History of Fragrances and Essential Oils - Whole Home Scenting


The History of Essential Oils and Fragrances

History of essential oils

Movies set in the medieval era helped to fuel the myth that people from earlier times cared very little for hygiene. While this may have been true for some demographics and cultures at various points in history, humans have been concerned with hygiene since early civilization.

In the early stages of developing fragrances and essential oils, people mostly relied on flowers to lend their natural scents to fabrics, hair, and skin. Extracts from the plants also served medicinal and religious purposes. Some extracts, such as ginger and cinnamon, were even used when preparing food.

Most people credit the Egyptians for introducing the use of essential oils into everyday life. However, some historians propose that people in India and China were also using fragrances for similar purposes during that time. Because of this, the history of perfume tends to follow civilizations and cultures instead of just eras.

Biblical Times

Christians view the biblical story of Adam and Eve as the start of human civilization. With that in mind, it is worth noting that the Bible makes several references to herbs and essential oils as early as Exodus. Here, Moses received instructions on how to make holy anointing oil. A more famous mention of fragrances is when frankincense and myrrh make an appearance among the gifts wise men offered as gifts at the birth of the Christian Messiah.

Here are some other natural extracts mentioned in the Bible:

  • Cinnamon
  • Spikenard
  • Myrtle
  • Saffron
  • Calamus
  • Galbanum

Ancient Asia and the Middle East

Modern-day Chinese culture still uses plants through traditional medicine. Existing folk medicine practices also help historians to trace herbal use back to the earlier stages of Chinese history. Offering additional assistance is Shennong’s Herbal. This is a medical text containing detailed information about how 365 different plants can be used. The text dates back to around 2700 BC.

If you’re not familiar with Chinese history and mythology, Shennong is one of China’s legendary emperors. He is said to have tried hundreds of herbs to determine if they had any medicinal value and what that value was. It is also said that he discovered tea and taught his people how to farm.

Indians are also known for their use of herbal medicine in modern society. Many use these herbs for not just cooking but also for hygiene and beauty. Historians believe that the Indian Ayurvedic health care system upon which many of these practices are based is actually about 5,000 years old.

Even in the year 2000 BC, Ayurvedic doctors were treating patients by using essential oils. Common choices included sandalwood, coriander, and ginger. Herbs have and continue to play a role in Indian culture. There are more than 700 plants mentioned in India’s most revered book, the Vedas. It explains what herbs are to be used for religious, therapeutic and aromatic purposes.

The Persians may not have invented the use of fragrances and essential oils, but they played a crucial role in their development. For hundreds of years, the Persians dominated the trade of spices, perfumes, and herbs. Like the Egyptians, the use of fragrances was more prevalent among the nobles of their society.

What the Persians did invent was the first perfume that was not based on oils. They so revolutionized the practice of creating perfumes that they were able to craft signature scents for Persian kings who requested this honor.

Ancient Egypt

History of fragrance oil in Egypt

When it comes to ancient cultures, people tend to know more about the Egyptians than others. Even at the time of its existence, Ancient Egypt was a force to be reckoned with and served as a cultural mecca that heavily influenced its neighbors.

Egyptians are most well-known for using fragrances for beauty and hygiene purposes as far back as 4500 BC. They also practiced herbal medicine. The priests who served as doctors created salves, tinctures, ointments and other treatments for everything from snake bites to preserving youth.

In fact, there are not many facets of Ancient Egyptian life not touched by essential oils. They even played a role in religion. The main appeal may have been the fact that essential oils were primarily used by the royal family and therefore attributed to a certain level of sophistication and class.

A curious thing to note about the Ancient Egyptians is that despite their extensive use of herbs grown along the Nile, they did not extract their own essential oils. It is believed that they imported these through trade, which further supports the claim that other civilizations were also using essential oils at the time for various purposes.

Ancient Greeks and Romans

Proximity and entangled relationships with Egypt meant that Greece absorbed much of the North African country’s culture as its own. When it comes to modern medicine, however, the credit goes to a Greek physician by the name of Hippocrates. The findings he made during his lifetime still form part of medicine as we know it today.

One of his areas of study was the medicinal purposes of plants. To this end, he tested more than 300 different species. When the plague came to the city of Athens, he even used fumigation to fight it. After years of study, he came to the conclusion that the daily use of essential oils could pave the road to a healthy life.

Ancient Rome is well-known as one of the most powerful empires in history, but they were nonetheless strongly influenced by the Greeks. This is how Hippocrates’ teachings mingled with knowledge from the Egyptians and came to the empire. In fact, of all the ways the Greeks influenced Roman culture, medicine and architecture are among the strongest.

When it comes to the use of essential oils, the Romans appeared to favor the Egyptians more than the Greeks in their lavish use of it. They took several scented baths each day and applied the oils to their skin and hair. Some Romans even used the oils to scent their bed linens. Every year, Romans reportedly used 550 tons of myrrh and 2,800 tons of frankincense.

The medicinal side of essential oils in Roman culture came from Pedanius Dioscorides. He was a Greek physician who served the Roman army. His studies of plant medicine led him to write several volumes of books. Together, they offered more than 600 medicinal uses of herbs and essential oil extracts.

He was succeeded several decades later by Galen, who was another Greek physician serving the Roman army. His impeccable reputation included never losing a gladiator in the field. He attributed this to the use of herbs and essential oils.

Medieval and Victorian Era Europe

By the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had gained unchecked power over the sociopolitical and economic lives of people living within Christian countries. The church not only dictated laws but meted out punishments and had its own investigative powers in the form of inquisitions. So, when they labeled the work of Hippocrates as unholy works, it sent Europe into what is appropriately called the Dark Ages.

The local doctors who continued to use herbal medicine to treat people in their communities faced the risk of being labeled witches or necromancers. Women were especially susceptible to these accusations, which often followed the falling out with a neighbor or the failure to cure someone.

Historians say that it was monks who kept the practice of herbal medicine safely alive until Europe outlived its ignorance. By the 1500s, an Italian woman re-popularized the use of perfumes after her marriage to a French King. In the 1600s, within a century of the Medieval Ages ending, herbal medicine once again regained popularity.

In the 1700s to 1800s, the focus shifted from medicine to industrialization and worldwide expansion. Britain sought to expand into new territories, while America focused on expanding west. During this time, sickness once again ravaged Europe as people moved from the countryside into the cities in search of jobs. Many lived in slums, and hygiene in these areas was poor.

During this time, France continued to grow flowers, but not for medicinal purposes. Instead, the flower farms supplied perfume makers. During this time, tuberculosis began to ravage Europe. While most other workers suffered the effects, the people working in the flower fields remained mostly immune. In 1887, scientists decided that the properties of the plants must be the cause and conducted the first lab test of essential oils. They were right.

1990’s France

Then, in 1910, a French chemist by the name of Rene-Maurice Gattefosse discovered the healing properties of lavender. This happened after he submerged his burning hands in the liquid following an explosion in the lab. The resulting healing effects left such a profound impact on him that he went on to focus on studying essential oils. He brought what he learned into World War I hospitals between the 1920s and 1930s to treat injured soldiers.

During the Indochina War of 1948 to 1959, Jean Valet began to use essential oils to treat battle wounds as well. However, this French doctor did not learn this from Gattefosse. Instead, historians believe he ran out of antibiotics on the battlefield. Having nothing left but essential oils, he used these as a placebo and was astounded by the healing properties they possess. He continued to use them.

In the 1980s, the French once again studied essential oils more closely. Biochemist Pierre Franchomme and Doctor Daniel Pénoël studied more than 270 different essential oils. They confirmed what many had before them — that these oils had healing qualities that could bring benefits to modern medicine.

The French’s heavy involvement might surprise you, but even more surprising is how often Frenchmen appear to have forgotten and relearned the use of essential oils in medicine. Cave drawings have been discovered in France that show the use of herbs and oils in everyday activities millennia ago. These drawings are almost 20,000 years old, which would predate even the Egyptians, Chinese and Indians.

Modern-Day Medicine

Since the 1980s, medicine has seen rapid discoveries and developments in the treatment of various illnesses. This has helped to downplay the use of essential oils as go-to medicinal choices. Even so, there are some parts of the world where doctors still give patients a choice between prescription medication or an essential oil alternative, whenever one is available.

For the most part, the use of essential oils is self-motivated. They are frequently used to provide wonderful scents for homes and offices by using diffusers. Other people mix them into applications for the hair and skin or use consumable extracts to make teas. Here are some common uses of fragrance oils.

  • Eucalyptus: Parents often use this to treat children who suffer from respiratory illnesses. It can be used to treat everything from bronchitis to the common cold. This is because of its decongestant and expectorant qualities. This essential oil’s medicinal purposes are so well-known that it is one of the active ingredients in Vicks.

  • Lavender: Lavender is one of the most common floral scents. People have also begun to use it to treat anxiety and insomnia. Following the example of the French pioneers, people also use this to treat burns and heal wounds due to its cell regenerative properties. Other skincare benefits include treating itchiness and insect bites.

  • Roman Chamomile: This is also used to treat difficulty sleeping. In fact, teas branded as helpful for improving sleep quality often include both chamomile and lavender extracts. Like its herbal twin, it treats anxiety and stress. It can also be used to treat inflammation and muscle spasms.

  • Peppermint: Peppermint has a soothing effect on some people, especially as a tea. For others, it energizes them. It is most commonly used to treat nausea, pain and muscle spasms. Instead of purchasing the essential oils, many people grow the actual plant in small spots in their homes.

Try Aromatherapy in Your Home

The negative effects of aerosol sprays on the environment sent many people scrambling for new ways to add pleasing scents to their homes years ago. Whole-home scenting diffusers are now a common alternative. Contact Whole Home Scenting for more information on our diffusers and fragrance oils.

Photo credit: Pixabay (ancient nativity painting), Retha Ferguson (gold tutankhamun statue), Pixabay (hand cream), Breakingpic (drinking glass with lemon)
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