  There was even a fragrance called ‘perfume of the guillotine’!

Following the 18th century fragrance houses and branding became more important, as well as, eventually, the importance of packaging, with as much work going into the beautiful containers as the perfumes themselves (think of the memorable bottle for Chanel No.5, seen below).

The iconic bottle.
The iconic bottle.


Today there are more than 30,000 designer perfumes on the market. The perfume industry certainly has undergone many changes through the years, but is still essentially based on creative recipes to enhance mystique, romantic appeal and allure.

Here at Bishop’s Stortford Museum we have the original perfume choices of one of Bishop’s Stortford’s most prominent ladies, Miss Pye which can be viewed on the second floor galleries. Below are photographs of two of her favourite choices, Jasmine de Nice and Jockey Club Fragrance by Nanette, both of which are packaged in distinctive Art Deco glass bottles. In the 1930s when this perfume was in use, both leather and floral fragrances had recently become very fashionable. So if you have ever wondered what Miss Pye smelled like, it was probably flowers!

Ms. Pye's perfume bottle. Image©Bishop's Stortford Museum.
Ms. Pye’s perfume bottle. Image©Bishop’s Stortford Museum.

Dorian Knight

Museum Assistant

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