The history of perfumes, particularly scented oils, probably starts with resins, flowers, and other fragrant substances being used to scent oils-- olive, almond, etc.-- and fats. Egyptians made complicated resin and oil based perfume mixtures, often shaped into cones which they wore on top of their heads and which perfumed the air as they were melted by body heat. Anointing oils were used by the Hebrew tribes, by the Greeks, and by the Romans: there is a special formula for anointing oil to be used only in the Temple, for instance. Generally these oils were made by 'infusing' the herbs, resins, and flowers in the oil or fat, either by simply letting them sit in a jar of oil or by heating them in the oil, as well as by expression, putting the resins/herbs through a bag press.
Essential Oils can be obtained by distillation, enfluerage (soaking blossoms or herbs in fat), maceration (mashing up the herbs and soaking them in liquid) and other means. Tusser, in his Hundreth Points for Good Husbandry, lists 'Herbs to Still in Summer': blessed thistle, betonye [betony], dill, endive, eyebright, fennell, fumetorie [fumitory], hop, mints, plantine [plantain], roses (red and damaske), respies, saxifrage, strawberries, sorrell, suckerie, woodroffe [sweet woodruff] (for sweet waters and cakes)."
The oldest documented 'essential oil' is probably Oil of Roses. Legends say it was first created by the petals being immersed in water, causing the oil to float to the top. Avicenna discovered how to produce it by distillation in the 10th century. The discovery of distillation spread throughout the Arab world and slowly to Europe. Steam distillation of herbs and alcohol together, or sometimes water and herbs together, produced 'sweet waters' or 'water of' the particular herb. The 'water of' the herb is the hydrosol, a by-product of extracting essential oils; but some types of distillation will produce merely the water without separating out the essential oil.
Several sources from the 1500s and 1600s give detailed recipes for sweet waters and for distilling essential oils, such as Gervase Markham's 1615 English Housewife, John French's 1653 Art of Distillation, and Hugh Plat's 1594 Delightes for Ladies. Many (modern) sources claim that the oldest alcohol based perfumes were Queen of Hungary Water (a rosemary-based water) and Carmelite water (or King Charles' water), whose ingredients vary-- both allegedly from the late 1300s and originally used as medicinal doses and rubs.
The most popular period way of making sweet waters, however, is illegal in this country today, because it involves distillation of alcohol. So, we must approximate. (Though the period and near period sources mention distilling with water, they consider the resulting product inferior.) Hugh Plat noted that it was quicker and cheaper to make waters of some types by purchasing oils and adding them to the water, so we do have some documentation for making waters by mixing alcohol, water, and essential oil.
Various sources indicate that a number of essential oils were available
in period, at least in England:
Oils of: Roses, Cinnamon, Cloves, Mace, Nutmeg, Lavender (Spike), Lemons, Benzoin, and Thyme are mentioned in recipes. Culpeper mentions that essential oil of mint is too piercing to use straight. Oil of Violets was then available, but it is now not available without great price. To get a comparable effect, you can try synthetic violet scent, or if you can get it, orris root oil or real orris root (I have not had any success with this).
NOTE: If you are making anything you intend to consume internally,
use ONLY oils, essential oils, flavorings, and herbs intended for human consumption;
ordinary essential oils and fragrances are NOT intended for consumption.
Because of a small number of cases of botulism poisoning, the FDA recommends that infused oils for internal consumption be made at the time of use, and any leftovers stored under refrigeration and used or discarded promptly.
"To make oil of camomile, take a quart of sallat oil and put it into a glass, then take a handful of camomile and bruise it, and put it into the oil, and let them stand in the same twelve days, only you must shift it every three days, that is to straight it from the old camomile and put in as much of the new. . . "
"To make an oil which shall make the skin of the hands very smooth, take almonds and beat them to oil, then take whole cloves and put them both together into a glass, and set it in the sun five or six days; then strain it, and with the same anoint your hands every night when you go to bed, and otherwise as you have convenient leisure."
John French's Art of Distillation (1651) says:
"OIL OF JASMINE IS MADE THUS
Take of flowers of jasmine as many as you please, and put them into as much sweet mature oil as you please. Put them into a glass close stopped, and set them into the sun to be infused for the space of 20 days. Then take them out and strain the oil from the flowers and, if you would have the oil yet stronger, put in new flowers and do as before. This is a pleasant perfume and being mixed with oils and ointments gives them a grateful smell. It is also used in the perfuming of leather. After this manner may be made oil of any flowers. "
The Charitable Physitian, by Philibert Guibert, of 1639 contains this recipe, reprinted in Rohde's The Scented Garden.
"To make Oyle of Roses three wayes:This method works well with flowers and herbs. I have made oil of lavender that way, placing the container on a radiator.
The first way is, take a pound of red Rose buds, beat them in a marble morter with a woodden pestle, then put them into an earthen pot, and poure upon them foure pound of oyle of Olives, letting them infuse the space of moneth in the Sunne, or the chimney corner stirring them sometimes, then heate it, and presse it, and straine it, and put it inot the same pot or other vessell to keepe.
The second is take halfe a pound of red Roses, and halfe a pound of Damaske, beate them together in a marble morter, and put them into a pot, and poure upon them foure pound of oyle, and let them infuse the space of twelve houres, then pour them all into a pan and boyle them two or three boylings, and straine them and presse them in a strong towel in the presse, and in the meane time put in the pot as many more Roses and poure the oyle upon them and so beate them and presse them and put Roses to the oyle three times, and then boyle it until all the humidity bee consumed. The third is to take all Damask Roses and make three infusions as before."
Resins and roots do better with a more direct technique, placing them in the oil and then heating it to a slow simmer. One way to do this is to put the oil and herb in a glass bowl, float it in water in your crockpot, and turn the crockpot on low for 3-5 hours. Or you can use a double boiler. For best results-- and safety-- avoid putting your oil in a pan directly on the heat source.
The Spanish Manual de Mujeres (as translated by Dana Huffman) gives a recipe for orange blossom oil:
This is oil extraction by water extraction, where you wait for the essential oil to come to the top of the mixture and skim it off. I've never had success with this technique, but it is often used commercially.
Recipe for making oil of citrus blossoms
For each pound of citrus blossoms an ounce of oil. Knead? pound? the citrus blossoms with the oil and after [it is] kneaded/pounded, put it in a glass in the sun and shake it every so often; and if the sun is very strong, do not leave it more than a day. And afterwards strain/filter it, and gather/pick up that oil with a feather. And if it doesn't have a good scent, put in another, similar [quantity] of blossoms and do the same.
Another technique for making scented oil at home is scenting it with a few drops of essential oils. Though the medieval European books don't speak of oils including multiple components, at least one Arab recipe (cited in a post to Stefan's Florilegium) involves steeping other substances in oil of jasmine which would produce a mixed scent.
Period oils would have been olive, 'sweet' almond, and perhaps others, such as sesame (referred to as oil of benne), hempseed and poppyseed oils. Oil of ben (from the pods of the 'horseradish tree') was much in demand because it had no scent of its own. (Soy oil and others can be purchased commercially as 'unscented massage oils' and will produce good results if they are used before they grow rancid.) Other fats/oils/greases that were used in period and are mentioned by Culpeper, mostly in medicinal context, included hen's grease, duck's grease, hog's grease, sheep's suet, heifer's suet and Oil of Roses.
I have found that the amount of oil that will fit in the size of small glass bottle that can be found at craft and dollar stores (and the small perfume bottles from Pier 1) will take about 7-12 drops of essential oil before being overpowering. Consult a reference source on safety of essential oils and on mixing perfumes before beginning.
Note: adding tincture of benzoin will often help retain the scent, because it is a fixative, though benzoin has its own scent. Also, a chemist on one of the lists I frequent recommends adding 1-1.5% by weight of vitamin E oil to the mix to prevent rancidity.
I generally use vodka, as a substitute for repeatedly-distilled aqua vitae-- you can use brandy or whiskey, but vodka is cheap and better. [Note: triple and quadruple distillation of fermented-grain products is mentioned in period, to get a vodka-like distillate.] 'Everclear' so-called 'pure grain alcohol' is no longer available in PA without a permit, but it will work for perfumes/waters also. However, the probability that anyone in period had the time and energy to produce something as highly distilled as 'grain' is pretty small. Vodka should be between 1/4 and 1/8 of the vodka/water mixture. For the 3-4 oz size of bottle found at craft stores, only about 7-15 drops of oil should be added; more is overpowering.
(For those under 21 and/or who want to avoid drinkable alcohol, herb shops sell something called 'perfume base' which has wood alcohol along with glycerin, preservative and some water. Perfume base should be used as-is, without dilution. Isopropyl alcohol sold off-the-shelf at drugstores is unsuitable, as it has been doctored with a distinctive scent which will overpower any oils put into it.)
Hugh Plat Delightes for Ladies on the subject of making scented waters with essential (extracted) oils:
"Diverse sorts of sweet handwaters made suddenly or extempore with extracted oyles of spices.
First you shall understand, that whensoever you shall draw any of the Oyles of Cinnamon, Cloves, Mace, Nutmegs or such like, that you shall have also a pottle or a gallon more or lesse, according to the quantity which you draw at once, of excellent sweet washing water for your table; yea some doe keepe the same for their broths, wherein otherwise they should use some of the same kinds of spice.
But if you take three or foure drops only of the oyle of Cloves, Mace, or Nutmegs (for Cinamon oyle is too costly to spend this way) and mingle the same with a pinte of faire water, making agitation of them a pretty while togther in a glasse having a narrow mouth, till they have in some measure incorporated themselves together, you shall find a very pleasing and delightful water to wash with and so you may alwaies furnish yourself of sweet water of severall kinds, before such time as your guests shall be ready to sit downe. I speake not of the oyle of Spike (which will extend very far this way) both because every Gentlewoman doth not like so strong a scent and for that the same is elsewhere already commended by another Author. Yet I must needs acknowledge it to be the cheaper way, for that I assure myself there may be five or six gallons of sweet water made with one ounce of the oyle, which you may buy ordinarily for a groat at the most."
To make water for washing hands at table: Boil sage, then strain the water and cool it until it is a little more than lukewarm. Or use chamomile, marjoram, or rosemary boiled with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good.Also, you might want to make the following 'Sweet Water for Perfuming Clothes' which Jeanne Rose quotes and says is a sixteenth-century recipe:
"To 1 qt. rose water, add the following: 1/2 oz. lavender, 2 oz. orris, 1/2 oz. jasmine flowers, 1 t. musk, a pinch of ambergris and civet, 5 drops of clove oil. Put it all into a glass jar, fasten down the lid, and place it in a sunny window for 10 days. Then strain and set aside the liquid for use."
From Bulleins Bulwarke, 1562: [Sixteenth-Century Sweet Water for Linens, quoted in Rohde, The Scented Garden]
Three pounds of Rose water, cloves, cinnamon, Sauders [sandalwood], 2 handful of the flowers of Lavender, lette it stand a moneth to still in the sonne, well closed in a glasse; Then destill it in Balneo Marial. It is marvellous pleasant in savour, a water of wondrous swetenes, for the bedde, whereby the whole place, shall have a most pleasaunt scent.However, note that alcohol-less versions such as these, and the one of Plat's above, will not keep long without refrigeration; adding the alcohol is the part that makes it keep.
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