Figure 1. Close up of the compartments in a sixteenth-century pomander, gold and silver, c.1500s, Science Museum, London, A629413
14th June 2023
by William Tullett
Created at:
14th June 2023
William Tullett
[click to copy]
Figure 1. Close up of the compartments in a sixteenth-century pomander, gold and silver, c.1500s, Science Museum, London, A629413

The scent of rosemary, sharp and aromatic, has a long history of use to spur the memory, as a perfume, and as a medicine. Today scientific studies note the power of rosemary to help remembrance, but sixteenth and seventeenth-century writers had already recognised rosemary’s role as an aid to the memory. Rosemary has also been an essential ingredient in the history of perfumery: from late mediaeval ‘Hungary Water’, through eighteenth-century ‘Eau de Cologne’, to the birth of modern perfumery in fragrances such as Guerlain’s 1889 ‘Jicky’. Finally, rosemary has also found medicinal uses: protecting users from threats ranging from seventeenth-century plague to late-nineteenth-century mosquitos. 

Odeuropa Smell Explorer
Rosemary has a rich history of use for its scented properties. Rosemary is one of the top notes in Guerlain's ‘Jicky’, first introduced in 1889. Jicky was one of a number of revolutionary perfumes in the 1880s and 1890s that used synthetic, or artificial, materials which were produced in laboratories for the first time. This marked an important shift towards the perfume-production-process that we know today, in which huge international companies produce the synthetic flavours and fragrance molecules that we find in products ranging from air-fresheners and toilet cleaner to deodorants and niche perfumery. However, before this revolution in perfumery, rosemary had been a central component of many of the key scents in the history of fragrance. In the eighteenth century, it was part of the famous eau de cologne, principally composed of a range of essential oils obtained from herbs and citrus fruits, that was first invented by the Italian perfumer Jean Marie Farina in 1709. Before Farina’s invention, rosemary was already a famous aromatic: it was the main ingredient in ‘Hungary Water’, which is commonly held to be the first alcohol-based perfume in Europe (though European perfumery was deeply indebted to Arabic influences). The precise origins of ‘Hungary Water’ are unclear. Various Queens and Saints from Poland and Hungary have been suggested as the first to commission or use the scent, but there is little compelling evidence for these interpretations.

The use of rosemary across Europe has often been seasonal. In 1865, when Eugene Rimmel published his book of perfumes, he noted that ‘This custom is still in vogue in Spain and Portugal, where the floor of churches is generally strewn in summer with lavender and rosemary’ (Rimmel, 1865). That seasonality was different in England, where rosemary was a wintery scent associated with frigid temperatures. As one poet put it in 1823:

sad rosemary, 

Mocking the winter of the year with perfumes, 

Which the first blast that blows will ravish from it, 

And waste midst howling tempests (Neele, 1823: 43).

In France and Spain the scent of rosemary was associated with the wilder, open, heath landscapes in which it grew. Travellers to Tourraine in France during the early nineteenth century noted that the heaths of the region were covered with rosemary and other herbs and that ‘nothing can be more delightful than the scent of them, when the wind blows over them’ (Pinkey, 1809: 169). These landscapes could also be sensed from the sea. In the seventeenth-century Kenelm Digby mused that the coast of Spain could be smelled from many miles away, thanks to the abundance of rosemary:

I have sail'd along those coasts divers times, and observ'd always that the Mariners know when they are within thirty or forty leagues of the Continent, (I do not exactly remember the distance): and they have this knowledge from the smell of the Rosemary which so abounds in the fields of Spain. I have smelt it as sensibly, as if I had had a branch of Rosemary in my hand; and this a day or two before we could discover land; 'tis true, the wind was in our faces, and came from the shore (Digby, 1669: 166).

Digby presented this observation before a gathered audience at Montpellier. By the end of the seventeenth century, Montpellier in France was one of the most famous spots for making Hungary Water: both the name and the location became a key brand identity for those selling the scent. In 1690, one James Peuch was ‘amongst the several Distillers of this Water in Montpellier’ according to an advertisement published for his goods by his London-based son David Peuch, who imported and sold his father’s products ‘at the Sign of the true Perfumer of Montpellier’ (Peuch, 1690). In the same advertisement Peuch recommended his Hungary Water for a large list of uses that involved combatting weak eyesight, alleviating headaches, curing deafness, and washing the face.


As this suggests, the smell of rosemary was thought to be powerful and potent. In the early modern period, when medicines, bodies, and environments were understood in humoral terms of hot, cold, dry, or moist, rosemary was held to be ‘hot’ and so might be used to counteract ‘cold’ airs by spreading the herbs in a room (Cavallo, 2016: 17). In the seventeenth-century rosemary was also used to fumigate houses and ward off plague, causing its price to greatly increase whenever infection threatened cities. This involved throwing dried rosemary, juniper, bay leaves, and frankincense into a chafing dish of hot coals and moving the smoke around the room. People might also carry rosemary to sniff and project themselves on the streets of cities: the English seventeenth-century playwright Thomas Dekker observed that people looked like boar’s heads stuffed with rosemary and ready for the oven. In periods of plague in the 1600s, rosemary that had once cost a day’s wages for an armful cost five day’s wages for a handful as demand for its disease-preventing powers shot up (Dekker, 1603). Surviving pomanders, receptacles that allowed for protective herbs and spices to be carried on the person, show that rosemary was one of the herbs contained within them. A surviving example from the sixteenth century contains inscribed compartments for ‘moscat’, ‘rosen’ and ‘rosemarin’ (nutmeg, rose and rosemary). Many herbs such as rosemary were still being used to protect against cholera outbreaks across Europe in the nineteenth century.

Figure 1. Close up of the compartments in a sixteenth-century pomander, gold and silver, c.1500s, Science Museum, London, A629413

Based on Carl Linnaeus’ classification of plants (Linnaeus, 1735), rosemary’s official botanical name, Rosmarinus officinalis, reveals its historical significance and use. Linnaeus gave the name officinalis to plants which were commonly used in medicine and healing, such as Salvia officinalis (sage) and Aloe officinalis (aloe vera). Rosemary continues to have medicinal uses today. In the late nineteenth century rosemary was an ingredient in anti-mosquito soaps used by European colonialists to defend themselves against the malaria-spreading insects they encountered as they attempted to violently subjugate and control the interior of Africa. Rosemary is one of a number of highly scented ingredients - including lavender, menthol, and clove - which are still used as insect-repellants today.

Figure 2. Calvert’s Anti-Mosquito Soap’ advertisement, c.1890-1899, 15 x 23cm, Wellcome Collection, London, EPH650:4.

Feelings and Noses

Rosemary has often been connected to mood. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rosemary was held to have a cheering quality. It was believed to strengthen the brain and heighten the senses by restoring the vital spirits that circulated within the body (Cavallo, 2016: 20). Both today and in the past, rosemary has been linked to memory and the passing of time. Scientific studies show that rosemary significantly enhances mental alertness and memory: one experiment showed that students working in a room scented with rosemary oil performed between 5% and 7% better in memory tests (Moss et al., 2017). Several of William Shakespeare's characters note the use of rosemary ‘for remembrance’ and a herbal, which offered readers knowledge of the different medicinal uses of plants, published in 1690 recommended that 'Rosemary-Tea is good for the Memory’ (Meager, 1710:151).  

The relationship between memory and rosemary was particularly strong in the seventeenth century because it was used at times when people wanted to remember their family and loved ones. Rosemary was distributed to guests or held by brides at weddings and it was strewn on the floor of churches or thrown into graves during funeral ceremonies. Sometimes rosemary was dipped into scented water to add to its fragrance. In his 1603 work The Wonderful Year, Thomas Dekker laments the sadness of a bride taken by plague the day before her wedding:

here is a strange alteration, for the rosemary that was washt in sweete water to set out the Bridall, is now wet in teares to furnish her burial (Dekker, 1603).

It is possible that rosemary also followed newlyweds out of the church and into the home: in 1698 there were still some who kept up the 'Old Country Use' of 'Decking the Bridal Bed, with Sprigs of Rosemary' (R.C, 1698: 11). Remembering a wedding, a character in a short Dutch short story published in 1910 but set in the seventeenth century recounted the ‘joy he had felt, surrounded by faithful ones, had felt all that day, breathing in the scent of flowers and rosemary, the herb that brings happiness to newlyweds’. (Von Schendel, 1910: 99). It seems like that the custom of carrying rosemary to weddings and funerals continued into the eighteenth century. In Plate 6 of William Hogarth’s 1732 series, A Harlot’s Progress, rosemary can be seen both on the coffin of the main character and in the hands of at least one attendant at her funeral.

Figure 3. Close up of a portion of William Hogarth, 'A Harlot's Progress, Plate 6 [Her funeral]'', 1732, etching on paper, New York Public Library, 107019.

England was not the only place in Europe where rosemary could be found in a funereal context. In Denmark, rosemary was often used to combat the smell of decomposing bodies. Leonora Christine, daughter of King Christian IV, developed an aversion to the smell of rosemary in 1628 after seeing (and smelling) her dead brother lying in state with a rosemary garland as his burial crown (Nyberg, 2010: 26).

However, by the early nineteenth century it seems that this practice was beginning to fade into disuse. A medical text from 1831 suggests that, at the very least, the practice was less universal than it had been by the 1830s: ‘in some parts of England it is still distributed amongst the company, who throw sprigs of it into the grave’ (Stephenson, 1831). Antiquarians interested in folk customs found examples of rosemary being used at funerals - either because of a belief in its power to preserve from infection or for its associations with remembrance and resurrection - as late as the 1870s (Burne, 1883: 303).

Yet the memorial functions of rosemary have not entirely disappeared. Each year on Anzac Day, Australians remember those soldiers who fought at Gallipoli, where great quantities of rosemary grow, during the First World War by wearing sprigs of rosemary and laying garlands of the herb at memorials. The initial suggestions for the wearing of rosemary as a commemorative device on Anzac day came as early as 1919 (Gossip from the South, 1919: 7).

Figure 4. Adam Jones, A view of Anzac Cove - Gallipoli Peninsula, with rosemary bushes in the foreground, 2011,

On Anzac days to come, after the marching and wreathe laying were done, Australian veterans would come together to meet others from their old units over food and drink. Mrs May Naylor, who helped organise such events in the 1950s, said that:

When the march is over, up they'll come, wearing their medals, and sprigs of rosemary for remembrance, in their lapels. They'll bring pieces for the waitresses to pin on their dresses, and the whole room will smell of it (‘They Mother the Diggers, 1953: 26).

In Australia today, rosemary is still distributed on Anzac-day – often by organisations such as the Trefoil Guild and the Girl Guide’s Association (Drozdzewski, 2021: 62). For Val Wake, who attended a memorial service at the Anzac Peace Park in Gallipoli in 2000, the smell of rosemary was integral to the authentic experience of Gallipoli as a historic site connected both to the battle a wider sense of Australian identity. No doubt primed by the use of rosemary each year in the Anzac-day marches back home, Wake described her experience of standing on the slopes overlooking the memorial:

The eastern sky turned pink and a grey shadow crept across the sea. There was a strong smell of fennel and rosemary in the air as the birds twittered. The sun caught the peak of The Sphinx as the Last Post sounded. At last, I knew I was on historic ground. (Wake, 2002: 28).

So, rosemary is still used in deliberate acts of olfactory commemoration today. Just as Shakespeare’s Ophelia famously described, rosemary is still for memory.

William Tullett
William Tullett, “Rosemary,” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed June 15, 2024,

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Anon, (1953). They Mother the Diggers: Women recall Anzac reunions. The Australian Women's weekly. Wednesday 29th April, p. 26.

Anon, (1919). Gossip from the South: Notes for Women. The Week, Friday 9th May, p. 7.

Danielle Drozdzewski et al. (2021). Geographies of Commemoration in a Digital World: Anzac @100. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wake, Val (2002). Notes from a Distant Passage. AQ: Australian Quarterly. 74:1, 27-32.