Bourdichon, Jean, Aspic [lavender] Horae ad usum Romanum, known as Grandes Heures d'Anne de Bretagne, between 1503 and 1508, Manuscript, paint, gold, parchment, 30 x 19cm, National Library of France, LATIN 9474.
Lavender
14th June 2023
by Jessica P. Clark
Created at:
14th June 2023
Creator:
Jessica P. Clark
Citation:
[click to copy]
Bourdichon, Jean, Aspic [lavender] Horae ad usum Romanum, known as Grandes Heures d'Anne de Bretagne, between 1503 and 1508, Manuscript, paint, gold, parchment, 30 x 19cm, National Library of France, LATIN 9474.
Smells

Claims about the olfactory and therapeutic benefits of lavender first appeared in classical treatises, which shaped its usage into the early modern period. By the eighteenth century, lavender was a central ingredient in Europe’s burgeoning perfumery trades, as a popular single-note scent as well as key feature in compound fragrances. Industry developments in the nineteenth century consolidated this importance, as advances in commercial agriculture expanded the cultivation and production of lavender and lavender-scented goods. Despite its role in French and British perfumery, lavender nonetheless maintained its standing as a localized smell used in home-based productions and family recipes. In this way, lavender had symbolic import as a sign of European domesticity, pastoralism, and ‘traditional values,’ ideas that underpinned the mass production of lavender goods for global markets into the twentieth century. 

Odeuropa Smell Explorer
Smells

Members of the lavender species (Lavandula) ‘are highly aromatic plants, which produce complex mixtures of essential oils from glands on the surface of the flowers and leaves’ (Harbone and Williams, 2002: 86). Commentators have consistently highlighted the strength of its odor, including Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) who deemed it ‘among the strongest of [nature’s] pleasing smells’ (quoted in Castle and Lis-Balchin, 2002: 47). This power allegedly heightened its efficacy at fending off vermin and other threats. ‘If a person with many lice frequently smells lavender, the lice will die,’ Hildegard claimed. ‘Its odour clears the eyes (since it possesses the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the most bitter ones. It curbs very many evil things and, because of it, malign spirits are terrified)’ (quoted in Castle and Lis-Balchin, 2002: 35). For the abbess and others, lavender’s olfactory potency granted it a power beyond the earthly realm.   

Beyond descriptions of its strength, English-language texts do not offer definitive or detailed characterizations of lavender’s smell, although accounts are generally positive. In the 1790s, Charles Marshall referred to it as a ‘pleasant aromatic scent’ (1796: 257), while Thomas Dobson described lavender oil as ‘extremely fragrant, possessing in an eminent degree the peculiar smell generally admired in the flowers’ (1798: 325). By 1865, perfumer Eugéne Rimmel (1820-1887) characterized it as ‘a nice, clean scent, and an old and deserving favourite’ (253, emphasis his). This focus on cleanliness speaks to lavender’s associations, in the west, with hygiene, domesticity, and bodily care, which endured well into the twentieth century.

While commentators struggled to describe the smell of lavender, they had no trouble claiming it for their own. Nationalist associations of French and English lavender made for frequent comparisons between varieties, local growing conditions, and perfumery production. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, British authors especially asserted the superiority of their productions, often based in the quality of their smell. This often turned on the subtlety of the scent, with English lavender allegedly offering a more delicate fragrance than its European counterparts. ‘The Hitchin oil of lavender has a remarkably fine, delicate, and sweet odour, being free from all rankness,’ noted an anonymous columnist in 1859 (Anon: 8). Rankness featured again in 1865, when Rimmel declared that England’s ‘moist and moderate climate gives [lavender] the mildness of fragrance for which they are prized, whilst in France and other warm countries they grow strong and rank’ (1865: 225. See also Lorimer 2023: 15). By the twentieth century, herbalist Maud Grieve (1858-1941) claimed that ‘English Lavender is much more aromatic, and has a far greater delicacy of odour than the French, and the oil fetches ten times the price’ (np). French proponents demurred, insisting instead on the ascendency of French lavender production. Supporting their position was the fact that most of modern British perfumery’s raw materials—including lavender—derived from France, with additional ingredients transported from colonized regions (Umney 1912: 170-75; Clark 2020: 124-28).

Despite its significance through the early twentieth century, lavender production declined through the 1960s, and particularly in England, but was subject to a revival in the early 2000s. Central to lavender’s revival is Lavender oil remains an important staple in its use as a staple in contemporary aromatherapy. Consultant Maria Lis-Balchin characterizes its smell as ‘a sweet, floral, herbaceous, refreshing odour with a pleasant, balsamic-wood undertone. It has a fruity-sweet top-note which is very transient, and the whole oil has low tenacity’ (2002: 119).

Places

Lavender species (Lavendula) are indigenous to western regions of the Mediterranean, but are found in locations around Europe, Africa, and Asia, from Cape Verde to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond (Upson, 2002: 2). Reports claim that lavender was first brought to England by the Romans, while others date its cultivation to 1568 (Greive 1931: np). By 1623, we know it featured in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale alongside other stalwarts of early modern English gardens:

Here’s flowers for you;

Hot lavender, mint, savory, marjoram; 

The marigold, that goes to bed with the sun,

And with him rises weeping: these are flowers 

Of middle summer
(cited in Anon, 1873b: 2).

Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé, Lavandula angustifolia, in the flora of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, 1885, PIXEL SIZE: 1,378 × 2,360, GFDL by Kurt Stueber.

By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the growing significance of perfumery production meant that lavender became increasingly associated with the south of France and areas of southern England (Briot 2011; Jones 2010; Clark 2020; Martin, 2009). These connections reflected the concentration of industrial cultivation in these regions. But they were also due to the symbolic work of perfume manufacturers, authors, and nationalist boosters who staked claims to lavender as a definitively ‘French’ or ‘English’ scent (Clark 2020: chapter 4). This was particularly the case in the English context. ‘It is somewhat curious that lavender, while not native to our country, should attain to greater perfection in England than it does in any other part of Europe,’ sniffed Sir Walter Gilbey in 1910. ‘But such is the case, [and] English lavender is in every way superior to that of foreign growth’ (6).

Such claims of national superiority sometimes led to characterizations of lavender cultivation in places outside of England and France as underdeveloped and subsequently wasteful. ‘Travelling in the plains of Spanish Estremadura,’ wrote Rimmel in 1865, ‘I have passed through miles and miles of land covered with lavender, rosemary, iris, and what they call ‘rosemariño’ (Lavandula stœchas), all growing wild in the greatest luxuriance, and yet they are left to “waste their sweetness on the desert air,” for want of proper labor and attention’ (Rimmel, 1865: 224). In contrast, English and French producers purportedly understood the value of the crop to respective national industries. Agricultural production subsequently flourished in regions like Mitcham and Grasse. Yet, despite their bolstering of Lavandula angustifolia or English lavender, British manufacturers also relied on lavender varieties harvested outside of the country, in France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain (Anon, 1913: 290; Umney, 1912: 170–75; Clark, 2023a: 194-5). Indeed, in 1870, France exported some 110,958 kg (244,741 lbs) of lavender (Castle and Lis-Balchin, 2002: 41).

Lavender was not only available via distillers and perfumers, and it remained a popular domestic and consumer item in its raw from. For those interested in ‘traditional’ usage, fresh lavender was available from sellers who frequented urban markets like London’s Covent Garden. ‘[A] considerable quantity of the shrub is sold in the streets to the middling classes of inhabitants,’ noted Craig’s Street Cries of London (1804), ‘who are fond of placing Lavender among their linen (the scent of which conquers that of the soap used in washing), yet are unwilling to pay for the increased pungency of distillation.’ An accompanying illustration featured a young white woman standing before Temple Bar, brandishing stalks of flowering lavender tops with further favors in her basket (1804: np). These offerings would have ostensibly come from Mitcham or Hitchin, where the ‘best’ of English lavender was purportedly produced, transported to urban markets, and sold in its raw form. 

W M Craig, Richard Phillips, The Itinerant Traders of London, 1804, Book, Print, Image, British Library, 10349.h.13.

Beyond rural fields and bustling streets, lavender was most often associated with private, domestic settings: the bath, bedroom, sickroom. Lavender’s historic classification as a soporific included its ingestion in ‘Water, Ale, or Wine,’ noted The Country Housewife’s Family Companion in 1750, or dropped on ‘Loaf Sugar, letting it gradually dissolve in the Mouth, because by that Means it soaks more immediately into the Nerves, and gives a sudden Supply to the Spirits (Ellis 1750: 291). It also meant that it was particularly useful in scenting bath water, bedding, and clothing. In his 1729 play The Rival Queens, playwright Colley Cibber (1671-1757) linked lavender with domestic order when a character noted ‘I make your Bed, lay on clean Sheets, Scented with Lavender, And sweep the Room out for your coming’ (quoted in Kirk Smith, 2002: 158). The use of dried lavender to scent drawers was also common, observed Charles Dickens in 1853’s Bleak House, and amongst ‘display[s] of the whitest linen, and their storing-up, wheresoever the existence of a drawer, small or large, rendered it possible [were] quantities of rose-leaves and sweet lavender’ (Dickens 1853, quoted in Kirk-Smith, 2002: 158). In the twentieth century, lavender’s symbolic associations with domesticity were mobilized by homebound philanthropists, who arranged the transport of hundreds of thousands of lavender bags to white British servicemen stationed at the Western Front during the Great War (Clark, 2023b). Coupled with its connections to ‘traditional’ pastoral living, these domestic usages imbued lavender with powerful symbolism for a range of users; its natural availability further enhanced its accessibility amongst people of all classes.

Coloured lithograph by Joséphine-Clémence Formentin after Charles Philipon, a woman perfume-seller holds a small lavender bag up to her face, 1828, Coloured lithograph (watercolour), Welcome Collection, 30608i.

Practices

Lavender had a long history of therapeutic use dating to the classical period. It appears in botanical texts by Greek writers such as Theophrastus (c. 370-285 BC) and was reportedly used to scent Roman bathing water, hence its name Lavandula, reflecting the Latin ‘lavare’ or ‘to bathe’ (Upson, 2002: 2; Castle and Lis-Balchin 2002: 35; Lorimer 2023: 15). In 50-70 AD, Dioscorides (c.40-90 AD) insisted on the healing properties of lavender, claiming that both Galen and Nero’s personal physician used it as an antidote to ‘poisons and bites,’ as well as ‘uterine disorders’ (Castle and Lis-Balchin 2002: 35).

Bourdichon, Jean, Aspic [lavender] Horae ad usum Romanum, known as Grandes Heures d'Anne de Bretagne, between 1503 and 1508, Manuscript, paint, gold, parchment, 30 x 19cm, National Library of France, LATIN 9474.

Lavender continued to be an important herbal ingredient through the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. It was variously attributed to healing falling sickness (epilepsy); palsy; lice; liver and spleen obstructions; wind and colic; toothache; and loss of voice. Reports also suggest that religious worshippers included it in ‘strewing herbs’ cast upon church floors, along with valerian, rosemary, fennel, and other plants (Rimmel, 1865: 205; Castle and Lis-Balchin 2002: 36). In the mid-seventeenth century, botanist and astrologist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) claimed that lavender ‘provokes women’s courses and expels the dead child and after birth.’’ According to Jo Castle and Maria Lis-Balchin, ‘this is perhaps the only reference to an abortifacient quality attached to lavender’ (2002: 39). By 1770, The Useful Family Herbal included a recipe for a ‘Spirit of Lavender called Palsy Drops,’ which could ‘be taken in the Form of Tea’ for ‘all Disorders of the Head and Nerves’ (Hill, 1770: 204-205).

Medicinal usage of lavender declined through the nineteenth century, although it remained a valuable domestic remedy owing to its soporific effects. In the First World War (1914-1918), organizations like the French Academy of Medicine reportedly used it as an antiseptic; while these antibacterial properties were eventually discounted, lavender’s smell would have no doubt been an improvement over those of septic wounds (Castle and Balchin, 2002: 43). As late as 1931, Grieve claimed that oil of lavender ‘proves admirably restorative and tonic against faintness, palpitations of a nervous sort, weak giddiness, spasms and colic. It is agreeable to the taste and smell, provokes appetite, raises the spirits and dispels flatulence’ (np). 

In addition to medicinal and therapeutic uses, lavender was an important item in European domestic settings. A key reason for lavender’s ubiquity across Europe was its relative affordability, via its fresh and dried forms. Critic Catherine Maxwell argues ‘although perfume might not have been a priority for the urban poor, those living in country areas would have ready access to scented wild or cottage-garden flowers and herbs’ (2017: 38). This included lavender, which women reportedly placed, ‘with perhaps a flower or two, in their bosoms when they went to church in the stifling hot summer days’ (Burbidge 1905: 7, quoted in Maxwell, 2017: 38). 

In addition to fresh sprigs, lavender was frequently dried and made into a potpourri and ‘sweet bags.’ or ‘scent bags’ (Anon 1873b: 183). Europeans used lavender such potpourri sachets to scent private spaces, including drawers, cupboards, and linen chests. ‘The flowers….are put into drawers and wardrobes as an antidote to moths,’ noted one nineteenth-century commentator, ‘as well as imparting an agreeable odour to the articles placed in these receptacles’ (Anon, 1878: 8). Importantly, such usages invoked ideas about domestic care and comfort. In Cranford (1851-3), for example, novelist Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) emphasized the time invested in these items, as ‘‘rose-leaves…were gathered where they fell, to make into a pot-pourri for some one who had no garden; the little bundles of lavender flowers sent to strew the drawers of some town- dweller, or to burn in the chamber of some invalid’ (Gaskell, 1980: 15, quoted in Maxwell, 2017: 40). 

Equally common, albeit more expensive, was the use of oil of lavender, produced by commercial distillers and perfumers. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people with means distilled lavender flowers and other herbs in private stills, for use in personal scents and domestic receipts. This shifted by the eighteenth and especially into the nineteenth centuries, when Europe’s commercial industry dramatically expanded via new scales of production and global distribution. In Britain, leading perfumers like Rimmel and Septimus Piesse (1820-1882) sourced raw materials from Grasse, France, but also lavender producers in Mitcham and Hitchin, England. Commercial distillation occurred from August through September or October. Lavender flowers were collected and placed in a still, which in nineteenth-century Hertfordshire, was: 

a copper vessel holding about 200 gallons, beneath which is a furnace. The flowers are pressed down tight, after which the still is fitted with boiling water, and the head carefully fitted on and luted with clay or linseed meal, so as to prevent the escape of the steam…As the steam is driven off through the head of the still, it is condensed in passing through the worm-tub, and runs into a vessel beneath. The essential oil is brought away with the condensed steam and floats on the top. A siphon sucks out the water beneath; and as, in its passage through the worm, it has become impregnated with the oil, it is utilised by being made hot, and again put into the still, to boil the next batch. As the water in the worm-tab becomes heated by the steam-tube passing through it, cold water is injected from beneath, which forces off the upper portion of the water, which has become too hot to perform its task of condensation. In about four hours, it has given off all its steam, and the result is about a pint of essential oil, of a light yellow colour.
(Anon, 1873b: 2).

In the British case, a strong annual crop produced between 15-16lbs of oil per ton of flowers (Anon, 1878: 8). The subsequent product, distilled oil of lavender, featured in a number of consumer items, including perfumes, pomades, and other cosmetics. This included ‘lavender water,’ in which oil was ‘mixed with from twenty to forty times its bulk of spirit, and with just a trace of neroli, or other essential oil, according to the taste of the compounder’ (Anon, 1873b: 2). As with distilled oils, lavender water was imbued with ideas about national superiority. ‘The finest,’ insisted Rimmel, ‘is made with English oil, and the most common with French, which is considerably cheaper, but is easily distinguished by its coarse flavour’ (1865: 236).

Lavender goods were advertised to all types of consumers and were often unisex in design. This included snuff, which ‘was often scented with spices and essential oils such as rose, bergamot, violet, and lavender, and pipe tobacco might be scented with similar oils and spices blended with tinctures of musk, civet, or ambergris’ (Maxwell 2017: 43). Many items were imbued with nationalist associations, reflecting localized claims to lavender as a traditional scent. This included goods advertised as quintessentially ‘British,’ despite the raw materials originating from a range of European and Asian producers (Clark, 2023a: 195; Clark, 2020: chapter 4). Firms like Yardley’s profited from product lines touting ‘English lavender’ into the twentieth century (Jones 2010; Castle and Lis-Balchin, 2002: 46).


Feelings and Noses

The domestic importance of lavender in European households meant that commentators often associated lavender with feelings of home, comfort, and community. The natural availability of lavender across classes enhanced these associations, as its scent was not only relegated to those with means, but to any person with access to the garden or countryside.  

Lavender’s nationalist associations also linked it to feelings of patriotism and belonging. This was especially the case in periods of conflict, such as the Great War (1914-1918). Writing in 1915, one English commentator touted the benefit of gifting dispatched servicepeople with lavender-scented gifts. ‘There are some typically English things which bring our much-loved home before our eyes even if our people are in the desert, on the mountain-top, in the trenches, or watching and waiting in the big boats,’ they claimed. ‘One of them is the scent of English violets, which reproduces in brain-waves the charm of English lanes in springtime; another is English lavender, which conjures up the autumn and late summer joys of our land’ (Anon., 1915a: iv). By emphasizing patriotic duty, but also nostalgia and sense of belonging, the columnist and others asserted that a whiff of lavender goods could transport troops from violent theatres of war to the bucolic—and peaceful—fields of England. Lavender bags could also distract servicemen from the smell of their own injuries. These wereHowever, this relief depended on, however, imagined and idealized visions of home life and did not reflect the classed, raced, and gendered realities of modern Britain (Clark 2023b: np).

These campaigns signal the affective power of lavender and its associations with soothing and comforting effects, as a means to calm nerves and other forms of mental agitation and to restore the senses. ‘In some cases of mental depression and delusions,’ claimed Grieve, ‘oil of Lavender proves of real service, and a few drops rubbed on the temple will cure nervous headache’ (1931: np). Twentieth-century perfumers touted these emotional effects, foregrounding lavender’s usage for ‘charming away headache and bracing fatigued and relaxed nerves.’ These purported health properties extended to both male and female customers, as both recipients and providers of relief. Companies like London’s Crown Perfumery advertised their lavender range as a ‘reviving and keenly stimulating remedy’ for lightheadedness or ‘nervous headaches’ (Anon, 1915b: np; Clark 2023b: np). Whether in its commercial or domestic form, lavender functioned as a soporific for many users, who associated the scent with cleanliness, order, and a comforting domesticity.

From the eighteenth century, individuals passing judgement on the quality of lavender typically had commercial stakes in such declarations. For horticultural producers, the scent of their flowers—and particularly their lack of rankness—was key to sales and distribution in the increasingly lucrative world of distillation. Horticulturalists in western Spain; southern France; and southern England and North Norfolk developed, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, successful enterprises turning on the quality of their lavender (see Lorimer 2023: 15). This spurred its ubiquity and, by the early twentieth century, Gilbey claimed, ‘[t]here is no plant in England which is grown so exclusively for the sale of its scent’ (1910: 6). By the mid twentieth century, firms like Yardley mobilized this ubiquity to argue for the mass market appeal of their ‘classless smell’, which promised a ‘loveliness’ to a range of women consumers (Lorimer 2023: 19-20).

Contributing to the expansion of horticultural production was the power of increasingly influential European distillers and perfumers. Owing to the localized associations of lavender, both English and French perfumers were particularly vital in sustaining national lavender production and promotion. Publications like the Perfumery and Essential Oils Record traced lavender production, quality, and market projections for a modern generation of male perfumers, who situated themselves in the realm of science rather than art (Clark 2020: chapter 4). By the opening years of the twentieth century, this included monitoring the ester value of lavender oils, with French lavender allegedly having high ester—and subsequently a more ‘pungent’ odor—which garnered either praise or scorn from French and English perfumers, depending on their national loyalties (Anon. 1911: 50).

Dr. Von Rechenberg, Lavender Distillation in the South of France, In ‘Dr. Von Rechenberg’s Valuable Treatise,’ The Perfumery and Essential Oil Record Volume I, 1910, p. 136.

To this day, lavender-scented perfumery and toilet items owe much of their enduring popularity to loyal consumers who continue to purchase the traditional scent. For many, lavender connects them to olfactory and personal traditions, and this was no different for earlier generations of consumers. ‘In these days of new scents,’ attested the shopping columnist for The London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion in 1882, ‘it is pleasant to come upon an old-fashioned perfume which reminds us of our childhood’s days’ (Anon: 10). Despite its unisex history, lavender-scented items were increasingly feminized through the late nineteenth century, and they became stalwarts for many women consumers around the world. Despite challenges via the growing sophistication in perfume design through the twentieth century, as advanced by continental European tastemakers in Paris and beyond (Clark, 2023a: 197), lavender retained its domestic and nationalist associations, but also its loyal customer base.

Creator:
Jessica P. Clark
Citation:
Jessica P. Clark, “Lavender,” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed April 20, 2024, https://encyclopedia.odeuropa.eu/items/show/10.
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