The History of Perfume

Greek terracotta perfume-bottle in the shape of a siren, circa 570 B.C.
Greek terracotta perfume-bottle in the shape of a siren, circa 570 B.C.

CM Dixon / Print Collector / Getty Images

Perfume is thousands of years old, with evidence of the first perfumes dating to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Cyprus. The English word "perfume" comes from the Latin "per fume," meaning "through smoke."

History of Perfume Around the World

The ancient Egyptians were the first to incorporate perfume into their culture, followed by the ancient Chinese, Hindus, Israelites, Carthaginians, Arabs, Greeks, and Romans. The oldest perfumes were discovered by archeologists in Cyprus. They were more than 4,000 years old. A cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia, dating back more than 3,000 years, identifies a woman named Tapputi as the first recorded perfume maker. But perfumes could also be found in India at the time.

The earliest use of perfume bottles is Egyptian and dates to around 1000 B.C. The Egyptians invented glass, and perfume bottles were one of the first common uses for glass. Persian and Arab chemists helped codify the production of perfume and its use spread throughout the world of classical antiquity. The rise of Christianity, however, saw a decline in the use of perfume for much of the Dark Ages. It was the Muslim world that kept the traditions of perfume alive during this time—and helped trigger its revival with the onset of international trade.

The 16th century saw the popularity of perfume explode in France, especially among the upper classes and nobles. With help from “the perfume court,” the court of Louis XV, everything got perfumed: furniture, gloves, and other clothing. The 18th-century invention of eau de Cologne helped the perfume industry continue to grow. 

Uses of Perfume

One of the oldest uses of perfume comes from the burning of incense and aromatic herbs for religious services, often the aromatic gums, frankincense, and myrrh gathered from trees. It did not take long, though, for people to discover perfume’s romantic potential, and it was used both for seduction and as preparation for love-making.

With the arrival of eau de Cologne, 18th-century France began using perfume for a broad range of purposes. They used it in their bathwater, in poultices, and enemas, and consumed it in wine or drizzled on a sugar lump.

Although niche perfume makers remain to cater to the very rich, perfumes today enjoy widespread use—and not just among women. The selling of perfume, however, is no longer just the purview of perfume makers. In the 20th century, clothing designers began marketing their own lines of scents, and almost any celebrity with a lifestyle brand can be found hawking a perfume with their name (if not smell) on it. 

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of Perfume." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). The History of Perfume. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Perfume." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).