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.



AmazonAmazon UK

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.


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

One of BookBub’s “25 of the Best Books Arriving in 2021”

John Eyre
A Tale of Darkness and Shadow

From USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews comes a supernatural Victorian gothic retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s timeless classic.

Yorkshire, 1843. When disgraced former schoolmaster John Eyre arrives at Thornfield Hall to take up a position as tutor to two peculiar young boys, he enters a world unlike any he’s ever known. Darkness abounds, punctuated by odd bumps in the night, strange creatures on the moor, and a sinister silver mist that never seems to dissipate. And at the center of it all, John’s new employer–a widow as alluring as she is mysterious.

Sixteen months earlier, heiress Bertha Mason embarked on the journey of a lifetime. Marriage wasn’t on her itinerary, but on meeting the enigmatic Edward Rochester, she’s powerless to resist his preternatural charm. In letters and journal entries, she records the story of their rapidly-disintegrating life together, and of her gradual realization that Mr. Rochester isn’t quite the man he appears to be. In fact, he may not be a man at all.

From a cliff-top fortress on the Black Sea coast to an isolated estate in rural England, John and Bertha contend with secrets, danger, and the eternal struggle between light and darkness. Can they help each other vanquish the demons of the past? Or are some evils simply too powerful to conquer?

Find out more or Read an Excerpt

Pre-Order Today

ebook: $3.99 $4,99

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Apple

Advance Praise for John Eyre

“In this thrilling remix of Charlotte Brontë’s work, Matthews skillfully transforms a well-known story into a truly original tale.” -Kirkus Reviews

“[Matthews] retells Charlotte Bronte’s classic story in a way that will keep fans of the original novel totally gripped from cover to cover… Fresh and dynamic… Fast-paced and spellbinding…a book you will have a hard time putting down.” -Readers Favorite

“One of the most moving, suspenseful, innovative and remarkable retellings of a classic in the history of, well, ever… Every page is sheer rapture as [Matthews] moulds popular source material into a spell-binding creation so wholly her own.” -Rachel McMillan, bestselling author of The London Restoration

© 2015-2021 Mimi Matthews

For exclusive information on upcoming book releases, giveaways, and other special treats, subscribe to Mimi’s newsletter THE PENNY NOT SO DREADFUL.

You can also connect with Mimi on Facebook and Twitter.

Notify of
Privacy Policy Consent
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
3 years ago

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.

3 years ago

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
paper doll
3 years ago

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

Our website uses cookies which may collect information about your visit to improve our website (anonymous analytics), to show you media (video and audio), targeted advertising, and social media feeds. Please see our Cookie Policy page for further details or agree by clicking the 'Accept' button.

Cookie settings

Below you can choose which kind of cookies you allow on this website. Click on the "Save cookie settings" button to apply your choice.

FunctionalOur website uses functional cookies. These cookies are necessary to let our website work.

AnalyticalOur website uses analytical cookies to make it possible to analyze our website and optimize for the purpose of a.o. the usability.

Social mediaOur website places social media cookies to show you 3rd party content like YouTube and FaceBook. These cookies may track your personal data.

AdvertisingOur website places advertising cookies to show you 3rd party advertisements based on your interests. These cookies may track your personal data.

OtherOur website places 3rd party cookies from other 3rd party services which aren't Analytical, Social media or Advertising.