The Success of Sweet Smells

We tend to think of the early modern city as one beset by foul, dangerous air and dank odours. Yet it also inspired a golden age of perfumery, explains William Tullett. 

What did an early modern perfumer's shop smell like? Despite valiant attempts by those in charge of certain historical attractions, such as the scratch and sniff cards of Jorvik Viking Centre and Hampton Court Palace, we can never truly smell the scents of the past. However, Nicolas Bonnart's engraving of the Habit de Parfumeur gives us a visual representation of the mingled concoction of odours that emanated from early modern perfumers' shops. Bottles of essences and oils, perfumed lozenges for the breath, pomatums for the hair, fragrant fans and scented handkerchiefs comprise the perfumer's costume. A perfume-burner rests upon his head and disperses fragrant smoke with its religious, luxurious and medicinal effects around him. The powerful scents of the perfumer's trade meant that in early modern England overly odorous men and women were regularly accused of smelling 'like a perfumer's shop'. Abel Boyer's 1702 English Theophrastus described the start of the fashionable fop's day thus:

When his Eyes are set to a languishing Air, his Motions all prepar'd according to Art, his Wig and his Coat abundantly Powder'd, his Handkerchief Perfum'd, and all the rest of his Beauetry rightly adjusted … 'tis time to launch, and down he comes, scented like a Perfumer's Shop, and looks like a Vessel with all her Rigging without Balast.

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The Success of Sweet Smells

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