Vintage Natural Beauty- Perfume

Fragrance is such a wonderful window into the past. I find it really exciting that through a combination of scents, often purchased relatively cheaply, you can share the same sensory experience as someone living over 150 years ago- it really is scenting history. I thought I’d begin by offering my version of a Victorian recipe for eau de cologne, and then show you how it can be easily adapted to make your own scented formulas. 

The first “eau de Cologne” originated in the town of Cologne in the early 18th century. In her fascinating book How to be a Victorian, historian Ruth Goodman writes “by the third decade of the nineteenth century it was used by both sexes in England. A sharp, clean scent that cut through other smells, it could be applied to handkerchiefs and gloves as well as the body”.

The People’s Own Book of Recipes and Information for the Million, published in 1867, gives the following recipe for eau de cologne:  

Mix 12 drops each of the essential oils of neroli, citron, bergamot, orange and rosemary, with 1 drachm malabar cardamoms, and 1 gallon rectified spirits, the whole distilled together.  

Here’s my take on the recipe. For an eau de cologne, I’d go with the following quantities:  

70 ml alcohol (this needs to be of a high proof- vodka works well) 

30 ml distilled spring water

2 ml essential oils 

The aromatherapy rule of thumb being about 20 drops per ml, you will need 40 drops of essential oils to make up the 2ml. Keeping to the “equal parts” principle of the 1867 recipe: 

Neroli essential oil 8 drops 

Citron essential oil (Lemon) 8 drops 
Bergamot essential oil 8 drops 
Sweet Orange essential oil 8 drops 
Rosemary essential oil 8 drops 

You’ll also need a few cardamom seeds- you should be able to find these at your local supermarket. 

Before you start, you’ll need a glass bottle with a cork or stopper, large enough to contain the volume of perfume you want to make. Wash the bottle well in hot soapy water. Then rinse with warm water to which you have added a dash of lemon juice or white wine vinegar- this leaves the bottle squeaky clean and nicely sterilized. 

Pour the 70ml of alcohol into the bottle (a funnel might help with this). Add the cardamom seeds and essential oils to the alcohol, and leave to steep for 48 hours. 

Then add the distilled water and leave to steep for at least another week. Filter the perfume using a coffee filter paper, and then return to the bottle (again, a funnel might be helpful). If the eau de cologne is too strong for your liking, add a little more distilled water. 

You can also use this basic formula for making other eau de cologne-type perfumes- 70ml alcohol, 30ml filtered water and 40 drops essential oil. For example, a blend of lemon and bergamot would be a very Victorian combination of scents: Goodman has referred to this blend as “the signature smell of the middle years of the [nineteenth] century”.  Give it a go, and you’ll soon be smelling as good as your great-great-granny! 

Just a quick note on perfume safety- as with all cosmetic formulas, patch test before using more liberally. If you notice any irritation or sensitivity, discontinue use immediately.  


Becky x 

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