Figure 1. Maker unknown, “Cartoon from “Popolo di Roma”. Above: "Marinetti wants gastronomy to be enriched with 'unexpected' smells and tastes". Below: “– a broth – with naphthalene or with eau de Cologne?”, translation by author, ca. 1932. OSIM 0002000012.
Eau de Cologne
3rd November 2023
by Caro Verbeek
Created at:
3rd November 2023
Caro Verbeek
[click to copy]
Figure 1. Maker unknown, “Cartoon from “Popolo di Roma”. Above: "Marinetti wants gastronomy to be enriched with 'unexpected' smells and tastes". Below: “– a broth – with naphthalene or with eau de Cologne?”, translation by author, ca. 1932. OSIM 0002000012.
In 1709, the Italian hairdresser Gian Paolo Feminis, born in the Italian town of Santa Maria Maggiore, is said to have left for Cologne to sell an herbal water there. The remedy had a light, refreshing, citric scent, like the kind of water that had been used by Italian families for generations to treat all sorts of ailments. He named it Acqua Mirabilis for its medicinal properties. Feminis eventually gave the secret recipe to his grandson Johann Maria Farina, who made the brand famous under his own name (Stamelman 2006, 53).
Odeuropa Smell Explorer

The ingredients of Farina's eau de Cologne were also typically Italian with extracts of endemic plants such as bergamot and rosemary. The company opposite Farina's store in Cologne nevertheless adopted the name and recipe in 1875 under the name Echt Kölnisch Wasser 4711; referring to the house number on the Glockengasse. Because of this much more famous imitation, the original Italian cologne is nowadays wrongly associated with a German product (Verbeek 2021, 231). 

Because of the stimulating qualities and medicinal ingredients of rosemary and orange blossom, Eau de Cologne was not considered a perfume, but a medicine and ‘cure-all’. It was used both internally and externally for ailments like headaches or for painful procedures like childbirth (Piesse 1855, n.p.).

Social mobility – same scent, different smell

At the beginning of the 20th century, 'the aesthetics of the sense of smell' became increasingly commonplace. The low price of perfumed soap, the industrial production of eau de Cologne and the expansion of the number of gallantry shops and points of sale of perfumery products led to a broadening of the customer base. Even before toilet soap became widespread, the social decline of eau de Cologne proved that the poor – considered highly malodourous by higher classes- in turn had started to combat malodours such as excrements themselves. This caused a downward social mobility of a fragrance once worn mainly by notables such as Napoleon. If the aversion of the bourgeoisie was first directed against the malodorous fumes and low hygienic standards that clung to peasants and poor people, after the arrival of eau de Cologne among these population groups, this fragrance became the new equivalent of the unbridgeable difference between classes. Perfumes, despite an unaltered scent through their wearers, acquired a new meaning. In other words, eau de Cologne, despite its unchanged olfactory quality, began to stink in the eyes of the bourgeoisie (Corbin 1986, 156).

Also, perfumes became more gender specific around the same time. After the fin-de-siècle and until the 1950s, men were no longer supposed to wear perfumes. However, eau de Cologne, as a scented water, did not fall under the category of perfumes. He who wanted to go through life perfumed could therefore wear eau de Cologne without being looked at disapprovingly. This connotation with both masculinity and the lower stratum of the population fits in seamlessly with the dogma of futurism; a ground breaking movement that occupied itself with olfactory art. Of all scents mentioned and used by this group of artists, eau de Cologne occurs most often. As self-proclaimed virile men who spoke fiercely against feminism and who opposed the bourgeoisie, the choice of this particular scented product by the futurists is an obvious one form an olfactory point of view (Verbeek 2021, 233-234).

Eau de cologne as a war related and national scent

During the First World War, eau de Cologne was still on the cutting edge of medicine and perfumery. The transition from medicinal to aesthetic agent was dated by Piesse to around the middle of the nineteenth century: 

Although eau de Cologne was originally introduced to the public as a sort of "cure-all," a regular "elixir of life," it now takes its place, not as a pharmaceutical product, but among perfumery (Piesse 1855, 49).

In the time that eau de Cologne was created, it was still consumed because it was made with denatured alcohol. It was touted in advertisements as a remedy for skin problems, stomach aches and even for facilitating childbirth. It was not until the nineteenth century that this was no longer the case and drinking it was considered dangerous. However, that did not mean that it did not continue to be used for practical purposes. The Futurists who had fought in the war themselves are known to have used the stuff to clean cooking utensils, leaving the flavor of the cologne behind, but given the natural ingredients of flowers and citrus fruits, that wasn't too objectionable. For example, Marinetti describes how the soldiers eat horse steak prepared in pans rinsed with eau de Cologne. It may be Marinetti's imagination, but also reality: eau de Cologne still tastes better than sand and mud and it is disinfected by the alcohol. Through a pharmaceutical tradition and his own experiences during the war, Marinetti probably came up with the idea of incorporating eau de Cologne into a number of recipes from his cookbook La cucina futurista. For example, as an addition to coffee in “Il metallo che profuma” (The metal that gives off perfume). A cartoon from the daily newspaper Popolo di Roma shows that the consumption of perfume has not been regarded as normal by everyone for a long time (see 1.). The gentleman being served looks surprised when the waiter asks if he would like his broth with naphthalene (a poisonous substance used in mothballs) or eau de Cologne (Verbeek 2021, 292-30).

Figure 1. Maker unknown, “Cartoon from “Popolo di Roma”. Above: "Marinetti wants gastronomy to be enriched with 'unexpected' smells and tastes". Below: “– a broth – with naphthalene or with eau de Cologne?”, translation by author, ca. 1932. OSIM 0002000012.

Boldoot – Dutch eau de Cologne

‘4711', 'o-de-klonje' [pronounce: ‘oh-the-co-lone-yuh’ and 'onjeklonje' [pronounce: on-yuh-clon-yuh’]; these are Dutch nicknames for what we now know as eau de Cologne. 

One of the most successful eau de Colognes was Boldoot [pronounced ‘ball-dote’] created by Jacobus Cornelis Boldoot (1809-1876). Boldoot was a pharmacist in Amsterdam, who had learned the pharmaceutical trade from his uncle. He soon made not only pills but also his own Eau de Cologne in the laboratory behind his pharmacy. In order to take over the Eau de Cologne industry, he tried to find out Farina’s original recipe to perfect his own by travelling to the city of Cologne in Germany. That was not easy according to a letter to his father:

Tired and desperate, I am sending you this letter […] having spent all day dredging the foul filthy streets of the city of K. […] my head is full of the most melancholy wretchedness. I never believe that we will get to a real farina without colossal costs and even more effort. (Amsterdam City Archive).

Nevertheless, only a few weeks later, in 1875 he succeeded in taking over the factories and - most importantly - the secret recipes from Farina. Boldoot had struck gold and became a supplier to the court in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Italy: the home country of the first maker. At the beginning of the 20th century, through mechanization and serial production, anyone could now afford to smell like Boldoot and the nobility started to turn their noses at it. Factories and warehouses were being built all over the city of Amsterdam, such as on Haarlemmerweg and Spuistraat and the smell must have permeated the entire city.

Figure 2. Henri Privat-Livemont, “J.C. Boldoot – Eau de Cologne Parfumerie Amsterdam”, lithography,.71 x 36 cm, Nederlands Steendrukmuseum, 1899.

In 1899, the Belgian artist Privat-Livemont designed a poster for Boldoot in which we see a woman surrounded by flowers elegantly sniffing a rose. The flowers refer to the name of the beautiful store at 96 Kalverstraat, 'in het Geurige Rooske’ or ‘in the Fragrant Rose’. An employee is said to have poured a bottle of Boldoot over the sidewalk every morning to entice people to come in. The building’s olfactory identity has changed however. The building is now filled with the smell of ‘poffertjes’, tiny Dutch pancakes, and the restaurant is named ‘Boldoot’ to honor the building’s history.   

To contain the renowned scent, Boldoot designed bottles with typical Dutch motifs and shapes, such as windmills and images of members of the royal family. A very particular design consists of a girl and boy orphan. This is related to the fact that the nearby Amsterdam Museum (where these particular bottles are kept and preserved, and their previous location being at Kalverstraat 92) was a civilian orphanage. By now unfortunately the bottles in their depot only emit the smell of cork and vinegar.

Caro Verbeek, “Judith van Gent sniffing a Boldoot bottle shaped like an orphan girl at Amsterdam Museum”, 2020. Copyright Caro Verbeek.

There's another bad smell linked to Boldoot. Until 1934, due to a lack of sewerage, buckets with excrement were collected by cart in working-class neighborhoods in Amsterdam such as the Jordaan. The sound of a rattle announced the cart’s arrival, which was jokingly called the Boldootwagen due to the wagon’s contents smelling the opposite of fragrant (Amsterdam City Archive).

Photographer unknown, “Collecting excrement on Slijkstraat using Amsterdam's fosse mobile system”, Amsterdam City Archives.

Caro Verbeek
Caro Verbeek, “Eau de Cologne,” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed June 15, 2024,

Corbin, Alain. 1986. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, Harvard University Press.

Piesse, Septimus. 1855. Des odeurs, des parfums et des cosmétiques. Parijs: J.B. Baillière et Files.

Verbeek, Caro. 2021. “Ruiken aan de tijd – de olfactorische dimensie van het futurisme”. PhD. Diss. Vrije Universiteit Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Stamelman, Richard. 2006. Perfume: Joy, Obsession, Scandal, Sin: a Cultural History of Fragrance from 1750 to the Present. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. 

For information on Boldootwagen, visit the Amsterdam City Archive:

For more information on Boldoot obtaining Farina visit the Amsterdam City Archive: