napoleon and perfume -- 2/21/24

Today's selection -- from Elixir by Theresa Levitt. Napoleon hated bad odors and did what he could to rid them:

“Napoleon was soon going through sixty bottles of perfume a month. He doused himself in it, bathed in it, carried a handkerchief scented with it, and even splashed some on the face of a man having a fit in front of him. He drank it, diluted with water or wine, and kept a bottle beside him on the eve of every battle. It was, he insisted, a necessary source of health and vitality. He cultivated an image of superhuman energy—sleeping less than anyone else around him and working longer—and perfume was what he used to keep himself awake and alert. His favorite method was to pour some into a hot bath, using the steam to envelop himself in the volatile aromatics. ‘One hour in the bath is worth four hours of sleep to me,’ he opined.  His attendants kept bathwater constantly hot, for he might decide on one at any hour of the day.

“Chaptal grew accustomed to conducting business with Napoleon in the bath. The two of them toured France together several times, and every time they stopped, Napoleon's attendants would prepare the tub. He would hold meetings from it, or have an aide read him his mail, sometimes struggling to see through the billowing steam. It struck Chaptal as odd at first, but he got used to it. ‘This was his usage,’ Chaptal pointed out: ‘he claimed, I've said it elsewhere, that the water gave him back the forces that he lost through fatigue.’

“As a young man, Napoleon had been rather indifferent to fashion. He had kept his hair long and powdered through the Italian campaign (‘illpowdered’ in the opinion of the duchesse d'Abrante, who also reported that he ‘railed so loudly’ against the young men of fashion). He first cut it short while in Egypt, and even shorter after he became First Consul, when he began to wear it ‘a la Titus,’ like the founder of the Roman Republic. He had no patience for pomades, face-whiteners, or rouges. But he did have one thing in common with Louis XIV: he hated bad odors and did what he could to chase them from his presence. He generally had his windows opened first thing in the morning to get out the stuffy smells, and treated the room with vinegar and incense.

“The morning toilette had changed entirely in form, but remained a ritual of high regimentation. For Napoleon, it started with the bath, scented and very hot. He could remain in the bath for one or two hours, constantly adding hot water to replenish the steam. After the bath, he shaved himself, using a savonnette scented with orange or fine herbs. Then he washed his hands with almond paste and rose soap, and his face with superfine sponges. He cleaned his teeth with a wooden toothpick, brushed with powdered coral, then rinsed his mouth with a mixture of eau-de-vie and water.  Next came the most uniquely personal part of Napoleon's regime: the frictions, a habit that his valet claimed he picked up from the daily ablutions in Egypt.  He stripped naked, poured a bottle of eau de cologne over his head, and proceeded to rub his chest and arms with a rough brush. He then passed the brush to his valet to rub his back and shoulders, yelling ‘stronger, like an ass!’ if the brushing was not energetic enough.  

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812

“Napoleon's invoices listed perfumes such as Spanish jasmine and agarwood, and Windsor soap from England, but his overwhelming favorite was the fresh, light scent known as eau de cologne. It owed its name to the city of Cologne, where it had first appeared over a hundred years earlier, the product of Giovanni Paolo Feminis, who had moved to German-speaking Cologne from a small Piedmont village sometime in the seventeenth century. He ran a prosperous shop importing fruit from his native Italy, whose sunnier climate offered delights like figs, grapes, and lemons. As a side venture, he began distilling some of them together in a recipe that capitalized on the many varieties of Italy's celebrated citrus fruit: bergamot, Italian lime, grapefruit, orange, lemon, and citron. He added some neroli and petitgrain, derived respectively from the blossoms and leaves of the bitter orange tree, which gave a fresh greenness. He finished with some rosemary, which softened the bite a bit, but the overall effect was still crisp and sharp. All of the scents were highly volatile and ephemeral, and did not last long after application. But this also meant there was not the slightest hint of overripeness or decay. 

“Feminis called the concoction aqua mirabilis, Latin for ‘miracle water,’ and sold it as a medicinal elixir, even submitting it to the Faculty of Medicine at Cologne to get its endorsement. This was a standard practice of the time. Many seventeenth-century apothecaries sold their own ‘miracle waters,’ and their recipes were carefully guarded secrets. In the eighteenth century Feminis sold his method to another Italian who had moved to Cologne from Piedmont, Giovanni Maria Farina. Farina came up with his own origin story, writing to his brother that he had found a fragrance that reminded him of an Italian spring morning, of ‘mountain daffodils and orange blossoms after the rain.’ Cologne had a strict system of guilds, from which Farina and his brother, as foreigners, were excluded. But as Catholics they were allowed to conduct business, and free of guild restrictions they ran a wide-ranging importexport operation advertising the selling of ‘Frantz Krahm,’ or French wares: silks, laces, stockings, wigs, scented powders, and toilet waters such as Queen of Hungary water.  

“Farina's version of Feminis's miracle water remained a largely local phenomenon until the 1730s, when French soldiers passed through Cologne after fighting in Poland and picked up a few samples, which they brought back to Paris. Farina began focusing on exporting to France, adopting the name, Eau de Cologne, that his French customers had given it. Farina renamed himself as well. Having switched from Giovanni to Johann when he first moved to Cologne, he changed it again, to Jean-Marie.

“Business really took off after 1796, when Cologne was annexed into France. It had existed as a free, independent city for centuries, but once the French Revolutionary Army started winning battles, they pushed the boundary of France all the way to the Rhine. France abolished any restrictive commerce laws between them, and demand for Farina's Eau de Cologne soared. After Jean-Marie Farina's death, scores of different pretenders had stepped in to claim that they possessed the secret formula. Records show over 114 people claiming to be the Farina who sold ‘genuine eau de cologne,’ most having simply bought the use of the name. One man, Carlo Francesco Farina, sold the use of his name to over thirty different people, despite the fact that he had no relation whatsoever to the family of cologne-makers. The original business, now run by Jean-Marie Farina III, tried to identify itself by its physical location, but this was not easy as there were no street addresses in Cologne. He wound up calling it Johann Maria Farina gegenüber dem Jülichs-Platz ( which means ‘across from Jülich Square’). The name was usually shortened to Farina genenüber ( or ‘Farina across from’), which had the unfortunate consequence of encouraging many of the other Farinas to name themselves after whatever was across the street from them. The French eventually assigned everyone specific addresses, not as street numbers, but as a long list of continuous numbers for every residence of Cologne. The perfumer who lived at number 4711, Wilhelm Miilhen, had paid to use the name ‘Farina,’ only to find out its provenance was fake. He continued producing eau de cologne under the name ‘4711’ anyway, selling well in the crowded field. 

“Napoleon further invited the city of Cologne into France's fold, granting all its inhabitants French citizenship in 1801. He had begun to think of himself as a modern-day Roman consul ruling over a republic and more as a modern-day Charlemagne presiding over an empire that stretched well into Germanic lands. He even made a replica of Charlemagne's crown and scepter, which he planned to use in a ceremony crowning himself emperor in December 1804. Before the event, he arranged to take a tour of the newly annexed areas along the Rhine, together with his wife, Josephine. Cologne scrambled to welcome them, building an eighty-foot-high pyramid and an obelisk in the marketplace, in honor of Napoleon's victories in Egypt. They decorated the city with garlands, trophies, and monuments, and honored him with allegorical paintings and long speeches praising him for lifting the city out of ‘darkness.’ Napoleon, for his part, was only interested in visiting two places in Cologne: the famous Gothic cathedral in the center of town and Jean-Marie Farina's shop, across from Jülich Square. He and everyone in his entourage bought large quantities of Eau de Cologne there, Napoleon's valet reported, packing much of it up to take back to Paris.”



Theresa Levitt


Elixir: A Parisian Perfume House and the Quest for the Secret of Life


Harvard University Press


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