Thesis ID: CBB140299766

The Science of Scent and Business of Perfume in Paris and London, 1650–1815 (2019)


James, Kirsten (Author)
Cohen, Paul (Advisor)

University of Toronto
Cohen, Paul
Publication date: 2019
Language: English

Publication Date: 2019
Physical Details: 284

This dissertation investigates the perfumer’s trade and meaning of odour through a comparative study of perfumery in London and Paris between 1650 and 1815. During this period, the conceptual and scientific realms perfumery occupied underwent profound changes: initially marketed and used as a medicinal product, by the second half of the 1700s perfume was more commonly considered an accompaniment to personal bodily hygiene and a luxurious cosmetic commodity. The dissertation reconstructs contexts within which this transformation occurred. It shows how eighteenth-century medical discourses vilifying stenches encouraged states to rethink urban spaces and practices, thereby partly reducing demand for strong-smelling perfumes traditionally used to “cure” and protect their wearers and mask undesirable smells. Ironically, this hygiene revolution coincided with scientific discoveries shedding doubt on the long-touted medical efficacy of perfumes. Perfumers were forced to evolve in response to these scientific developments, on the one hand, and the socio-economic changes that drove the rise of a new capitalist marketplace characterized by intensified competition, new modes of consumption, capital-intensive production and more costly barriers to entry for perfumery professionals, on the other. The dissertation explores how perfumers innovated in response to these changes. New techniques enabled them to produce cost-effective floral extracts, which they promoted over animal scents that previously defined their trade. French perfumers – operating within a guild structure – established themselves as luxury tradesmen and fought to dominate global trade in exotic scented ingredients while competing with one another for scientific approval. Their English counterparts diversified into unrelated products and, free from institutional restraints weighing on their French colleagues, creatively marketed their new “medi-luxe” wares while boasting of their own credentials as natural philosophers. The dissertation argues that, despite national regulatory and marketing differences, perfumers in both Paris and London adjusted to new circumstances, marketing their products as hygienic necessities and social markers. In this climate, they successfully established perfumery as a distinct trade. More broadly, this dissertation demonstrates how cultural understandings of scent and medical practices shaped, and were shaped by, emerging consumer cultures and capitalist economies.

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Authors & Contributors
van Damme, Stéphane
Diogo, Maria Paula
Jordanova, Ludmilla J.
Kühn, Sebastian
Levin, Miriam R.
Lightman, Bernard V.
British Journal for the History of Science
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Early Science and Medicine: A Journal for the Study of Science, Technology and Medicine in the Pre-modern Period
Environment and History
French Historical Studies
History of Science
MIT Press
Palgrave Macmillan
Prospect Books
Reaktion Books
University of California Press
Urban history
Science and society
Medicine and society
Public health
Senses and sensation; perception
Science and culture
Defoe, Daniel
Hippocrates of Cos
Pasteur, Louis
Plat, Hugh
Time Periods
19th century
18th century
17th century
16th century
20th century, early
20th century
London (England)
Paris (France)
Great Britain
Berlin (Germany)
Tamil Nadu (India)
Chicago (Illinois, U.S.)
Society of Apothecaries, London
Paris. Jardin Royal des Plantes
Zoological Gardens (London, England)

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