How we smell is a concern that stretches far back in history, which makes sense when you consider how recently showers were invented (only around 1810!). Hygiene routines, if they existed, involved rivers, public baths, washtubs, and even coating the body in olive oil, which we don't recommend trying at home.
Needless to say, people weren't always squeaky clean in ancient times. However, in the interest of smelling minimally repugnant, they did take note of a few things that smell great, such as certain spices, flowers, and woods. Ancient civilizations invented incense to help their homes smell better, followed by the creation of fragrance-enhanced oils for the body. After centuries of experimentation, perfume as we know it began to take form. From ancient Egypt to European royals to the cultural watershed that was Chanel No. 5, here's what you need to know about the origins of perfume.
Fresh Till Death (And After): Scents of Ancient Egypt
Not only do archaeologists know that ancient Egyptians used perfumes thanks to hieroglyphic records, but they've also been able to smell these millennia-old fragrances. Egyptian pharaohs and their priests were entombed with aromatic resins, and when a set of tombs were opened by archaeologists in 1897, they resins still smelled sweet! Now if only we could figure out how to make modern perfumes stay fragrant for 5,000 years.
Trending in Ancient Rome: Scented Baths and Rosewater
In Rome's heyday, public baths were a cornerstone of everyday life. Those who were affluent bathed often and with many fragrant substances. A notorious favorite scent of Emperor Nero's was rosewater, which he kindly provided for dinner guests. Legend says that both Nero and another emperor, Elagabalus, had rose petals fall from their dining room ceilings, a special effects show that resulted in casualties when a few guests were smothered to death. Not cool, guys.
"Hungary Water": Not Quite as Catchy as "Perfume"
The first alcohol-based perfumes in Europe were introduced by Queen Elizabeth of Hungary. "Hungary Water," as it was called, was likely invented by a court alchemist in the late 14th century. One of the earliest recipes found involves distilling fresh rosemary with strong brandy. Who knew that perfumery was so closely related to mixology?
The Perfumed Court: Taking Fragrance to the Next Level with Louis XIV
The use of perfumes exploded like a bath bomb during the reign of Louis XIV in France. Known for his opulence (he's the one responsible for making Versailles ultra-luxe), the Sun King famously demanded that a different fragrance fill his rooms each day of the week. Is it any surprise that the fragrance craze quickly found its way to the rest of the French people?
The Standard for All Men's Fragrances
Now a generic term for men's fragrances, "cologne" originally referred to just one scent, invented in 1709 by Giovanni Maria Farina in Cologne, Germany. Eau de Cologne was a hit in royal houses around Europe, and imitators of the fragrance quickly cropped up.
The Most Notorious Fragrance of All Time and a No-Nonsense Name to Match
By 1921, fashion designers had begun extending their reach into the world of perfume. But the woman to cause a perfume revolution was Coco Chanel, who marketed a new way of life for modern women. Things that Chanel made cool include, but are not limited to, little black dresses, suntans, being single, and a perfume that is clean, sensual, and meant to be worn by every woman, every day. Unpretentiously named No. 5, Coco Chanel's perfume became the must-have fragrance of the century, and remains popular today. Virtually all modern perfumers have since copied her approach, but no one has eclipsed her unprecedented success, even as the fragrance approaches its 100-year anniversary.
An Unexpected Classic: Old Spice
Old Spice was created in 1938, and was the first men's fragrance to be anchored by spices from the Eastern Hemisphere. Old Spice may have a lowbrow reputation, but its signature blend of spicy scents is reflected in many luxury men's fragrances, such as Yves Saint Laurent's classic, Opium.
An Awards Show Just For Fragrances
You know there are film awards, TV awards, and even fashion awards, but we're guessing you might not know about the Fifi Awards. Established in 1973, the event is held in New York City and recognizes the best fragrances in many categories. A new fragrance is also inducted into the Fragrance Hall of Fame each year. Past inductees include classics like Polo Ralph Lauren, Arpège by Lanvin Paris, White Linen by Estée Lauder, and of course, Chanel No. 5, which was the first perfume ever to receive the honor in 1987.