The Scent of Violets: Perfume, Cosmetics, and Crime in the Late Victorian Era

“The fondness for violets increases with time, and many women of fashion will tolerate no other fragrance.”
American Soap Journal and Manufacturing Chemist, 1895.

The Nosegay Of Violets by William Worcester Churchill, 1905.

In 1893, a woman by the name of Margaret Gainer was arrested, charged, and ultimately sentenced to thirty days imprisonment for stealing a bottle of violet perfume from a hairdresser’s shop. The hairdresser had seen her take the bottle and slip it into her pocket, but when he gave her the choice of putting the bottle back or facing the consequences, Miss Gainer steadfastly refused to relinquish the violet perfume. Her motivation for the theft—and her subsequent unwillingness to part with her ill-gotten gains—is not entirely clear; however, I suspect it had more than a little to do with the late Victorian violet fad.

Violet was the reigning fragrance of the 1890s. It was used to scent perfumes, toilet water, soaps, cold cream, sachets, and tooth powder. According to one druggist quoted in the 1898 edition of the Spatula:

“The latest novelty is a soft, thick, violet-colored flannel which exhales the most delicious perfume. This flannel costs the neat little sum of $15 a yard. Not less than a quarter of a yard will be cut off. The flannel is cut into small strips and sewed into the linings of sleeves, waists and skirts, and into the crowns of hats and of bonnets. The odor from it is perhaps the most exquisitely delicate to be obtained.”

Advertisement for Roman Violet Perfume, The Spatula, 1898.

The druggist goes on to report that, in his particular shop, “We sell more violet, fifty times over, than all the other perfumes together.” Most violet scented perfumes and cosmetics sold in shops in the U.S. and the U.K. were of the artificial variety. Perfumes made of natural violet were much more costly—and difficult—to produce. As the Spatula explains:

“Violet perfume may be extracted from the flowers themselves, but one hundred pounds of violets produce only one ounce of the finest extract.”

Advertisement for Crown Violette Perfume, Musical Record, 1897.

The American Soap Journal and Manufacturing Chemist describes natural violet perfume as being “a delicate, expensive product, which most connoisseurs prefer to any of the artificial combinations.” It had a sweet fragrance which was suitable for women of all ages. It also came in infinite varieties. As the American Soap Journal reports:

“There are violet orris, wood violet, Napoleon violet, Yankee violet, violette superba, ideal violet, extreme violet, San Remo violet, etc., all of which are exquisitely delicate.”

Advertisement for Violet Perfumes, Barnsley Chronicle, 23 July 1898.
(c) British Library Board.

The ultra-feminine scent of violets was believed to be particularly appealing to the opposite sex. In an 1895 article on violet perfume published in the American Journal of Pharmacy and the Sciences Supporting Public Health, Henry Kraemer reminds readers of the power of violets, writing:

“The extent of their influence may be ascertained, possibly, when we recall that the beautiful Countess Eugenie de Montijo draped her gown with violets, ‘caught’ the Emperor Napoleon III and mounted a throne.”

Does any of this provide us with an explanation for why Margaret Gainer pocketed that bottle of violet perfume and refused to give it back? Perhaps, like the Empress Eugenie, she hoped to ensnare a desirable gent. Or perhaps, she merely wanted to smell like a woman of fashion. Was it worth thirty days in prison? I suspect not.

 


I had to research violet perfume quite a bit when writing my Victorian romance novel, The Lost Letter. It is the preferred fragrance of my heroine, Sylvia Stafford. Now a governess, she can no longer afford violet perfume and, instead, must make do with violet-scented soap.

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Mimi Matthews is the author of  The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

American Soap Journal and Manufacturing Chemist, Vols. 11-13. Milwaukee:

Barnsley Chronicle (South Yorkshire, England), 23 July 1898. © British Library Board.

Canterbury Journal, Kentish Times and Farmers’ Gazette (Kent, England), 7 March 1896. © British Library Board.

Dundee Evening Telegraph (Angus, Scotland), 16 June 1893. © British Library Board.

Illustrated London News (London, England), 1 December 1894. © British Library Board.

Kraemer, Henry. “The Violet Perfume.” American Journal of Pharmacy and the Sciences Supporting Public Health, Vol. 67. Philadelphia: Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, 1895.

The Musical Record. Boston: Oliver Ditson Co., 1897.

The Spatula, Vol. V. New York: Spatula Publishing Co., 1898


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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6 Comments on "The Scent of Violets: Perfume, Cosmetics, and Crime in the Late Victorian Era"

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Sarah Waldock
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Yippee, I got notification! Fascinating, I wonder why violet scent was so popular? it’s sickly and cloying. Mind, I suppose that adequately describes a lot of Victorian ladies … I’m a lily-of-the-valley person myself.

Wendy
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I’ve never been a fan of floral perfumes myself (I like a little citrus with a little sweet), and off the top of my head (or perhaps I should say off the top of my nose!) I can’t envision the smell of violets. But no matter how nice the scent of any perfume, I can’t imagine it would be worth even a single night in jail!

paper doll
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yay! I can comment on this stunning new web site! Per-ordering now! I think we have to consider how smelly the Victorian world could be when giving the favorite
sent a sniff! Subtle won’t do! lol

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