Gleams & Notions

Fragrance: Past, Present, Future

By Harvey Fishman, Consultant | March 28, 2008

Fragrance’s Glorious Past and Its Exciting Future

The history of fragrance can be traced back to the Egyptians (5000 to 3500 B.C.). Objects that were found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb still retained a balsamic odor. Egyptians used fragrances as religious offerings, for esthetic purposes and as embalming agents.
The word “perfume” comes from the Latin  per fumum which means through or from smoke and is connected with the burning of aromatic gums and woods.  Fragrances are mentioned in the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament. For instance, the following gives advice on how to make an incense:      
    “and the Lord said unto Moses, take unto thee sweet spices, Stacte (also known as storax) and Onycha (also known as labdanum) and Galbanum, also Frankincense; of each there shall be a like weight, and make an incense blended as by the perfumer.” 
Frankincense is still the main ingredient in the incense that is burned during church services.
Greek mythology also refers to perfumes, and the mixing and blending of them was discussed in 370 B.C.  The Koran (600 A.D.) discusses perfumes and specifically mentions musk and hyacinth.  Arabs knew about distillation between the 9th and 12th centuries, and perfumery was probably brought to Great Britain by the Romans and Anglo-Saxons. 
Arts flourished during the Renaissance, which gave impetuous to the use of perfumes in Italy and France.  Toward the end of the 18th century, essential oil and flower oil production began to flourish in France.

Modern Benefits of Fragrance

Fragrances are a huge and prosperous industry today.  In addition to their use as a personal perfume to make you smell and feel better, they are necessary ingredients in cosmetic products for practical reasons such as masking unpleasant odors from other chemicals and to help sell the product.
According to a New York Times article, fragrances are being used to help indicate the presence of  Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease in their early stages. Doctors have known for years that when people with these diseases begin the slide toward dementia, an inability to smell is often the first sign of a problem.
It is theorized that because few brain cells are devoted to processing odors, the olfactory system is affected very early with these conditions.  Apparently, patients have been telling their doctors that they cannot smell many years before they actually get either of these two diseases.
The Sniff Magnitude Test, developed by two scientists at the University of Cincinnati, consists of a nasal tube attached to a plastic container about the size and shape of a coffee thermos.  Chemical vapors inside the canister are released through the tube, exposing users to a series of smells, some more objectionable than others. Sensors in the thermos unit measure the negative pressure the inhalations produce. The size and intensity of the sniffs are important gauges of olfactory ability.  After sensing a strong or disagreeable odor, people with a normal sense of smell take very small sniffs to avoid smelling it.  However, people with an impaired sense of smell continue taking deep whiffs, because the scent does not register. 
There are other tests that ask people to relate odors to familiar smells, but this might be a challenge for those from other cultures or for people who can not recognize odors. The Sniff Magnitude Test does not require these kinds of subjective comparisons. 

Smells Like Chicken!

In another completely unrelated fragrance item, it has been reported that Kentucky Fried Chicken, in a first for the advertising industry, is planning to promote its $2.99 lunch by pumping the smell of fried chicken into workplaces. 
The “scent focused” marketing campaign will dispense fried chicken odors from mail carts.  I wonder how successful this campaign will be. After all, how many executives would want their office to smell like fried chicken?

About the Author

Harvey Fishman has a consulting firm at 34 Chicasaw Drive, Oakland, NJ 07436,, specializing in cosmetic formulations and new product ideas, offering tested finished products. He has more than 30 years of experience and has been director of research at Bonat, Nestlé LeMur and Turner Hall. He welcomes descriptive literature from suppliers and bench chemists and others in the field.