At seventeen I discovered the perfume that would become my signature scent. It’s a warm, rich, inviting fragrance[i] that reminds me (and hopefully others) of a rose garden in full bloom. Despite this fullness, it’s light enough to wear all day and it’s been in the background of many of my life experiences. It announces me: the trace that lingers in my wake leaves a subtle reminder of my presence. And I can’t deny that it makes me feel a certain way: as though I could conquer the world. (Perhaps one day, when I do conquer the world, that will be the quirk my biographers note: that I had a bottle of X in my bag at all times.)
Our world is awash in smells—everything has an odor. Some are pleasant, like flowers or baked goods, and some are unpleasant, like exhaust fumes or sweaty socks—and they’re all a subjective experience: The odors that one person finds intoxicating may not have the same effect on another. (Hermione Granger’s fondness for toothpaste is fantastic example of the personal relationship we can have with the smells that permeate our world.) Nonetheless, they constitute a very important part of our experiences. We use them to make judgments about our environments (and each other), they can trigger memories, and even influence behaviors.
No odors seem to concern us more than our own, however. But you don’t have to take my word for it—the numbers speak for themselves: In 2010, people around the world spent the equivalent of $2.2 billion USD[ii] on fragrances, making the sale of essential oils and aroma chemicals a booming business. The history of aromatics sketches our attempts to control and manipulate scents— socially and chemically—illustrating how we’ve carefully constructed the smells in our lives.
The Social Meaning of Smells
“You smell nice.” This statement can be a remarkable compliment. In a social setting, it indicates you’ve been noticed. It suggests intimacy—a physical and emotional closing of public space that can form the basis of a relationship. It’s a confirmation that you’re acceptable—at least in an olfactory sense.
Odors are public experiences. There’s no hiding from a bad smell. While good smells can be a bit of a tease, bad smells are a bit like uninvited houseguests: they arrive unannounced and tend to overstay their welcome. Whether it’s a garbage truck or food that has spoiled or the dreaded body odor (which carries its own implications), bad smells seem to stick to us—socially as well as physically.
As a result, we’ve gone to great lengths to minimize foul odors through social codes and social implications: we liken health and cleanliness to pleasant smells (e.g., laundry has to smell clean in addition to being clean) because bad smells have traditionally indicated sickness or a moral failing of some sort. The plague, for example, was originally thought to spread through miasma—a poisonous vapor derived from decaying matter. It was common practice to carry rose petals to ward off the odors believed to cause the plague.
We isolate and avoid smells that are offensive to us and work to enhance and encourage aromatically pleasing scents. These practices fall in the realm of deodorizing rituals (e.g., brushing our teeth, bathing, washing food containers), which become social norms that allow us to present ourselves on the side of respectable odors. And in doing so, we define “bad” smells and “good” ones. We also establish what people—respectable people—should smell like.
For women in particular, this has often translated into floral scents. Beginning in the Middle Ages, there is a rise in the tendency to describe femininity in terms of floral images[iii] that may stem in part from a scholarly interpretation of a biblical passage from the Song of Soloman (“I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys”) as a reference to the Virgin Mary. Subsequent depictions of Mary have included a white lily (spiritual and sexual purity) or a rose (love and beauty). Linked to representations of beauty, fertility, spirituality, and purity, floral essences served as an olfactory reminder of appropriate female behavior:
“Feminine women not only smelled like flowers, but they used oil of roses, rose water, jasmine flowers, and orange water to prevent their hair from falling out, brighten their skin, improve their complexion, soften and beautify their hair, and cure chapped lips. A woman who followed the advice of these etiquette books to look, smell, feel, and “think” like a flower attained femininity by becoming a human flower for the aesthetic consumption of others.”[iv]
The musks and spices that have dominated the men’s fragrance lines similarly convey perceptions of “manliness”—or at least suggest what manliness should smell like.
It turns out these perceptions aren’t based on idle associations. Dr. Stephen Warrenburg, a research fellow at International Flavors and Fragrances, has helped developed a Mood Mapping methodology, which measures the associations we connect to scents. Based on self-report, Warrenburg and colleagues have reliably found that certain scents trigger general responses (happy, relaxed, sensuous, stimulated, irritated, stressed, depressed, and apathetic)—and this is true in populations around the world.[v]
In a phone interview, Warrenburg suggested that there is a deep seated unconscious response to scents. “We’ve been learning to associate odors with cultural norms and activities for a long time. As we use natural resources like flowers to beautify our environments, this promotes certain flowers over others, and we apply this sense of natural beauty to ourselves.”
The Cost of Not Smelling Cheap
But harnessing that natural beauty wasn’t easy—or cheap. For a long time, smelling *good* was a luxury. The essence of perfumes—the fragrances for which they were so prized—derived from natural sources, which greatly increased the costs associated with production. For example, approximately seven million jasmine flowers are required to produce one kg of oil—and the flowers have to be handpicked (to avoid bruising and other injuries) early in the day to maximize their oil returns.[vi] Fragrances were largely relegated to the wealthy. For example, in the early 4th-century, an agricultural laborer would have made a maximum of 25 denarii a day, however, a bottle of perfume (approx. 230 g) would have cost about 56 denarii—two days pay would have represented a luxury that few could afford.[vii]
Though diluted fragrances were likely available (particularly as perfumers tried to cut costs associated with production) and it was certainly possible to make your own perfumes (e.g, rose water), pure perfumes were an upper-class feature. Archaeological evidence supports perfume making in Mesopotamian palaces dating to the 18th-century BC. Records tell of a perfume maker named Nûr-ili who delivered scented oils aromatized with myrtle, cypress, opopanax, odorous reed, and other essences.[viii] Allowing various plants and other fragrant material to steep in oil appears to been one of the more common means of producing fragrances for early perfumers. Oils were used by the king, the queen, and the members of the harem. Records also suggest that the king gifted oils to favored guests and political alliances.8
The ancient Egyptians, greatly diversified both the processes and the materials used in the production of perfumes. Though there were many local ingredients available to Egyptians, the rise of trade and successful military conquests also funneled aromatics to the Egyptian perfume makers. Perfumers pressed, boiled, dried, powdered, and (eventually) distilled fragrant elements for use, generating a variety of products. Production costs remained high, however, until the 19th-century—when the development and increasing use of synthetic chemicals changed the fragrance market profoundly.
For one, synthetic materials are a lot cheaper to produce. The resources required to grow a garden of roses is immense in comparison to what it would cost to manufacture those roses from synthetic materials. The building blocks for those synthetic materials—the molecular structure of the fragrance of a rose in this case—are captured via a “headspace” process: plants are placed in a sealed glass container, and fragrance molecules are trapped with no damage done to the plant. (The diagram to the left from the Journal of Chemical Education demonstrates this process nicely.) Once the molecules have been captured, chemists create an authentic sample, which proves that the fragrance can be recreated without a natural source and reveals any possible changes that may enhance the longevity or overall performance of the scent. Today, natural fragrance generally accounts for about 3% of the price of the product, which greatly lowers costs for consumers.[ix]
Why do we bother? “Pleasant odors prime you to feel better,” said Dr. Warrenburg. “You behave better, are more alert, approach tasks more positively. And others respond similarly.” Research does suggest that scents can trigger certain behaviors. For example, when exposed to the smell of all-purpose-cleaner, participants made strong associations to cleaning and expressed a desire to clean.[x] Granted, this would likely be a learned association, drawn from cleaning memories and experiences, whereas perfumes seem to draw on more unconscious responses. If we do in fact associate certain scents with certain emotions as Mood Maps suggest we do, our attempts to manage our own smells may also mark attempts to manage the responses of others. Want to encourage others to mellow out—particularly if you have to have a tense conversation? Try vanilla. Want to keep them stimulated (at least in an olfactory sense)? Try a citrus scent.
My perfume definitely makes me feel better. It wraps me in a protective cocoon that prepares me to face just about any situation. Hopefully, when others encounter a trace of it, they think of me in my most confident and warmest form.
[i] Nope. I’m not naming the perfume. I need to maintain some of my mystique, after all. [ii] Data from 2006 – 2010 Flavor & Fragrance Industry Leaders. [iii] Stott (1992). [iv] Stott (1992): 68. [v] Warrenburg (2005): i248. [vi] Fortineau (2004): 46. [vii] Brun (2000): 300. [viii] Brun (2000): 278. [ix] Fortineau (2004): 47. [x] Holland et. al. ((2005): 692.
Brun, J. (2000). The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Cases of Delos and Paestum American Journal of Archaeology, 104 (2) DOI: 10.2307/507452
Fortineau, A. (2004). Chemistry Perfumes Your Daily Life. Journal of Chemical Education, 81 (1) DOI: 10.1021/ed081p45
Holland, R., Hendriks, M., & Aarts, H. (2005). Smells Like Clean Spirit: Nonconscious Effects of Scent on Cognition and Behavior Psychological Science, 16 (9), 689-693 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01597.x
Stott, A. (1992). Floral Femininity: A Pictorial Definition American Art, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1086/424151
Warrenburg, S. (2005). Effects of Fragrance on Emotions: Moods and Physiology Chemical Senses, 30 (Supplement 1) DOI: 10.1093/chemse/bjh208