Scent and Subterfuge

18th century Europe was a pretty whiffy place when Italian-born Giovanni Maria Farina moved from Italy to Germany and decided to set up shop as a perfume maker in Cologne. To cover up the stench of daily life, people were accustomed to wearing heavily-scented oils such as sandalwood, musk and cinnamon, which were often as overpowering as the odours they were trying to mask.

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Giovanni, or Johann as the locals called him, began experimenting and eventually, as he wrote in a letter to his brother in 1708:  “… discovered a scent that reminds me of a spring morning in Italy, of wild narcissi and sweet orange blossom just after the rain.”

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Giovanni (Johann) Maria Farina

If you think the description is beautiful, wait until you try the perfume. Farina named his scent ‘Eau de Cologne’ after his adopted city. It is a delicate affair of citrus and jasmine that is still made today as it was back then. It quickly became a must-have scent for nobility (Napoleon allegedly went through a bottle a day); by the 1840s it was being shipped all over Europe, and soon it was being exported to the Americas, India, Russia and the Far East. It wasn’t just kings and queens who sought out Farina’s perfume; other notable customers included Voltaire, Mozart and Beethoven. Goethe kept a handkerchief doused with the perfume at his desk so he could waft it under his nose as he wrote. Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Marlene Dietrich were also fans.

original eau de cologne, haus farina, 4711, perfume, history of perfume, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

Farina was a superstar; his success earned him his own statue on Cologne’s great Cathedral. But then, as now, there were plenty of scoundrels looking to make a quick buck by capitalizing on someone else’s success, and Farina proved an easy target. The surname ‘Farina’ was a common one, so finding someone with that last name, and getting them to sign a document allowing you to trade under that name was easily done. Pretenders began to pop up all over the globe, and the Farina family employed an army of 59 detectives to unearth and close down imitators.

original eau de cologne, haus farina, 4711, perfume, history of perfume, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

The most persistent of these pretenders, a chap by the name of Wilhelm Mülhens, began selling his own concoction under the Farina name from a shop in Cologne’s Glockengasse and also licensed at least twenty other people to produce his scent. Legal action shut him down, but Mülhens’ son went to Italy, found another Farina and resumed trading once again. More legal action and a generation later, Mülhens’ grandson was barred from ever again trading under the name Farina. Instead, he took the house number of his business, 4711, as the business and product name and began lauding it as the original Eau de  Cologne. Savvy marketing has made their store at 4711 Glockengasse a major tourist attraction, but now that you know better, you can find the one and only, truly original Eau de Cologne at the Farina Haus, just a five minute walk away along Brückenstraße, at Obenmarspforten 21.

original eau de cologne, haus farina, 4711, perfume, history of perfume, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

original eau de cologne, haus farina, 4711, perfume, history of perfume, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

The Farina Haus is home to a perfume museum where, for €5, you can spend an hour in the company of Giovanni Maria Farina as he takes you on a tour of the old salon where the rich and famous would place their orders, teaches you a little of the art of perfume making and tests your olfactory abilities to identify scents in the perfume laboratories of old.  Our ‘Giovanni’ was played with comic glee by the charming Tim in full period dress.

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At the end of the tour we were told the red tulip on the packaging is the sign you’ve found the original Eau de Cologne (back in the 18th century tulips were hugely valuable and a symbol of exclusivity)…

original eau de cologne, haus farina, 4711, perfume, history of perfume, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

… and everyone was presented with a parting gift. I won’t tell you what the gift was, but I will let you know it reminded me of a spring morning in Italy, of wild narcissi and sweet orange blossom just after the rain.

original eau de cologne, haus farina, 4711, perfume, history of perfume, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

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About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - wheresmybackpack.com - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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16 Responses to Scent and Subterfuge

  1. Mama Cormier says:

    I grew up with 4711 in our house. I’ve always loved it. Now I’m curious about Farina. I’m going to Italy this summer. Will I be able to find it there?

    • ailsapm says:

      I grew up with 4711 too, Mama C, but have fallen in love with Farina, it’s distinctly citrusy but without that sharp, astringent burst of alcohol that can be a little overpowering with the 4711. The Farina is airier, lighter, almost a little effervescent. It’s also surprisingly long-lasting (it actually rates as an Eau de Parfum by today’s standards). If you can imagine the slight spray of essential oils you get when you peel citrus fruit, it will go some way to describing its effect. I’m not sure if you can find it in Italy, but try contacting them, they have English-speaking staff – here’s their contact form: https://farina1709.de/en/contact They also have an online store. By the way, don’t get it mixed up with the one made by Roger & Gallet that’s called Extra Vieille Jean Marie Farina – it’s an entirely different product, created by a relative of the original Farina. 🙂

  2. ralietravels says:

    We passed by the building in May 2013 and I even have a photo of 1709, but while well familiar with the product 4711, I had no idea of the story behind the two. Thanks.

    • ailsapm says:

      It’s such an interesting story, and I’ve heard tell that the rivalry is not entirely a thing of the past 🙂 I came out of there wanting to train my nose to recognize individual fragrance notes, the sense of smell is so powerful and so personal. Fascinating stuff.

  3. Pingback: Scent and Subterfuge – Live Love Smell

  4. Fascinating historical information! I’ve also always wondered whose idea it was to wear those white wigs, and why.

    • ailsapm says:

      I heard it had something to do with the prevalence of lice infestations in pre-regular-bathing society, Marilyn – men and women would shave their heads to prevent lice, and wigs suddenly became all the rage. 🙂

  5. What an interesting post. I love the idea of having a handkerchief doused in cologne and sniffing it for inspiration.

  6. DailyMusings says:

    All so interesting- thank you for sharing this! My mother in law wore 4711 🙂

    • ailsapm says:

      The only cologne I ever knew was 4711 until a friend hosted a Spanish exchange student and she had some amazing Spanish cologne, I think it was Alvarez Gomez, I forgot the name but vaguely remember the bottle, but the scent was light and lemony. I’ve been fascinated by cologne ever since.

  7. 76sanfermo says:

    Love Farina , too!
    Great post

  8. dyule2014 says:

    Another Great post Ailsa trying to update each of your posts that have been help up over the last month. Will Try and complete as soon as possible Thank you

Comments are closed.