Radiant, evocative smells have become a crucial part of creating a welcoming home, but the history of where home fragrances came from is often overlooked compared to other aspects of interior design. Nowadays, reed diffusers and plug-in fragrances are everywhere, but where did they come from? Here, we’re going to look at the history of how home fragrance grew, and how some of our favourite smells came to find a place in our daily lives.
A tale as old as history
Perfumes and home fragrances both developed over five thousand years ago, as far as we can tell, with aromatic resins used in places like Egypt to mask the smell of animal sacrifices. Indeed, fragrances have long had religious and spiritual connotations, which is still true for many to this day. While Egypt used scents for religious sacrifices, the ancient Greeks used fragrances in ceremonies that included communicating with the gods. The growth of the Silk Road from Europe to China also started opening the way for the trade of incense, spices, and aromatic flowers between Europe, Asian, and Africa. Back then, most fragrances took the form of oils, resins, perfumes, and even ground flowers mixed with alcohol.
Scents that have travelled across time
Some of the documented ancient scents are still those very commonly used today. This includes the blue lotus, a lily native to the Nile used by the ancient chemist, Tapputi. While here work was primarily used by the ruling class, it’s much more broadly available today, popular thanks to its soft, sweet, and slightly intoxicating scent. Meanwhile, many of the scents used in traditional Chinese incense have found their way into homes across the world, including sandalwood, a comforting, warm fragrance evocative of peacefulness and the natural world.
Scent and medicine
While fragrance and medicine have always had a link, at this time, scents were widely used to cover the smell of corruption and sickness. In fact, the distinctive crow-like masks of the plague doctors had that infamous beak to protect them from the smelly “miasma”. They were stuffed with a range of herbs and spices, such as roses, mint, cloves, rose petals, and ambergris, all still hugely popular in modern home fragrance. However, few today are using them to ward off the Black Death, hopefully.
The mists of time
Active diffusion of scents, and the revolution of using steam extraction to distil scents, both came into play around the Middle Ages. For a brief time, scent use in Europe was considered decadent and looked down on by the church. However, in the Middle East, chemistry was fast developing, and steam extraction allowed for a much broader selection of scents, such as citrus fruits like oranges, still used to create a bright, zesty atmosphere in the home. This is also when home fragrance glass bottles started to appeal, with the Crusaders bringing back bottled rose water stolen from invaded lands.
An enlightening array of smells
Once the Enlightenment hit Europe in full force, chemistry, artistry, and spirituality began to flourish again in the West. From the 1800s, home fragrances and perfumes developed hand in hand, with chemistry discoveries continuing to broaden the range of ingredients that could be used. Medieval townships grew into cities and fragrances were developed largely to mask smells of sewage and all the other unpleasant odours of city life.
The rise of modern home fragrance
While the way that we tend to employ and enjoy our scents has changed, more has remained the same. Aromatherapy has links to Classical world ideas of how scents influence our health. For many, scents still have spiritual connotations, used for meditation and other esoteric practices. And of course, we still like to use scents to cover up smells that we would rather not have in the home. However, the use of home fragrance glass bottles and reed diffusers to create a different atmosphere and landscape in the home is a seemingly modern one. Reed diffusers were first documented in the Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles, Hormones Végétales by French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé.
The different ways that we have used scents have varied throughout time, as have the materials that we’ve created them from, and why we’ve used them. However, home fragrance has been a part of life since as far back as we can record. As the most emotionally evocative of all senses, we have no doubt that our love for different scents will continue to flourish for as long as we have noses to smell them with.