Figure 1. Newspaper advertisement for Arthur Rothwell, Perfumer, showing his shop sign ‘At the Civet-Cat and Rose in New Bond St., London’ (1740). British Library, London, Cup.21.g.41/12.
Civet
4th March 2024
by Inger Leemans
Created at:
4th March 2024
Creator:
Inger Leemans
Citation:
[click to copy]
Figure 1. Newspaper advertisement for Arthur Rothwell, Perfumer, showing his shop sign ‘At the Civet-Cat and Rose in New Bond St., London’ (1740). British Library, London, Cup.21.g.41/12.
Smells
1921. Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel launched her first perfume, Chanel No5: a scent that would set off a revolution in the world of fragrances. At that moment, in Europe, fragrances with heavy animalistic scents (such as civet and musk), and indole scents (such as jasmine, which has a faecal tonality), were mainly perceived as odours for women of lower social classes. Chanel No5 brought these scents to the upper classes, breaking with their usual diet of light, flowery eau de parfums (Mazzeo 2010). What added to Chanel No.5’s difference was the overdose of Aldehydes - C11 and C12 Lauric, which created a cool, metallic, champagne-like scent.

In part, this ‘fragrant revolution’ was a true re-volution: a return to a previous situation. For the strict division between light ‘civilized’ scents and darker, animalistic ‘underworld’ scents (worn by sex workers and other women of supposedly questionable moral status) was at that point not much more than a century old. For several centuries women and men had been using animal scents such as musk, ambergris, civet and castoreum with enthusiasm. Beyond Europe, these practices were continuous.

Unlike musk, ambergris and castoreum, civet had been unknown to the classical Western world. As of its introduction to the European market in the 16th century, civet came to be used in medicine, perfumery, and in other consumer practices, such as smoking, powdering wigs and taking snuff. Because of its paradoxical smell (civet has a strong indole odour, but it will smell sweet when used in combination with other odorants), civet evoked strong reactions and functioned in the public imagination as a metaphor for many different cultural associations.

Odeuropa Smell Explorer
Smells

Figure 1. Newspaper advertisement for Arthur Rothwell, Perfumer, showing his shop sign ‘At the Civet-Cat and Rose in New Bond St., London’ (1740). British Library, London, Cup.21.g.41/12.


Civet (also: zibet, zibeth, civetta, sivet) is a soft, yellowish paste which is secreted from the perineal gland of the civet cat. The cat uses the pheromone civetone to mark its territory. The animal is not technically a cat, but it belongs to a broader class of cat-like carnivorous animals: the vivverids. The different species of this family are native to Africa (Viverra civetta), India (Viverra zibetha), South Asia, Sumatra, the Celebes, and the Philippines. In these regions the paste had been harvested from the animals for health and wellbeing a long time before it came to be known to the Europeans (Dannenfeldt 1985).

In European perfume and pharmaceutical handbooks, novels, newspapers and other cultural texts, civet is most often named together with musk and ambergris (Figure 2). There is a chemical reality behind this, as civetone (the dominant odorant in civet smell) is closely related to muscone, the principal odoriferous compound found in musk. Also, all animal smells were often called ‘musks’, so musk could function both as a ‘sister scent’ as well as a fragrance family classification. Civet was sometimes called ‘musk of the civet cat’, and the animal was sometimes called the ‘musked cat’ (‘La civette, ou chat musqué’).

Figure 2. Word cloud of smell sources named in relation to civet. Source: Odeuropa Explorer, English language corpus (1600-1920).


Like other animalistic scents, civet is ambiguous. When smelled immediately after it is ‘civeted’, civet’s scent has a pungent, faecal odour. The concentrated liquid strongly smells of animal secretion (civetone, indole and scatole are the chemicals that sing to this tune). Smelled raw, it can thus explode in the nose. Diluted and combined with other perfume ingredients however, civet’s aroma can turn to a sweet fragrance. When combined with volatile top notes like lemon and lavender, civet can complement the other scents in the composition and provide more depth and stability to the scent. Earlymodern chemists recognised that civet ‘exceedingly heightened’ and ‘enoble[d]’ other scents (Boyle 1738: I, 548).

Figure 3. Word cloud of smell words and smell qualities most associated with civet. Source: Odeuropa Explorer, English language corpus (1600-1920).

The cultural documentation of civet in Europea also represents this dichotomous nature of the scent (Figure 3). On the one hand civet is described as an aromatic compound of perfumes: pleasant, pleasing, fragrant, sweet, abominable, excellent, fine smelling. On the other hand, a plethora of terms is used to express the disgust the oil can evoke: putrid, fetid, foul, impure, disgusting, noisomely sweet, offensive, peculiarly violent, stinking, rotten, sickening, fragrant blast, highly odorous, extremely disagreeable. ‘Elle offre une odeur ammoniacale désagréable, souvent très forte’ (Moquin-Tandon 1862). What both sides have in common is their intensity. Whether foul or fragrant, civet awakens the nose. Smell words are therefore often combined with intensifiers: ‘powerful’, ‘strong’, ‘rich’. The word most used to describe the scent of civet in the English language is ‘odoriferous’: a word that expresses a strong sensation.

Figure 4. Depiction of a civet cat (‘gatto d’algalia’), in Bantam (Indonesia), by Willem Lodewijcksz in: De eerste schipvaart der Nederlanders naar Oost-Indië onder Cornelis de Houtman, 1595-1597. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, RP-P-OB-80.263.

Places

In the fifteenth century, civet cats were introduced to the European market. For a while, the zibeta figured mostly as exotic animals in princely menageries. Western travellers and scientists struggled to describe this rare species (Fudge 2012). But when the Europeans discovered the value of the animal secretion, they started to import both the fragrant paste and the cats in larger quantities. 

Figure 5: Auction prices (in guilders) of musk and civet, imported by the VOC, on the Amsterdam market in the 17th century. Source: Koudijs et al. 2020.


Soon, civet helped to supply the demand for ‘musky’ smells: “The richest Perfumes we have, are Musk, Civet, and Ambergriese” (Tyson 1698). For a long time the supplies of the ‘newcomer’ civet seem to have been quite volatile. Auction sales catalogues of the Dutch East India Company (VOC records) show a sizable (though fluctuating) import of musk (with peeks as high as 85.000 guilders in 1670). Civet was coming in far more irregularly, in portions of around 1000 guilders. In the first decades of the seventeenth century prices fluctuated between 15 to 20 guilders per ounce (28 grams) (VOC records). With a rising interest for the product and an unstable input, it became financially worthwhile to import the ‘producers’ and not only the product. The Jewish Sephardic trade community became very active in the civet cat trade (Israel 1990). In 1630, when the Dutch States General granted an octroi in the import and exploitation of civet cats, a minimum prize of 20 guilders per ounce was fixed for the odorant (Winius 2010). In fact, the civet cat was the first of African and Asian wild animals to be imported in large numbers to be domesticated and economically exploited by Europeans (Dannenfeldt 1985). 

The fact that traders tried to sell false civet and civet cats speaks for the growing popularity of the product. This practice was already reported in the Indies. Jan Huygen van Linschoten stated that in Bengal, civet was mixed with salt and oil (Van Linschoten 1579-1592: 135). The promises of civet as a product of exploitation also shows from the fact that the VOC called one of its sloops ‘Civetkat’. Civet also functioned as a diplomatic gift, for instance from the Sultan of Morocco to the Dutch delegation (Prins 1936). European invaders proudly reported the luting of civet from the Philippines: ‘Upon capturing this island we found a quantity of porcelain, and some bells which are different from ours, and which they esteem highly in their festivities, and perfumes of musk, amber, civet, officinal storax, and aromatic and resinous perfumes’ (Blair & Robbertson 1803). Civet cats were captured and caged along the same paths as the human enslaved, however a pound of civet could sell for three times the value of a male slave (Dannenfeldt 1985).

The ‘chat musqué’ thus became an economic product, transported from its natural habitat and raised by farmers in cramped cages. Here the cat suffered ‘civetting’, a painful practice carried out approximately every ten days, in which the civet was extracted from the gland by silver or wooden spoons. The quality of the civet rose when the cats were fed quality foods such as raw meat, milk, honey, eggs, rice, and fish. ‘True Dutch civet’ was famed for its outstanding quality and white substance, which, according to contemporary sources was because the Dutch fed their civet cats milk and the whites of eggs (cf. advertisement in Amsterdamse courant, 12-12-1720; Winius 2010; Prins 1936).

Figure 6. Anselmus Boëtius de Boodt, Civet cat, 1596–1610. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-T-BR-2017-1-1-98.

The smellscapes of civet entail 1) the places where the civet cats roamed and were kept, 2) the places where civet was processed – into medicine, perfumes, or other products, 3) the human bodies that wore the scent or absorbed it.

In the seventeenth century, civet farms spread over Europe. Sometimes they were placed in the middle of the city. In the centre of Amsterdam, in 1629, Harmen Reijnierszn de Coninck kept around twenty civet cats on his attic (Prins 1936). Because they were believed to be ferocious creatures, the cats were always kept in cages. Civet merchant John Barksdale held 70 civet cats on his farm in London, Newington Green. He warmed the civet house by stoves, to raise the production. The famous novelist Daniel Defoe also owned 70 civet cats in London, but only briefly: apparently he was not a very successful farmer (Plumb 2015: 97). There was some pride in the civet cat farmer’s profession though, as paintings of the cats were known to deck the interiors of their homes.

Civet as a substance could be smelled in these farms, but more significantly in the shops of perfumers, apothecaries, physicians, barbers, wig makers, and tobacco and snuff salesmen. In 1683, the Amsterdam apothecary and poet Sybrand Feitama rhymed about the drugstore and perfumery substances one could find in his colleague’s shop: ‘What shall I pick first? […] Let’s start with the nice smells: amber, musk and civet’ (Feitama 1684: 199). These smells did not stop at the doorstep of the shop. The fact that overly scented persons were frequently described as smelling like ‘a perfumer’s shop’ already indicates the boundary-transgressing nature of animal scents. Furthermore, civet cats were often staged on the shop signs and trade cards of perfumers and ‘reukwerkers’ (scent makers), so they were a visual presence as well (Tullett 2023).

Practices

Its heavy molecular structure made civet suitable for perfumes for scented gloves, pomanders (fragranced pendants worn on the body), and scented bags to freshen laundry, and make soaps. Tobacco, snuff and powders were made more fragrant with civet. People were instructed to infuse cottonwool with civet ‘till it has exceeding well taken it; then lay a Laying of Wool, and a Laying of Powder, and shut it close in a Box, and it will scent the Powder’ (Anon. 1699). In London, around 1700, youngsters could be schooled by perfumers about how to add civet to snuff by rubbing it into the tobacco thumb-in-hand (Plumb 2015: 94).

Mixed with rice powder, civet kept hair and wigs from smelling: for ‘sweet-scented powder to put on your hair: first put rice in the oven, grind in a mortar, add a grain of civet and some rose scent’. People made fragrant balls and wooden cookies by mixing civet, musk and ambergris with Arabic gum and fragrant wood splinters (Witgeest 1698). Civet was used to perfume letters. You could even catch fish with civet: catch a heron, smear a pot with civet, musk and ambergris, cook the heron meat until it has turned into oil, grease your fishing nets or line with it: all this would lead to a good catch (Chomel 1743: 1226). To maintain the quality of the substance, civet was contained in luxurious boxes, preferably of white alabaster, to accentuate the high quality of white civet. Civet skins were also used in robes: ‘they have a fragrance that can be equalled by amber and musk alone, and even at a distance is strongly perceptible’ (Vaca 1542).

Civet’s potent scent was also believed to have medical benefits. It could strengthen the mind and memory, cure headaches and stomach aches, unblock the womb, or lure hysterical wombs into their natural position. Because of its heat and animalistic pheromone qualities, civet was considered an aphrodisiac and a promising cure for bareness (Evans 2014; Evans 2019). The 1568 Artzney-Buch states: ‘Zibet, ein wolriechende Feistin, mehret Mannheit’ (Prins 1936). The Encyclopédie sums it up: ‘La civette [...] est résolutive, anodyne, tonique, antispasmodique ou nervine, et particulièrement anti-épileptique et anti-hystérique’. It was even said that civet could prolong lives: ‘Les orientaux en font un grand usage; ils l'estiment même propre à prolonger la vie’ (Diderot & D'Alembert 1753). 

Interestingly enough, Western handbooks pretended they did not derive their knowledge about civet usage from the regions from which the cats originated. Although the use of civet was not known to the Greeks and Romans, and most of the knowledge about civet in Europe was ‘imported’ from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the early modern authors invented a ‘tradition’ that projected centuries of Western civet wisdom. In 1680 the anonymous Aristotle's Masterpiece, and other Works of Aristotle, the Famous Philosopher projected a whole ‘science of sex’ to Aristotle, amongst which a treatment for uterine prolapse: ‘apply stinking things to the Womb, as Assa Foetida, oil of Amber, her own Hair burnt; and let her smell of Civet’ (Salmon 1680; see also: Anon 1682). As the early moderns thought the womb was an organ receptive to scent, it could be directed to different positions by aromatherapy. With the sweet smell of civet in the nose, and stinking smells wafted under the patient’s skirt, the womb could be lured into its natural position (Evans 2014). Anointing the womb with with musk and civet could, according to Aristotle's Masterpiece, treat barrenness and a lack of sexual desire. Pregnant women however, should not be exposed to the smell of civet, musk or ambergris.

The early moderns also extended the ‘classical tradition’ in civet knowledge to the moral and religious domain. The Dutch physician Johan de Brune de Jonge stated that Carneades and Plutarch had schooled that humans need to be as civet boxes: although the fragrance might be taken out, its scent will still linger (Brune 1644: 351). De Brune interpreted this as good Christian advice: the sweet memory of God’s grace should always be kept in our minds, even when the acts have long since passed. The Dutch poet Jacob van Heemskerk pretended that Ovid used civet as a warning signal for young lovers: ‘Above all, be aware of youngsters whose breath always smells like musk, ambergris or civet, because they seem to be educated in the ars amatoria as a trade; they love from habit, not from a just desire’ (Heemskerck 1622: 131). The famous Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel translated the generic ‘odoribus’ - the scent that accompanies Pyrrha’s lover as he embraces her in a rose arbour - with ‘a youngling, reeking of civet and musks’.[1] Civet wisdom even was projected to have a biblical past. The dunghill of Job is described as ‘smelling sweeter as all musk and civet, due to Jobs endurance’ (Poirters 1657: fol. *5v).

Figure 7. Engraving warning against indulging in luxury, amongst which the use of perfumes (Poirters 1674).

Feelings and Noses

Most studies state that civet came to be contested in the later 18th century (Corbin 1986: 73; Dugan 2010: 19; Tullett 2018: 35). However, its use was already applauded and criticized in the 17th century. On the one hand, civet scent was described as sweet and powerful, the smell of kings and Gods, specifically of the God of love (Hanins 1653: fol. A7v). Lovers were said to smell of Civet: ‘His lips, ah! (what injustice) are parted from my desires, smell like civet (Merwede 1653: 15). Civet, musk and ambergris were seen as the epitome of sweet and delightful scents. Shakespeare has civet improving the faculty of imagination: ‘‘fie! pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination’ (Shakespeare 1608).

On the other hand, its proximity to excrement, both in smell and in origin, is a source of curiosity, humour and disgust. People were curious about the fact that ‘not all excretions of Nature [are] in themselves offensive to the sense of smelling, for the Fluxe of the Civet Cat is accounted amongst our most soveraigne Perfumes. And this experimented will be a Staple of noble use, and no lesse benefit’ (Williams 1650). Faeces were also called ‘digested bread civet’ (Suetmans & De Meyer 1659). Swift’s A Tale of a Tub provides a mock story of origin: ‘Paracelcus, who was so famous for Chymistiry, try’d an Experiment upon human Excrement, to make a Perfume of it, which when he had brought to Perfection, he called Zibeta Occidentals’ (Swift 1710). Where one talked about ‘sweet civet’ that ‘will make a stinking Breath sweet’, the other opposes ‘it is a beastly smell’. ‘And that you will thrust your Nose to, although it be an Excrement?’ (Cavendish 1671). In 1622, the Dutch poet Constantijn Huygens asked how the illustrious Dutch nation could defend itself against the accusation that they are corrupting their innocent sense of smell with stinking ‘smetstof’ (tainted substances) from the overseas areas. Dutch men are choking their manly sweat in this ‘geschrabde smeer’ (scraped smear) (Huygens 1622: 28. v. 159).

In general, civet was a tangible example for a growing choir of perfume protesters. Authors warned against the luxurious use of perfume. The recommendation ‘he that always smells, does not smell well’, derived from Martial’s Epigrams, turned into a proverb, with many variants:

Pauline blankets her face,
And decorates her locks with Civet.
Fy! such a virgin, Who does not use,
And nowhere smells, smells best (Blasius 1663: 227).

Civet (and sometimes musk and ambergris) are singled out amongst the odorants, as ‘fools’ splendor’: ‘Ah, he who wears a lot of scents, surely stinks’ (Poirters 1674: 7). The use of civet is seen as opposed to manliness. Don Quixote suggests that ‘it is better for the soldier to smell of gunpowder than of civet’. For both men and women, it is considered bad to walk around with ‘Sacks of Sweet Smelling Liquor’, and to ‘to pride oneself in perfumes’. Civet users are placed in the same class as the animals they derive their scents from: ‘This filthy simile, this beastly line Quite turns my stomach — So does Flatt'ry mine; And all your courtly Civet cats can vent, Perfume to you, to me is Excrement’ (Pope 1738).

Thus, the paradoxical civet, ‘the dearest of Stinks’, kept fascinating the European minds. How could they explain the Janus-faced nature of the scent? Experts explained the origin of civet from a ‘fierce, fiery, violent natured creature’ ‘it is very offensive to all fine, tender Spirited Persons’. However, the scarcity of the substance gave it its esteem, and ‘use and custom makes it familiar to most’ (Tryon 1700). Some stated that the putrid nature of the scent is aggravated when the animal is illtreated and scared. Others said that it depends on how fresh the civet is, or how close you are to the substance: ‘if held close to the Nosthrils [civet, musk and ambergris] strike as unpleasing a stink as excrements, but again how fragrant and sweet a scent do they emit at a distance?’ (Harvey 1663). The paradox could also be ‘in the nose of the beholder’: ‘The Reason lies in the diversity of the pores in the Olfactory Nerves of this or that Person […] Men without any disgust or trouble accept the smell of Musk or Civet, which at the same time to Women generally is odious and pernicious. Nay it causes in them Hysterick Passions’ (Le Grand 1694).

Figure 8. ‘The civet cat which stands in front of you is fragile and friendly; He giveth civet, which sometimes still has some value’ (Anon. 1810).

Somewhere at the end of the 18th century, and certainly during the 19th century, civet seems to have fallen out of fashion. While the Encyclopédie edition of Yverdon (1744, vol. 32, 271) still lists civet under ‘les parfums les plus estimés’, not much later, a recipe books stated that ‘there are many to whom the scent of musk and civet are very disagreeable’ (Dossie 1764, 2: 42). Buffon noted that physicians hardly used civet anymore. Civet ‘lost its reputation’, it ‘ceased to be admired by people of a refined and delicate taste’ (Buffon 1761: IK, 1).

In the 1780s, natural historians could write that civet was ‘as a perfume, some years back… in high estimation’ (Catton 1788: 15). The animal origins and overpowering scent of civet had become problematic in the eighteenth-century’s new spaces of sociability. The emphasis on pleasing others and the idiosyncrasy of odour preferences meant that the use of pungent, animal-based perfumes was increasingly questioned. The poet William Cowper, in 1782, expressed his disgust:

I cannot talk with civet in the room,
A fine puss gentleman that's all perfume; […]
His odoriferous attempts to please
Perhaps might prosper with a swarm of bees;
But we that make no honey, though we sting,
Poets, are sometimes apt to maul the thing. […]
’Tis wrong to bring into a mixt resort,
What makes some sick, and others a-la-mort. (Cowper 1782)

In the Netherlands physicians and chroniclers also noted that the civet cat farms had long since disappeared. Women stopped wearing civet fragrances and civet furs (Pasteur 1796). Slowly civet faded away from the (household) encyclopedias. In 1810 print collection intended to educate children, taught them: ‘The Civet cat standing here is angry by nature and not less evil, / It is he who gives the Civet, which sometimes still has value’ (Figure 8). And the learned journal Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen stated in the same year: civet and musk have been rejected in perfumery, as their smell is too foul and disgusting. Around 1800, the fact that there was once a time when ‘the product of the civet’s posteriors was in the highest estimation with the ladies and effeminate men’ became a humorous tale about the follies of the past (Plumb 2015: 91).

However, although civet was reported as being out of fashion in the West, authors note that the ‘odoriferous secretion’ was still largely used in the East. Also, the civet cat did not disappear entirely from the European cities. It maintained its status a symbol of the perfumer trade. Civet cats were regularly staged on perfumer’s shop signs and trade cards (Shadwell 16; Tullett 2023). In the Dutch Republic signs read: ‘Here you are “in the civet cat”, as you can see / Please do enter, we have perfumes for men and women’ (Sweerts 1698: 80). A mock shop sign commented: ‘Here “In the cat” we sell true and good civet / However, I am not that interested since my children can’t stop to jest: “they take it from the cat’s testicles!”’ (Sweerts 1698: 67). Even when the civet fell out of fashion as a recognizable perfume ingredient, perfumers kept the civet cat as a trademark for their shops, signs and trade cards (Fudge 2012).

Civet thus became a heritage scent, which could help to underline the historical roots of the perfumer trade (Schober 2020). It would have to wait only a bit before its revival in Chanel No5. Most contemporary noses will never have smelled ‘real’ civet. In 1998, Chanel switched from natural civet paste to a synthetic civetone version, following other perfume houses in their regained respect for animal wellbeing.

Figure 9. Tile with depiction of civet cat (ca. 1600 – 1650), Rotterdam. Nederlands Tegelmuseum, 09544.

Creator:
Inger Leemans
Citation:
Inger Leemans, “Civet,” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed April 19, 2024, https://encyclopedia.odeuropa.eu/items/show/39.
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