The Emperor’s New Scent

It was Mrs. Bonaparte, aka Josephine, who turned the general on to scent.  Left to his own devices, Napoleon might have preferred the smell of gunpowder in the morning, but he was besotted by Josephine and perfume was – civilizing.

It is something of a stretch to say that he brought perfume back into fashion.  Those who survived the Terror needed some cheering up, and if that meant champagne and perfume,  so be it.  He certainly did nothing to stop it, as a more dour sort of dictator might have done.  The coast was officially clear, the old royal perfume house of Houbigant returned to Paris, and the good times began to roll once more.

Sycophants can always be counted on to butter up the new boss, and one of these opportunists was a parfumeur from the south of France named Jean Francois Rancé who created a perfume for Napoleon called, rather unsubtly, ‘le Vainqueur’.  Whatever Napoleon thought of it,  Josephine loved the stuff, and wanted to know if they could rustle up something bespoke for her as well?

But of course.

In due time there arrived L’Imperatrice, tastefully encased in a flask of Sèvres porcelain.

By now the Emperor was settling into his position and he decreed that neither scent was to be reproduced for anyone less exalted than himself and his queen, a decree which was in fact honored,  which effectively meant the perfume was not reproduced at all for at least two hundred years.

(Time’s up and the new Rancé, now of Milan, has reproduced both scents, le Vainquer and the re-named Josephine (and not to be confused with such modern tributes as les Etains du Prince Collection Parfumee Napoleon or Napoleon Royal Salute Perfume). What any of these would mean to the namesakes is anyone’s guess. )

Napoleon’s taste for the stuff is unrecorded (okay, maybe it is recorded, but I couldn’t find it. Corrections welcome).   What is certain, however, is that for everyday use, he was pretty strictly an Eau de Cologne man.

His preferred product was from Houbigant, but he was also happy to patronize the descendants of Gian Paolo Feminis’ Aqua Admirabilis, so much so that they opened a shop in Paris.

He loved the stuff, and characteristically, went seriously overboard. He used to keep a flask in his boot, claiming that it stimulated his brain.  He poured it in his bath, doused his sweaty neck with it, had his masseuse use it in his regular rubdowns.   His quarterly account for 1806 include 162 bottles of Eau de Cologne.   Do the math. That’s better than one and three quarter bottles of the stuff per day. The daily cost breaks down to about 4.7 francs, this at a time when the daily wage of a laborer was perhaps two francs.

Smelly business, world conquorage.

(In his defense, it can be said that Eau de Cologne dries down quickly and needs more infusions to keep up the rush.   When money is no object, people will bath in all sorts of extraordinary things.)

It all came to an end at Waterloo, and he was not permitted to import the stuff once he was in exile.  What to do to stimulate his brain those long years on St Helena?

Ingenuity and devotion came to the rescue.  His manservant, Mameluke Ali (effectively the stage name for the Frenchman Louis Etienne St Denis, a replacement for the genuine Mameluke, Roustam, who quit the emperor’s service before Elba) scoured the island for material that might be transformed into something appropriate.   By whatever manner of trial and error, he was able to concoct a scent that the Emperor could live with.

And in one of those absurd twists so beloved of nineteenth century novelists, St Denis’ father happened to have been the master of the horse for Louis XVI at Versailles.  St Denis returned home after Napoleon’s death in 1821 and lived out the rest of his life quietly in Sens, writing his remarkable memoirs of his time with the emperor.

Many years later, his furniture went up on the auction block.   In the far reaches of a drawer in one of the valet’s old chests there was found the formula for his creation.

Using these these notes, the good people at the Osmothèque have reconstructed the scent.

You can get it yourself if you like.  Myself, I’ve not smelled it and so far as I know, the Emperor’s take on the stuff is unrecorded.  One likes to think that he was at the very least touched that St Denis should have gone to all that trouble.

Perhaps it helped him forget about the smell of gunpowder in the morning.*


This post  is a reprint of one of my Hub’s posts from 2011 but it was the 4th of July, and I just got back from Italy so I hope you don’t mind the this do-over.  I’ll be back Monday!

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3 thoughts on “The Emperor’s New Scent

  1. Very interesting about St. Denis mixing a perfume for Napoleon in exile, from island flowers. And his recipe being found many years later in a piece of old furniture. C’est la vie.

    It’s good the fragrances ” Vainquer” and “Josephine” are now being manufactured after a 200 year hiatus. Victory at last.

    A random thought: Josephine was reared on a sunny island. She must have longed to return to the heavy floral scents of her youth through fragrance.

    Funny how she came from an island, Napolean from an island, and then he died on an island.

    I agree with Napoleon that fragrance jogs the brain. In a good way.

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