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

‘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.’

Diseases of Modern Life

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…

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