A lovely lady wrote to me this week. She is writing an historical novel, and was curious to know more about shopping for perfume, as it would have been at the time of the Regency. We are talking of a period exactly 200 years ago when the whole etiquette of modern retail was really getting into its stride in Britain. The cities were growing like mad, the roads were improving, the railways were almost in sight. We read about Jane Austen’s aunt shop-lifting lace in Bath – a mysterious episode! – and Mr Bronte’s purchases for the children in Leeds, specifically that famous box of toy soldiers. The Haworth stationer in old age remembered how the Bronte girls were always his best customers, and how grumpy they were if ever he ran out of paper.
In the great cities ‘going shopping’ was already one of the favourite pastimes of the well-to-do and the bored. So, in 1817, with Napoleon recently banged-up on St Helena, and with peace declared after a quarter-century of war, where would you have bought scent?
Remember that at this time perfume was not really defined or sold by gender – ‘male’ and ‘female’ perfumes would not become classified as such for another century. Scent was sold promiscuously. Perfume lovers at the time of the Regency bought whatever was fashionable and “comme il faut” wherever they found it. Manners then were less inhibited in some ways (chamber pots in the dining room sideboard); more so in others. For refined wearers of perfume their entire ambience was perfumed: their furniture, clothes and accessories, their bath water – but not their actual flesh. Neat scent applied direct to the skin was considered injurious to health, playing havoc with the volatile humours of the body.
The concept of the department store was yet to be thought of. A few names familiar to us today were already current. Although they were not then primarily perfumers, the tailors Creed of Conduit Street were already creating small amounts of exclusive bespoke fragrance for favoured clients. Perfume was also much sold in apothecaries’ shops – this is because it was regarded also as a healing, medicinal preparation. Sometimes you would find it also being sold in the patisseries and confectionery boutiques of the Regency era, alongside jellies and cordials. If this seems odd, think of the way we cook today with orange flower water, rose-water, saffron, edible flowers and the like.
Many folk would have ingested herbal or citrus colognes as health remedies on the principle that what smells good will do you good. Consequently perfume would also have been sold by wise women, charlatans, healers, fairground hucksters, pedlars, quacks, witches, fortune-tellers and others of like ilk.
These shady characters aside, there was always something suspect about nearly all shop-workers. Anyone “in trade” was automatically degraded. Retailers were necessarily perpetually “on show” and therefore immodest, pushy and mercenary. They perforce mixed with all sorts, with no regard to station or social “place”. They might well be religious dissenters (shop work and nonconformity often went together) and so were doubly suspect. Shopkeepers in many early novels are hideously evil-tempered, crabbed and misanthropic: trying to prove their respectability while chasing a hard-earned crust. Those retailers who sold magical, seductive, luxurious perfume were likely to be of a especially ambiguous reputation.
Perhaps it was safer to make perfume at home. Girls of all classes – if leisure and money permitted – would have been taught by their mothers to prepare herbal and floral waters in the still-room of the family home. There, they would have also made fragranced salves, pot pourri, soaps, moisturisers, washes, pomanders, candles and ointments. Raw materials would have been grown in the garden, or bought in the markets or from merchants and travelling pedlars.
Perfumery began to be used in a more modern way during the Regency era. This reflected the way that clothes and costume had changed in the last years of the 18th century. Garments for both sexes became much more simple. Cotton and light woollen fabrics became enormously fashionable. These were washable, so people became cleaner. False hair was abandoned after being widely used for over a century: hair hygiene and fastidious personal cleanliness became all the style.
Therefore heavy musky perfumes which covered, masked and camouflaged body odours went out; and light citric/flowery colognes came in. Napoleon – “The Corsican Ogre” – was the Great National Enemy but he was still admired in Britain with a kind of horrified fascination – and his passion for drenching himself in bright crisp colognes was much copied by those who could afford it. There was a brief lull in the fighting in 1802 following the Peace of Amiens. Anyone who could afford it dashed across the Channel to Paris to study Napoleon, his elegant consort¤ and the latest styles of the Consulate.
After George IV (formerly the Regent) died in 1830, the drawers in his apartments were found to be crammed with all sorts of interesting things. Flasks of opium, laudanum and cherry brandy with other stimulants and painkillers. And also, endless locks of women’s hair, long-preserved love tokens from years gone by. All powdered and stuck up with grease and dressings; all reeking of long-ago scents.
¤ Josephine Bonaparte, by the way, spent far more on perfume than any person in the whole of French history: and that includes such famous fragrance-fanciers as Henri III and Marie Antoinette. Mme Bonaparte had her own creations specially prepared at companies such as Rance, Houbigant and Lubin – all still extant today.