(Editor’s note: DeeDee Wood is the owner of Black Cat Curiosities, an online antiques research and sales venue.)
Perfumes in bottles is sometimes called “bottled love.” The history of housing a scent in a bottle, readily available for the wearer to entice their audience is nothing new, and has roots of origin dating back to Egyptian times and beyond.
Collecting these beautiful vessels is a passion of some antique lover enthusiasts, and the history of such vessels is both fascinating and industrious, a sign of human ingenuity and steeped in legend and lore of the past.
Perfumes are scents worn on the human body to allure and introduce a particular message to the receiver. In Egyptian times, perfumes were held in different types of clay body vessels, used for not only allure, but also in religious ceremonies and to prepare the dead in that culture for an extravagant afterlife.
Many of these early bottles were made of elements available to the people of that region, and include alabaster and clay vessels, as well as examples of copper and stone.
Later, when glass techniques were introduced into the region of Egypt and the surrounding areas, the Egyptians would take a core vessel and overlay glass upon it, strong enough to hold the precious liquid inside, and beautiful in the mimicry of precious stones, such as Lapis Lazuli and precious gemstones that could be copied to mimic precious stones not always affordable to add if they were real.
As glass blowing techniques were perfected, handles were added to these vessels and compounds introduced from the natural world, such as ground pigments, minerals and dyes to add color where it was needed.
The thought was always that the vessels needed to be strong enough to hold a variety of liquids, and help them endure time by not evaporating. Perfumes, in the earliest origins, were often made of animal fat, flower parts, essential oils from plants, and later in production, alcohol and synthetic components, just to name a few. It was always the endeavor to create a vessel, even in these early times, that not only held the precious liquid and preserved it, but presented it in a pleasing fashion for the variety of reasons perfumes and fragrances were worn and used.
The Greeks and Romans also had their skills and techniques in perfumes and vessels to hold the liquid. Early vessels from Greece were often made of terra cotta, and later glass, and had unusual shapes and themes, such as nature and animals, with lids, sometimes, topping the jar. The Romans thought of perfumes as an accompaniment to love, and with the invention of better glass making by the Syrians in the 1st century BC, Roman perfume vessels took the form of molded glass bottles and blown glass techniques to hold the fragrances of love.
Perfumes had many uses and allure. By the 12th century, France had a guild of perfume makers and scents, and porcelain vessels from this time period held the expensive liquid, and the bottles became more elaborate in some instances, depicting nature, birds, cats and hand painted scenes of pastoral love scenes and wooing.
Flowers, with their own meanings and terms for a variety of human emotions and intentions, were also represented on bottles.
Perfumes and the vessels which contain the substances came into fashion as the industry grew, and by the 19th century, English pottery makers, such as Wedgwood, were making perfume bottles and containers for beauty for a woman’s beauty regime. These containers could hold lotions, potions, liquid and essential oils. There was always the challenge in this industry to avoid evaporation, and often times lids were the solution, as they could create a tighter seal, in theory.
As the 19th century Industrial Revolution influence dominated the world stage in manufacturing, the idea of marketing perfume and creating interesting packaging influenced the perfume and perfume bottle market.
Not only were manufacturers thinking about how to package their fragrance, but they also needed to think about transport, care, glass breakage and marketing influence of the growing mass of middle class buyers who could now afford luxuries that in the past, only the affluent could afford or have on their dressing tables.
During the Industrial Revolution time period, France had soared into the market as the world renowned experts on making expensive, popular scents from their region. Manufacturers of glass bottle makers, such as Lalique, crafted magnificent bottles that are still showcased for their example of excellence in manufacturing today.
During the time period of Industrial influence, the idea of introducing lines of fragrance that were less expensive and more synthetic were introduced into the market from companies that modern wearers of these creations recognize, such as Max Factor and Avon. Creative liquids were put in cheaper, mass produced, pressed glass bottles and sometimes plastic as that invention took off throughout the world in the 20th century, lowering costs and increasing production and distribution of perfume in their economic vessels to a variety of consumers.
Antique perfume bottle collecting often contains higher end, 20th century creations from companies like Steuben and Baccarat, that produced expensive cut-glass crystal bottles with fanciful lids and light-catching allure. You might also find detailed 20th century Egyptian bottles with hand-blown, twisted lids, that have a very regional feel, displaying elegant prizes of scent inside. Variety should be contained on any well-displayed table top or cabinet of curiosities of historic perfuming objects, and European and Industrial American-created bottles usually are more readily available products in the antiques market, instead of relics of the distant past, which are usually presented in a museum setting, due to their rarity.
Perfumes and scents had many uses in history-from folklore of using tinctures and herbs to ward off evil or create an alluring scent of love, to covering up smells from the human body when deodorants were rarely used, the housing of such oils, animal products, plant bodies and later alcohol and synthetics, has always been a challenge.
The perfume industry and creation of scents is a long, complicated one, spanning thousands of years of human ingenuity, trial and error, commentary on social and political economics of regions around the world, and beyond, all with one result-creating alluring fragrances for various reasons that can stand the test of time, evaporation, and storage.