A Brief History of Men’s Cologne – Discover the History of Men’s Fragrances

origin of men's fragrance

Across the globe, men of all ages, religions and nationalities engage in a silent rite of passage by splashing, spritzing and dabbing cologne on their neck. Where did this slightly peculiar history of cologne use originate?

Many of us were first initiated into this ancient ritual when our father, freshly-shaven, pulled a peculiar looking bottle from the medicine cabinet and applied its amber-colored contents liberally to each side of his face…and then bent down with scent-heavy hands to pat ours.

And now every morning we continue to uphold this tradition by applying our favorite cologne before we go out to face the world. Our taste in fragrances have likely changed since we were schoolboys, though I still have fond memories of the bottles of English Leather, Aramis, and Old Spice that were displayed on my bathroom shelf in those days. Their bouquets evoked images of seafaring, stock trading and racing British sports cars…you know, the sort of thing that real men do. I digress. 

The five seconds it takes to make this small gesture is one of the subtle ways we men distinguish ourselves, using cologne as a way of projecting our personality, status, and aspirations. There is something  undeniably primal about wanting others to take note of our scent but perhaps it is better that we don’t scratch too far below the surface on this matter; let’s just agree that we subconsciously hope that others within wiffing distance will recognize that we have gone to the trouble of broadcasting this scent for others to appreciate as much as we do.

But what is the history of cologne? Where did this self-scenting movement originate? While fragrances have been around since biblical times, the first mixture of men’s cologne graced the world in the early 1700’s. However, the history behind the concoction is shrouded in mystery, intrigue and possibly a case of mistaken identity.

Gian or Giovanni?

Two men, who happened to be closely related to one another, have been attributed as the creator of cologne as we know it today: Gian Paolo Feminis and Giovanni Maria Farina. The problem is, no one is exactly clear as to which of the two were the actual creators of the very first men’s cologne. Giovanni was the nephew of Gian and worked with Gian closely in his business. Due to this close relationship it is impossible to say which one was the creator of cologne we know and love today, but one thing is certain – men’s cologne was first made in Cologne, Germany.

The Creation Begins

What little details we have about the first cologne are more or less anecdotal; Giovanni is said to have written a letter to his brother stating that he came up with a fragrance that was reminiscent of the Italian spring. This concoction was said to smell like daffodils and orange blossoms that would have been smelt during a morning rain. While Giovanni’s scent may not evoke the calculated, masculine image that modern retailers like to associate with most male fragrances–sailing, mountain climbing, glaring into a photographer’s camera while being admired by an adoring, scantily-clad, female–it suggests that the original inspiration for cologne was nature itself.

What Makes Cologne Not Perfume

While it may not be obvious, there is a drastic difference between men’s cologne and perfume. While the notes are different, there is a specific ratio that is still seen in men’s cologne today that would have been seen in the past. Men’s cologne consists, generally speaking, of less than 5% essential oils, suspended in a diluted base of ethanol, along with water and other trace extracts.

Perfume, however, has a much higher ratio if essential oils with most perfumes reaching up to 25 percent of the entire mixture.

Popularity Ensues

Gian and Giovanni never thought that the 1709 fragrance they created would become a worldwide phenomenon. Originally touted as a form of medicine, the smell of the world’s very first fragrance dubbed, “Eau De Cologne” would soon hit a level of popularity that was never expected – royalty.

Once royals started hearing about this fragrance, they wanted to use it themselves. Before they knew it, Gian and Giovanni would be catering to blue bloods all over Germany. In fact, the new scent was said to be a widely traded commodity that even reached the likes of the infamous Napoleon Bonaparte decades later. Unlike some popular fragrances of today that rise and fall in a few years, the original Eau De Cologne was in production for decades. However, the blends seen were often different and given numbers, such as 4711, a blend that is still produced today.

Cologne becomes a status symbol

Within a short time, delightful wafts of cologne could be detected in nearly every royal household in Europe. The price tag at the time was outrageous–equal to that of half a year’s salary for a civil servant. Obviously, this put immense restrictions on the ability of ordinary people to be able to use cologne as freely as royal families were able to at the time. One’s social class and scent often went hand in hand.

1797 would be a major turning point in the history of cologne as free trade was brought to Cologne, Germany under the influence of France. This caused the once local product to be reproduced by others. This would lead to the eventual spread of cologne all throughout the world. One thing remains a secret – the original mixture that was used at the time.

In 1806 the great-grandson of Giovanni, named Jean Marie Joseph Farina, would follow in his ancestors footsteps and eventually opened up his own cologne shop in Paris. This would later be sold and is still in possession of the Roger & Gallet Company.

Important Dates in the Evolution of Cologne

From this point in the mid 19th century, fragrances became something of an industry unto itself; the following are some of the most significant dates found within the history of cologne after 1806:

  • 1856: Cologne spreads to Florida when a Water/Citrus variant is created.
  • 1890: An exclusive mixture is created for the Russian Grand Duke named Orloff.
  • 1920s: Names such as Roger & Gallet dominated the industry and Chanel No. 5 was introduced.
  • 1930s: Cologne was still seen as a luxury, but now it was more of a fashion product.

Once cologne was able to be freely traded, perfumeries worldwide began catering to men, though they were still a smaller market compared to women. While many colognes and perfumes had price tags that were simply too high for the average person, there was a small, cottage industry where individuals were known to mix their own cologne variants. Now, centuries after Gian and Giovanni’s contribution, colognes can be seen in virtually every large retail store in the world.

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