First of all, I want to say that I love perfume so the research for this post has been very enjoyable. I feel undressed without a hint of perfume about me, however subtle. I have been known to ask perfect strangers what perfume they’re wearing when I smell one I like on them.
Secondly, my friend Sue suggested this topic to me. Unfortunately, Sue is anosmic so has no sense of smell whatsoever, although she is able to remember the smells she used to like before losing the ability to smell them.
Here are a few quotes about perfume:
A woman’s perfume tells more about her than her handwriting. — Christian Dior
Perfume is the key to our memories. — The Perfume Garden
What do I wear to bed? Why, Chanel No. 5 of course. — Marilyn Monroe
Long after one has forgotten what a woman wore, the memory of her perfume lingers. — Christian Dior.
So, getting back to the 1950s and 60s. When I was a child we knew it as scent, not perfume or fragrance. It usually came in tiny bottles and was dabbed out direct from the bottle onto the skin. Always behind the ears and on the inside of the wrists. From being very young I was always intrigued by perfumes. Top of the range perfumes were around at that time – Chanel, Dior, Estee Lauder and Guerlain, for example. But none of the mums and aunts I knew in the 50s wore any of those. I’m sure they weren’t sold in your average small town Boots or chemist’s shop. So this is my own memory of perfume in the 50s, not a definitive history.
Many perfumes were simply flower perfumes. Probably one of the first I ever owned was a little bottle of Devon Violets bought in Devon with holiday spending money. Then there was Apple Blossom, English Lavender, Lily of the Valley (Muguet des Bois if you were feeling posh!) and various rose perfumes.
There was also something known just as eau de cologne. I believe the one known as ‘the original eau de cologne’ is the famous 4711 which I didn’t come across until the 1970s. The non-specific eau de cologne I remember was splashed around by ladies in hot weather, dotted onto cotton hankies and dabbed on the temples if one had a headache.
For going out, (which my mum and dad didn’t do very often!) my mum’s ‘best’ perfume was White Fire. If I smelled that now it would take me right back to my mum getting ready in a pretty 50s full-skirted dance dress, a stole and dabbing scent from her tiny bottle of White Fire. I have looked it up and it was made by Grossmith. They still make perfume and at some point there was talk of White Fire being re-released but as far as I can see it hasn’t been.
The other ‘best’ perfume I remember my mum having in the 1950s was Evening in Paris which sounded so glamorous to me!
As children, we loved making perfume in the summer. We would gather up rose petals, crush them in water with a little salt then decant the resulting ‘perfume’ into old aspirin bottles or whatever we could find that was available. This was given as presents to our mum, our grandmothers and various other relatives – and was probably vile!
Moving on the men’s fragrances now and the one which springs straight to mind is Old Spice. Looking up the history of aftershave when researching for this post, I learned that aftershave began as an antiseptic to prevent nicks and cuts becoming infected, progressed to include skin calming ingredients to ease the sting of freshly shaved skin, then was enhanced by the use of perfume. Old Spice was launched in 1937 – as a women’s fragrance. Old Spice for Men arrived the following year.
However, this blog is based on personal recollection and it seems to me that when TVs and TV advertising entered our homes men were suddenly exposed to ads for Old Spice aftershave featuring impossibly hunky men and rugged sailing ships. I know that in our house it was only after seeing the ads that we started buying our dad aftershave for birthdays or Christmas. I can also remember us thinking we were extremely modern when we bought our dad some pre-electric shave lotion when he acquired his first electric razor.
I will probably write a Part 2 at some point and talk about some of the new fragrances which came out in the 1960s.