Anyone interested in perfume ought to check out A Natural History of the Senses by the poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman. It was a bestseller in its day, but looks as if it might have gone out of print. Ackerman is particularly good on the neglected sense of smell, especially the scents of people from history: crusaders came back perfumed with rosewater, Napoleon was drenched in violet cologne, Walter Raleigh smelled of strawberries.
She hurtles through time and space, throwing out strange facts left and right: if you put an Indonesian flying fox in your hair (as she does, experimentally), it starts to cough because of your soapy smells. Elizabethan women would put peeled apples in their armpits till they were soaked with sweat and give them to their lovers. One of Nero’s guests was smothered to death in a shower of rose petals. She’s defeated in her attempt to describe the smell of a penguin, but she has got a useful way to trick deer and rabbits by disguising your human scent with mushrooms, and a 16th century recipe for a perfume that makes women beautiful forever – it involves distilled raven, talcum powder and myrtle leaves, if you’d like to give it a go.
The Art of Perfume
Pictures from LIFE.