In the early 1890s several writers suggested that a new fashion was taking hold among the urban women of Europe and America: drinking Eau de Cologne. Stories appeared in both medical journals and popular newspapers of women ingesting perfume in various ways – from the delicate act of swallowing ‘a dose of cologne dropped on loaf sugar’ to the unrestrained swigging of whole bottles of 4711. Mirroring recent anxieties about middle-class drinking habits, doctors and journalists emphasised that these cologne drinkers were usually well-to-do, wealthy, and respectable members of the community, sometimes even members of London ‘Society’.
Strange as the practice seemed, for the woman who wished to drink, perfume was a practical choice at a time when it was less acceptable for her to enter a pub and order herself a brandy. Perfume was a substance that women could legitimately – even ostentatiously – have in their possession. The bottle of Eau de Cologne that stood on the dressing table would excite no attention, unless – as in Recollections of a Country Doctor (1885) – it began to empty alarmingly quickly. The country doctor of the title, Dr Meredith, asks his lady patient what has happened to the new bottle of cologne he had seen on her dressing table the previous afternoon. The patient blames her maid, claiming she spilt it on the carpet, but the doctor presses on: “If that eau-de-cologne has been spilt on the table it must have left a mark on the polish … Why keep up this sort of humbug? Why not tell me you have drunk it?”
Eau de Cologne could be transported beyond the bedroom or house, allowing a lady to – as Lewis Barnett Fretz put it in ‘The Modern Duality’ – ‘carry her bar about with her’. The relationship between fashion and ‘perfume tippling’ is made clear to Fretz by Kate Carter of New York, who is well acquainted with the habits of Society ladies:
‘If you are observant, you will see any lady take her little ‘nip’ any afternoon at a matinee, or concert, or lecture. She opens her reticule, or, if too up-to-date for a bag, you will notice her frequent recurrence to the great pocket of her sealskin. From this she takes what you suppose to be a sugar plum or a cough lozenge. If you look closely you will find that it is a square of white sugar … My lady is about to take a perfume ‘ball’ right here in the presence of the audience and amid the glare of the incandescent lights. Another dive into the pocket and she brings forth a handsome, finely-cut crystal smelling bottle. … [S]he drops some of its contents on that square of sugar, and before you can say ‘Jack Robinson’ has popped it into her mouth, downed it like a Kentucky thoroughbred.’
Perfume could also cover up the very habit it was feeding, liberally doused over the drinker to hide the fact of their ingestion of the substance. In this way, it functioned like other cosmetics that could conceal the signs of a drinking habit. Miss Howard, in Richard Pryce’s novel An Evil Spirit (1887), is mystified by the radiant appearance of an acquaintance who she has long suspected of alcoholism:
‘But presently Miss Howard made a discovery. … [She] distinctly saw the firm tracing of crayon noir. Suspicion suggested another, and very soon Miss Howard had discovered that the soft bloom on the cheeks never varied. This then was art!’
In An Evil Spirit and other contemporary literature, the well-to-do woman who drinks confirms established stereotypes of feminine behaviour: women are skilled in the art of subterfuge and use the substances at their disposal (make-up, perfume) to mask their true nature. Several doctors noted how drinking encouraged women’s ‘natural’ proclivity to dishonesty, as they lied to those around them and tried to hide their habit from view. A large part of this was likely due to the shame that came with a drinking habit, as even medical conceptions of addictive behaviour at this time carried in them a degree of moral judgement. This shame also complicates the historical study of the cologne drinker: she is a rather elusive figure, popping up only occasionally in doctors’ anecdotes or as a sensational figure in the press, making it difficult to place her squarely in the realm of either fact or fiction.
The Victorian perfume tippler might seem like an amusing character (and the very word ‘tippling’ suggested a more innocuous activity than the ‘drinking bout’ typically attributed to men), but doctors writing on the topic emphasised that the practice was far from trivial. To many, the resort to substances like Eau de Cologne was a sign that a woman had a long-standing drink habit, with her quaffing of perfume proof of the desperation to obtain alcohol in any form. W.C. McIntosh, writing in 1866, listed some of the substances that were ‘gulped down’ when a person was deprived of their usual alcohol or drug of choice: ‘red lavender, lavender-water, eau de cologne, creosote, vinegar, [and] vitriol’. The late 19th century was a period when the range of potential intoxicants – socially acceptable or otherwise – was increasing. The contents of journals like the Quarterly Journal of Inebriety testify to doctors’ anxieties about dealing with these new substances – everything from cocaine to camphor, from morphine to medicated wine.
Tackling the abuse of substances like Eau de Cologne was difficult, however – one could hardly remove all potentially intoxicating products from sale. The resort to substances not designed for human consumption is a problem that doctors continue to face in the 21st century – such as the drinking of hairspray in ‘dry’ rural Alaska. Although these modern-day drinkers may look a lot different to our 19th-century perfume tipplers, a common theme that unites them is the lack of legal or socially-sanctioned access to alcohol – a situation leading to the regular consumption of potentially dangerous alternatives.
Would you like to hear more?
I’ll be talking about the drinking habits of 19th-century women as part of Oxford Open Doors 2015, with Melissa Dickson from the Diseases of Modern Life team also joining me to talk about metals, magnets, and hysteria. You can find us at St Anne’s College from 3.15 on Sunday 13 September – we hope to see you there!