Smell The Glove

“Lady, I would descend to kiss thy hand
But that ‘tis gloved, and civet makes  me sick”

Philip Massinger (1583 – 1640)

You can see his point.  They laid it on thick back in the day, and in civet we are talking about a fixative taken from the anal glands of a feral cat.

Why gloves, though?  Why did the French royal warrant establish the guild of glovers and perfumers in 1656 (late in the game, but evidence of a long standing relationship)?  They make an odd pairing on the face of it, these two.  But there’s a reason for everything, and there was a very good reason that tanneries were not located near the nice parts of town.

Consider what we’re talking about when we discuss leather.   It is the dressed hide of a dead animal.  In a state of nature, it dries out and get stiff.  To get it supple,  it needs to have certain proteins broken down,  in effect, to be semi-digested.  For this, it needs a good rub down with certain enzymes.

Presumably through trials and errors too grim to contemplate, the leather makers of the time discovered that the best way to get that desirable smooth and silky texture was to knead  the hide with pigeon droppings or, alternatively, dog waste.  (In Constantinople in Ottoman times, there was an entire profession dedicated to cleaning the streets of this brown gold, and at least one fortune made from gathering the stuff.  But I digress.)

The great leather making center of France in the Middle Ages was Grasse.  Good as the leather was, however,  it could not rise quite high enough to obscure how it was made.  Only in the early sixteenth century did a local tanner named Galimard come up with the idea of buttering one side with a bit of civet and perfume.  This clever man, eying the main chance, gave a pair of his treated gloves to Catherine de’Medici, new queen of France.  She was enchanted.  Of all the civilizing things this good Italian introduced to the French court – forks, fine cuisine, table manners – the perfumed glove was perhaps the one innovation she did not bring from her native Florence.

The court was quick to adopt the fad, and extravagant claims were made for the gloves as both a scent diffusers and primitive skin softeners. In La Clef d’Amors (an anonymous 16th century rip off of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria),  gloves were advised for women who wished to keep the hands in good nick

Pour tenir les blanche et saines
Te faut avoid gans ou mitaines
Ce ne couste past grandement
Et si en sont plus netement

To keep them pale and sound
You should have gloves or mittens
The cost is not high and
Your hands will be more pleasing

As with all good ideas, this one was quickly stolen. The enterprising Galimard fades from the records while Catherine’s tag along perfumer from Florence, Renato Bianco, (aka Renee le Florentine) became the talk of Paris both for his talent with scent (and the perfuming of gloves) and his alleged sideline as provider of subtle and quality poison.

It was only a matter of time before the scented glove fashion reached England.  Edwarde de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550 –1604), brought back a pair for Queen Elizabeth from Italy where he was presumably doing research for his Italian plays (1575).  Elizabeth, a woman noted for the tapered elegance of her hands and fingers (ten, not the eleven of her mother), naturally appreciated anything that drew attention to them.  In an age before cigarettes, the putting on and taking off of gloves did nicely.  She also liked a good scent, and so the combination was a natural.   She found them to be a good throwaway item for the New Year’s gift lists, something for the lesser courtiers not quite deserving of gold or pearls or country estates. If people that far below the salt could wear them, then clearly they were vital equipment for everyone.  It made for good business in the town of .

Nothing lasts forever, however, and everything eventually goes down market.  Sumptuary laws may have prescribed scented gloves for lower classes on some parts of the continent – scented gloves were banned in Rome in 1560 – but elsewhere the spread of the fashion can be inferred by the 1555 best seller De Secreti byAlexius Pedemontanus (aka Girolamo Ruscelli), which purported to give the ways and means of all sorts of guild secrets,  including the art of perfumery.  Even the best of gloves steeped in the most stubborn of musks needed the occasional tarting up.  You could take them back to the professional, but for the do-it-yourselfer, Ruscelli was the way to go.  The book was, of course, widely translated,  imitated, and redistributed, so  that by 1615 Gervase Markham (ca. 1568 –1637) in The English Housewife could advise women that they could:

“To perfume gloves excellently, take the oyle of sweet Almonds, oyle of Nutmegges, oile of Benjamin [a sweet tree gum] each a dramme, of Ambergreece one grain, fat Musket (Musk) two graines. Mixe them all together and grinde them upon a Painters stone, and then anoint the gloves therewith. Yet before you anoint them let them be dampishly moistened with Damaske Rose water.”

Not much used these days, I expect, this sort of thing.  Scented gloves survived the English Civil War, but could not make it past the French Revolution. What the French give, the French can take away.

In future though, who can say?  Hats have been out of fashion my entire life and are now making something of a come-back among people more stylish than me.  Things change. You might want to tuck this recipe away somewhere.  You never know when scented gloves might become fashionable.

(The illustration is of Elizabeth greeting Dutch ambassadors.  For the purposes of this post, we will assume she is wearing gloves.  Art enthusiasts may note that in her portraits she may be seen carrying gloves, but not actually wearing them – again, understandably vain of her hands. I’ve read that there is an exception, but I’ve never found it. If attentive readers have better luck, I would be grateful to hear of it. )

(Postscript – the above will help explain the creation of Maitre Parfumer et Gantier, the existence of which I have only recently become aware. More here as well.)


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6 thoughts on “Smell The Glove

  1. I wonder how common and severe the ostracism of tanners is throughout the world? The one case I know of is in Japan where leather makers and sellers were confined to small ghetto areas and shunned when one did not need something made of leather. Evidently you can still perceive its remnants when shoe shopping there. I can barely imagine the effect of such a division in super polite and homogeneous Japan.

    • Same was the case in Ottoman empire. It was the last refuge of wanted men, the leather making area being basically an no-go zone for police types. Presumably it was a fate worse than prison, so there you go.

      I’ve no idea how shoe makers are viewed in Turkey today.

  2. Pingback: Allons Enfants | aperfumeblog by Blacknall Allen

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