The Origins of Perfume as a Mass Market Item

It’s hard to imagine a time when most of the modern conveniences that we now take for granted were relatively difficult to come by. After all, we literally have a whole world of commerce at our finger tips via the Internet or by a short commute to our local brick and mortar store. Yet, as difficult to believe at it may be, products like food, books, clothes, toys, etc, were once scare in certain areas. Perfume, which is now more than a $10 billion industry, began back in ancient times when fragrances like myrrh and frankincense were used in religious ceremonies and/or gifts to be cherished due to how rare they were to obtain. At this time the synthetic ingredients that are at the heart of many perfumes and that make them relatively affordable were unknown.

Eventually, the popularity of perfume would spread to 13th Century Europe with the Crusaders who brought back samples of it from Palestine to England, France, and Italy. From this, Europeans became enamored of fragrances like cinnamon, myrrh and frankincense. At this time, perfume – due to its expense and scarcity – was something that in which only the ruling classes could indulge. Everyone outside of these classes would have to wait until scientific innovations made mass production of these products possible. This occurred in the late 1800s when, for the first time, synthetic materials were discovered and could be used to mass produce perfume. These chemicals include nitrobenzene – made from nitric acid – and benzene which was the basis of the first synthetic perfume.

This revolution in synthetic compounds is not to say that natural ingredients such as flowers, grasses, spices, fruit, wood, roots, resins, balsams, leaves, gums, and animal secretions aren’t still at the heart of most fragrances. They are. But without centuries of scientific discovery and advances, fueled by the public desire for these fragrances, perfume would not now be as readily available as most other products that we now take for granted. Today, we can open up a magazine and get a whiff of an exciting new perfume, or go into a store and be sprayed with new cologne or visit a website that has thousands of fragrances that combine synthetic and natural products. We can do things that were unimaginable to earlier generation. Yes, mass production of perfume has been a boon for manufacturers and a blessing for consumers.

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