Home fragrance is one of the most important areas of interior design. An essential finishing touch to any room, scented candles, reed diffusers and the many other ways to perfume your home have become increasingly prevalent in recent years. The increase in demand for the latter half of the 20th century can at times make home fragrance appear a relatively new invention, however the industry is thought to actually date back over 5000 years. The LuxPad takes a look at the vast and varied history of home fragrance and how it has transitioned into the industry we know today…
The History of Home Fragrance in Ancient Civilisations
Home fragrance and perfume has historically gone hand in hand, however one of the first recorded uses of fragrance was to perfume the air rather than the body. Around 3000BC, Egyptian priests became the world’s first perfumers by using aromatic resins to mask the smell of sacrificial offerings. Ancient perfume and home fragrance use is frequently described as having a spiritual link. In Egypt at this time it was believed the scents would connect people to the gods. Believed to be the sweat of the sun god Ra, the Ancient Egyptians also had a god of perfume, Nefertem, who was depicted with a head dress of water lilies. Fragrance wasn’t only reserved for rituals at this time, with the burning of incense a common everyday practice in many homes.
The history of home fragrance also shows the concept of using scent to create a balance between body and soul originally hailed from Ancient Egypt, with balms, oils and incense used to sooth the mind and treat numerous ailments. A precursor of the aromatherapy practices we know today. The first recorded fragrance expert or ‘nose’ in the world was Tapputi-Belatikallim. The chemist from around 1200BC used her expert knowledge to distil and filter ingredients to extract scents. Tapputi was awarded the title head overseer of the royal palace and became the perfumer of the royal family through her sought-after creations. The Egyptian’s love of fragrance even followed them into the afterlife, with pharaohs and wealthy figures buried with scented oils which held their perfume until the sarcophaguses were opened in modern times
Egypt isn’t the only starting point in the long history of home fragrance, scent played an important role in ancient Greece, China and the Roman Empire too. The Greeks also used fragrance in religious ceremonies, believing that the scents were literally a gift from the gods. They created the first perfumes to be worn on the skin through suspending ground plants and resins in oil, and were the first civilisation to link fragrance and hygiene. The ‘Father of Modern Medicine’, Hippocrates, began prescribing fumigation and the use of scents to prevent diseases during this time. A practice which would continue for millennia.
The expansion of civilisations from Alexander the Great’s vast conquests to the growth of the Roman Empire, saw trade routes established with other regions each with their own unique fragrance ingredients. Spices and incense from China and India, new plants from Africa and new forms of steam distillation along with fragrant precious woods from the Middle East were all used to develop and adapt fragrances during these periods.
From the Middle Ages Onwards
The Middle Ages in Europe saw a lull in fragrance use as it had been deemed frivolous by the church. The rest of the world however continued with its love affair of scent with many cultures using it to both anoint their bodies and perfume the environment around them. In China fragrance was infused into many aspects of daily life including stationery and ink, whilst Arabic countries continued with their scientific exploration into extracting and capturing the scent of new raw materials.
The 11th century Crusades ignited a fragrance renaissance in Medieval Europe when knights returned with bottles of rose water and new techniques to make perfume stolen from the invaded territories. The spread of plagues during this period led to the theory of miasma which theorised that disease particles were suspended in the air where foul smells were present. Similar to the Greek practice of using fragrance to banish disease, it became the norm in Medieval Europe to carry portable scent vessels such as pomanders to perfume the air around you and ward off infection. The alcohol based scents we know today were first popularised in Medieval Italy where a 95% proof heavily scented clear liquid was created from distillation vapours. This water called aqua mirabilus (marvellous water), led to liquid perfumes replacing solid variations and saw Italy become the centre of the perfume industry for centuries.
Catherine de Medici is credited with bringing the art of perfumery to France when she moved her personal perfumer to Grasse after after her King Henry II in 1533, starting a cultural phenomenon in the process. To this day Grasse is still the capital of the perfume world, with the most luxurious scents for a huge array of top perfume and home fragrance brands crafted in the region. King Louis XIV further cemented France as the perfume capital through his love of fragrances to mask his fear of bathing (water was thought to spread disease at this time). He is understood to have had perfumers create a new scent each day for him to wear and the rest of the French nobility soon sought to have their own unique scents made too.
Home Fragrance in the Modern Day
The 1800s saw the discovery of synthetic compounds which helped make fragrances more affordable at a time when scents were still needed to mask unwanted odours throughout daily life. Home fragrance continued on the route of masking rather than transforming an environment until relatively recently. Perfume on the other hand took off in another direction through the invention of designer scents such as Guerlain, Coty and later Chanel who are credited with transforming this area of the industry into what we know today. Home fragrance has taken longer to reach the popularity of perfume, despite being invented first. In the mid-20th century synthetic air fresheners reigned supreme, designed to cover the smell of cooking and tobacco in the home as opposed to enhancing the space.
The latter half of the 20th century saw a turn in the home fragrance industry with brands such as Agraria joining already established manufacturers like Cire Trudon to demonstrate home fragrance can be as much an art form as perfume. The luxury home fragrance industry has accelerated in the years since, with a strong return to handmade products and natural ingredients. An indulgently scented candle or reed diffuser is now as important to interior design as a spritz of your favourite perfume is to an outfit. The scents are used to uplift and finish a room rather than mask unwanted smells.
Elements of the history of home fragrance can still be spotted throughout contemporary practices. Aromatherapy for example is still enjoyed today as it was in ancient Egypt, and fragrances are frequently switched by day or season much like the French courts of Louis XIV. With its rich and colourful history, the home fragrance industry continues to adapt and grow to this day. New methods to create and enjoy fragrances are continually introduced, moving further yet endlessly taking inspiration from the ancient practices that created it.