During a consultation last week with a private client I was told of how as a child she would put rose petals into a bottle and fill it with water to try and make perfume. I believe that this is something that many children have tried at one time or another.
An early Arabian method of collecting rose oil was to strew rose petals on water (think swimming pool) and after a few days in the sun traces of rose oil would be found floating on the surface of the water. The oil could be collected by carefully scooping it off the surface.
Surely any young Princess with initiative and servants would happily trade the milk bottle for a swimming pool and dozens of brimming sacks of rose petals for a meagre handful.
At the start of the 19th C in England it was not understood how santal citron (sandalwood) and Otto of rose was produced in India. Wealthy travellers would send back gifts of both. Then, as now, they were prohibitively expensive and due to their high cost were dismissed as being unsuitable for commercial perfumery. Both were however acknowledged as being vastly superior to any aromatics of that period being produced in Europe.
Eurocentric Colonialists winced as their sense of entitlement drilled into them by the force fed constructs of privileged education were confounded by the fact that a ‘third world’ country produced something that was vastly superior and even more shocking unaffordable. How amusing that Jaguar is now owned by an Indian company.
When I started researching for the Victorian pharmacy I was curious about how the pharmacists got their alcohol. I remembered Hogarth’s London, somewhat earlier than 19th C, from schoolboy history. Gin in those days was the cheapest way of getting “steamboats” (technical late 20th C nautical term) but I could not find later reference to it regarding perfumery.
Many Victorian pharmacists had their own stills as part of their onsite production equipment. In order to produce alcohol they would re-distil another weaker form of alcohol. The available options in reverse order of preference were rice wine, which was not a good choice because of import duty, malt liquor (beer), which was cheap but low in alcohol therefore time consuming, so the winner was French brandy, which in those days was about 50% alcohol by volume. Equal volumes of French brandy and water were put into a still and the first 25% by volume of condensate would be virtually pure alcohol. It was this fraction that was used in perfumery.
The Dutch in 19th C Europe were the big spice traders so through them, and from the expanding British Empire, pharmacists of the period had access to a large and growing choice of aromatic raw materials.
The photograph shows English pharmacy bottles from the first half of the 19th C – the information on the labels makes it possible to date them. A description of distillation written by a London perfumer of that period reveals why.
In order to make true to nature orange extract he advocates peeling twenty-four Seville oranges and placing the peel in a carboy (glass container from 5 gallons upwards). Equal quantities of brandy and water were added so that the carboy was half full. The neck was then sealed with animal gut and the carboy was rested on a bed of fresh horse manure. The decomposition process produces heat as a by product. Victorian gardeners would utilise this by using dung beds in greenhouses to produce strawberries and even pineapples at Christmas.
After several days of being kept warm in this way the contents of the carboy were distilled and 100% of the condensate was returned to the carboy with the fresh peel of another 24 Seville oranges. The resulting extraction was known as a double essence if the process was repeated twice and a triple essence if done thrice. Each successive distillation concentrated the essential oil content of the distillate resulting in higher quality perfumery materials. Whole perfumes were made in this way by placing all the required crude botanicals into the carboy and proceeding in exactly the same way as described for bitter orange. But by the end of the Victorian period this method was replaced by much more sophisticated methods.