How Much Scent is Too Much?—Victorian Advice for Ladies and Gentlemen

La Mode, 1836.
(Met Museum)

In the Victorian era, perfumed products abounded. In addition to perfume, cologne, and toilet water, there were scented soaps, scented pomades, and even scented mouth waters and dentifrices for the teeth. But how much scent could a lady or a gentleman wear without being offensive? It’s a question many of us puzzle over even today. Fortunately for the Victorians, books and articles on proper etiquette offered plenty of advice to guide the unwary.

An article in the 1894 edition of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine quotes a passage from an 1811 book of etiquette in which the author advises young gentleman on their personal scent, stating:

“You ought to make it your care neither to smell too sweet nor the contrary; for a gentleman ought neither to be offensive like a he-goat nor perfumed like a civet-cat.”

Useful advice, to be sure. Then again, a fairly large gray area exists between the offensive scent of a he-goat and the stink of a civet-cat. In his 1874 publication The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, Cecil Hartley offers advice that is more specific. Instead of dousing their bodies with scent, he instead recommends that gentlemen engage in “frequent bathing.” As far as fragrance, he writes:

“Use but very little perfume, much of it is in bad taste.”

Journal des Tailleurs, Gazette of Fashion, 1862.
(Met Museum)

Some etiquette experts advised that gentlemen forego perfume altogether. According to the 1884 edition of James McCabe’s Household Encyclopaedia of Business and Social Forms, “perfumes should be avoided as effeminate.” However, if a gentleman insisted upon wearing scent, he was cautioned to use it only on his handkerchief. As McCabe explains:

“If used at all, for the handkerchief, [perfumes] should be of the very best and most delicate character, or they may give offence, as persons often entertain strong aversions to peculiar scents.”

Advice for women followed much the same lines. While perfume was not strictly prohibited, it was considered offensive to wear an excess of strong scent. Instead, a lady was advised to wear only a hint of delicate fragrance—often on her handkerchief. According to the 1880 edition of The Manners That Win:

“It is in bad taste for a lady to use strong perfumes. A hint of a delicate perfume is quite enough.”

La Mode Illustre, Women 1877.
(Met Museum)

But what qualifies as a hint of perfume? Was it a merely a light dab behind the ears or a spray of vapor from an atomizer? In her 1881 etiquette manual Gems of Deportment, Martha Louise Rayne provides the best description of just how delicate a delicate perfume should be, writing:

“A perfume should be so delicate, so daintily used, and so lingeringly fragrant that no one could define it as any thing but the ghost of a sweet scent, a faint, clinging memory of sweetness.”

Today, we have a far wider range of fragrances available than ladies and gentlemen did in the Victoria era. However, I believe much of the above advice on the use of perfumes still applies. Whether a man or a woman, when it comes to applying scent, a light hand is often the best.

*There’s much more on Victorian perfume in my new book A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, coming this July from Pen and Sword Books. You can pre-order it now via the links below.

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.

Sources

Hartley, Cecil B. The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness. Boston: J. S. Locke & Company, 1874.

Manners That Win. Minneapolis: Buckeye Publishing Co, 1880.

McCabe, James Dabney. The Household Encyclopaedia of Business and Social Forms Embracing the Laws of Etiquette and Good Society. Enterprise Pub. Co., 1884.

Rayne, Martha Louise. Gems of Deportment and Hints of Etiquette. Detroit: Tyler & Co., 1881.

“Some Variations of Etiquette.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1894.

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Cynthia Strauff
Cynthia Strauff
2 years ago

what do you think they’d say about the musk and patchouli scents of the 70s? no migraine-producing scents for their time…

Anne
Anne
2 years ago

This is interesting. I was just reading your 2nd novel and loving every minute of it and here’s a Mimi Matthews post among the emails. I will be leaving a 5 star review at Amazon in a few days. Mimi! You do take a reader on a wild ride! lol:)

Anne
Anne
2 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

Hey Mimi, I left my review. It might need a day to process. I said in part ” Her knowledge and awareness for what was deemed ” fitting ” in Victorian society is so acute, I liken it to a mix between a tuning fork and a Geiger counter.” lol True!

Candy
Candy
2 years ago

This issue comes up often among Argentine Tango dancers… I’ve danced with gentlemen drenched in aftershave. It’s an awful experience. I’ve also received many compliments for the perfumes I use when I dance. Like the Victorian advice, I believe a light touch is important. Scent should be shared inside the embrace and never announce that you are on your way… LOL

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
2 years ago
Reply to  Candy

I can imagine that for ballroom dancing excess scent is often an issue. I agree, lighter is always better!

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