‘Sweet oblivious antidotes’? Lady perfume drinkers of the late 19th century

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’.

A 19th-century bottle of 4711 Eau de Cologne. Image: Farina Archiv.

A 19th-century bottle of 4711 Eau de Cologne. Image: Farina Archiv.

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.

A French Eau de Cologne bottle, 1780-1850. Image: Wellcome Images.

A French Eau de Cologne bottle, 1780-1850. Image: Wellcome Images.

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.


Advert for a scent bottle from Chemist and Druggist, February 1890.

Advert for a scent bottle from Chemist and Druggist, February 1890.

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!

Diseases of Modern Life – Oxford Open Doors – Sunday 13 September 2015

The Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries and Diseases of Modern Life: 19th Century Perspectives Projects will be taking part in Oxford Open Doors 2015 organised by the Oxford Preservation Trust.


Oxford Preservation Trust’s printed programme contains an error on the date, as the events are listed for Saturday 12th September. Please note that the correct date for these events is Sunday 13th September 2015.


A programme of talks and activities will be held in the Mary Ogilvie Lecture Theatre and Foyer, St Anne’s College, Woodstock Road on Sunday 13th September 2015 between 1.30 – 4.30 p.m.


There will also be a talk by Professor Gary Browning from Oxford Brookes University on Iris Murdoch, one of the most eminent previous fellows of St Anne’s College.

The programme for the afternoon of Sunday 13th September 2015 is as follows:

1.30 – 4.30 p.m. Citizen Science and Zooniverse talks and demonstrations throughout the afternoon (Foyer area). Members of the project team and Zooniverse, the world’s largest citizen science platform, will be there all afternoon allowing visitors to try citizen science for themselves. The talks during the afternoon will look at the history of citizen science.

1.30 p.m. Mini-Talk on Citizen Science (Foyer area)

2.00 p.m. Professor Gary Browning, Oxford Brookes University Iris Murdoch, unity, difference and late modernity  (Lecture Theatre)

3.00 p.m. Mini-Talk on Citizen Science (Foyer area)

3.15 p.m. Dr Melissa Dickson, Diseases of Modern Life Project on Curing Hysteria with Metals and Magnets (Lecture Theatre)

3.45 p.m. Dr Jennifer Wallis, Diseases of Modern Life Project on Lady Tipplers and Secret Drinking in the 19th Century (Lecture Theatre)

4.00 p.m. Mini-Talk on Citizen Science (Foyer Area)

If you have any queries on the event, please contact the Project Administrator, Alyson Slade (alyson.slade@ell.ox.ac.uk)

Be Still My Beating Heart

One frequently made observation about the nineteenth century is that it was marked by a number of breakthroughs in medicine and the sciences which revealed forces that shape humanity – as individuals and as a species – whose existence was previously unsuspected. Our understanding of ourselves was changed at a fundamental level by the new knowledge of these hidden operations that had been invisibly at work within us since prehistory. Darwin’s theory laid bare the contingency of our existence in the struggle for survival, while Freud pointed to the seething chaos of the unconscious. Man’s inner world was suddenly mappable, yet worryingly more obscure at the time. Untold volumes have been devoted to the defining shifts these two theories brought about and the anxieties they produced, observable in seemingly every facet of life, the subject’s vastness and complexity defeating any meaningful attempt at summary. Easier to take in at a glance is the somewhat less epochal advance that accomplished a similar kind of inside-outing: the advent of the stethoscope.

Credit for the invention goes to a young French physician René Laennec, who spent the early decades of the nineteenth century investigating the correlations between his patients’ bodily sounds and their medical conditions. His research initially took the form of a long and painstaking process of carefully matching the sounds he detected during his assessment of patients with the physical changes in diseased organs that could he observed during their subsequent autopsies, Laennec evidently subscribing to the “eggs for omelettes” theory of medicine. He stumbled upon the device for which he is remembered when, in 1816 while struggling to examine an obese girl with symptoms of heart disease, Laennec rolled up a piece of cardboard, applied one end to his patient’s chest and the other end to his own ear, thus creating the first stethoscope. Elaborating on this concept to design his wooden, cylindrical tube, pictured in use here at a Parisian hospital, Laennec published in 1819 a 900 hundred page treatise on the art of mediate auscultation, filled with descriptions of the various normal, abnormal, and pathological sounds he had detected through use of the stethoscope and the diseases they signified.

Laennec StethoscopeLaennec using his stethoscope at the Hospital Necker

There were inherent difficulties, however, in describing the various sounds the stethoscope made audible that were to tax Laennec’s metaphoric reserves to their utmost. While some descriptions where relatively straightforward – the rush of wind through a small orifice, for instance – others were decidedly outlandish. He likened a particular lung condition to the creaking of the leather of a new saddle, and yet another to the sound produced by stroking the head of a cat while the animal is purring.

It was not only doctors who were confronted by confusion brought about by the new clarity of insight the stethoscope provided. As Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine noted in 1847, the stethoscope had become a focal point of patients’ hopes, anxieties, dread, and horror:

The stethoscope has long ceased to excite merely professional interest. There are few families to whom it has not proved an object of horror and the saddest remembrance, as connected with the loss of dear relatives […] As an instrument on which the hopes and fears, and one may also say the destinies of mankind, so largely hang, it appears to present a fit subject for poetic treatment.

The ensuing poem is fairly long, but, by way of closing, the opening stanza illustrates quite well the peculiar place the instrument occupied in the nineteenth century consciousness at the very junction between ignorance and understanding:

Stethoscope! Thou simple tube,

Clarion of the yawning tomb,

Unto me thou seem’st to be

A very trump of doom.

Wielding thee, the grave physician,

By the trembling patient stands,

Like some deftly skilled musician;

Strange! The trumpet in his hands,

Whilst the sufferer’s eyeball glistens

Full of hope and full of fear,

Quietly he bends and listens

With his quick, accustomed ear –

Waiteth until thou shalt tell

Tidings of the war within:

In the battle and the strife,

Is it death, or is if life,

That the fought-for prize shall win?

Melissa Dickson