Distilling Scent: Perfume and the Culture of Olfaction in Early America
SPIRITS Museum is pleased to present Distilling Scent: Perfume and the Culture of Olfaction in Early America, the latest exhibition to be featured on our virtual platform. When one thinks of distillation, alcoholic spirits such as whiskey or gin are typically what come to mind. The first modern distillers in today’s Iraq and Iran, however, were not necessarily interested in producing liquor, and instead focused their efforts on perfume and medicine. In fact, the chemist credited with the invention of the modern alembic, Jabir ibn Hayyan (who we discussed in our last exhibition), first synthesized rose water, a perfumed liquid made from rose petals. Poison, seduction, profit, botany, alchemy, and even witchcraft are all tied to the history of perfume. Featured through January 2nd, 2024.
Perfumes used by ancient societies don’t resemble what we use today - they were mainly powders, gums, or scented oils rather than distilled fragrances. Without being able to extract essential oil or alcohol through distillation, most perfumes were made with a base of olive oil or oil of Behn, and were described as unguents and ointments.
Incense to Oils to Waters
The first known aromatics came from Mesopotamia in the form of incense, a woody resin burned for its fragrant and cleansing qualities. Over time, perfume would be used in powder and oil form – it was initially reserved for religious rituals from India to Greece, but over time became accessible to the nobility and aristocracy. Perfume was a commodity made for those of high status and wealth, fueling a global trading industry long before the Common Era. The process for obtaining essential oil was revolutionized with the invention of the modern alembic still, which streamlined production and allowed for more fragrant extractions through distillation. Alcohol-based perfumes were coming into fashion by the 14th century CE and alcohol became the standard diluent in perfume making, necessitating a wider knowledge of distillation across Europe. Settlers brought perfumers to the New World to capitalize on unknown botanicals that could be used in perfume production in the 1600s, by extension bringing distillation science to America. Aristocratic women living in America regularly would have imported their perfumes from Europe or otherwise made their own concoctions at home in the early days, but by 1752, a full-time perfumer had opened up shop in Rhode Island, indicating a growing demand for distilled fragrances.