Napoleon, Josephine and a giant bill for Cologne…


The Revolution was a turbulent time, for perfumers, who lost their most affluent customers, often to the guillotine. But they had a new champion, in Napoleon Bonaparte – who just loved Eau de Cologne, and used it extravagantly throughout his life.

He had a standing order with his perfumer, Chardin, to deliver 50 bottles a month. He loved its cooling qualities and after washing, would drench his shoulders and neck with it. He particularly loved the scent of rosemary, which is a key ingredient in eau de Cologne, because it flourished along the cliffs and rocky scrubland in Corsica, where he was born. A quarterly bill for 1806 shows Chardin supplied 162 bottles of eau de Cologne costing 423 francs (as well as 26 pots of almond paste, for 355 francs, and 20 sponges, price 262 francs).

Famously, Napoleon also liked the scent of his wife ‘au naturel’.  He dispatched the legendary commandment ‘Don’t bathe’, when returning from battle to their home. But he also picked up steep bills for his wife’s perfumes: in Chardin’s records, there’s an amount for a very large bottle of jasmine, which she loved.

Josephine followed the new fashion of keeping pots of scented flowers in her rooms. She was fond of hyacinths, and mignonette (which has a violet-like scent);  Napoloen sent her some seed direct from Egypt, its native home, and it soon became a popular flower with the French elite – named ‘Little Darling’. So potent was it, mignonette flowers were placed on balconies to obliterate the foul stench of the streets. (It became popular in England, too, and in 1830 Henry Phillips wrote that anyone who considered the fragrance of mignonette too powerful to have in the home ‘must be delighted with the scent it throws from the balconies into the streets, giving  breath of garden air to a close-pent man.’

VIOLETSJosephine also delighted in the scent of violets, among other scented blossoms. They play a part, too, in a poignant postscript to the love story of Napoleon and Josephine. The leader of Paris society, she’d married Napoleon in 1796 – and was heartbroken when their marriage was declared null and void, 14 years later. She lived at Malmaison, planting a famous rose garden, but continued to wear violet-scented perfumes. Napoleon had her grave covered in violets, and shortly before he was exiled, is said to have picked flowers from it, which after the Emperor died were found in a locket he always wore around his neck…

The Victorians had a love of violets, too – among other simple, innocent flower fragrances.  (Musky perfumes, by contrast, were for ‘fallen women’.) But during Victoria’s reign, the world of fragrance was revolutionised by the introduction of exciting synthetics – which you can read about here