Patchouli in the 1800s: A Popular Scent

Aromatic patchouli was “introduced in England as an article of merchandise, in 1844, but before that time the odour of the plant was known in Europe.”[1] The scent was peculiarly strong and persistent, and although disagreeable to some people, it was highly prized in Europe. In India, it was one of the most common essences available at bazaars. The Ladies’ Companion,
an illustrated monthly magazine of the fashions, interesting facts, and select fiction, described it in the following manner:

“It is far from agreeable, having a kind of mossy or musty odour, analogous to Lycopodium; or, as some say, it smells of ‘old coats.'”[2]

Patchouli in the 1800s: Patchouli Oil, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Patchouli oil. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In India, in the 1800s, it was used “as an ingredient in fancy tobaccos, and as a perfume for the hair … [and] valued as a means of keeping insects from linen and woollen articles.”[3] Its old coat smell also filled muslin bag sachets to keep out destructive vermin. The Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser reported in 1855:

“Patchouly herb is extensively used for scenting drawers in which linen is kept; for this purpose it is best to powder the leaves and put them into muslin sacks, covered with silk, after the manner of the old-fashioned lavender bag. In this state it is very efficacious in preventing the clothes from being attacked by moths.”[4]

The Patchouli plant is a small bushy herb from the genus Pogostemon and produces pale pinkish-white flowers with patchouli oil produced from its leaves. It grows in warm tropical climates and thrives in hot weather but not in direct sunlight. The patchouli plant grows from two to three feet high and is a member of the mint family. One nineteenth-century description of it states:

“It has broadly egg-shaped stalked leaves from three to four inches long, with the edges slightly lobed and round-toothed. The small whitish flowers tinged with purple are formed in dense spikes at the ends of the branches and at the axils of the leaves. The leaves are covered, especially on their under surface, with a soft, pallid pubescence, which gives the plant a greyish appearance.”[5]  

Patchouli plant. Author’s collection.

The smell of patchouli was first introduced in England because of genuine Kashmir shawls that were extravagantly priced and extremely prized. They were warm woven shawls made from cashmere wool that bore the scent of patchouli. Everyone wanted one, and although the French had been able to imitate the shawl’s fabric, they could not imitate the smell until one man discovered the secret. Once the French began applying patchouli to their shawls, they then pawned off their shawls as real thing, as noted:

“We all remember the rage there was for this scent a short time ago; and how the whole world was delight with patchouli in essence and patchouli in powder, patchouli sachets and patchouli bouquets, till one grew almost to loath the very name of the sweet scent … and the test of the real Indian shawl used to be this strange odour, which had not then found its way into the Western world. The shawl could be imitated, but not the perfume; so that all knowing purchasers of true Cashmeres judged by the sense of smell as well as by those of touch and sight. Ant they could not be deceived in this. Now, with patchouli in the market, and with such splendid fabrics in our looms, who is to know the true Cashmere of the Indies from the spurious Cashmere of Paisley or Glasgow?”[6]

Kashmir Shawl Makers of 1867, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Kashmir shawl makers of 1867. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Patchouli cuttings were made at about six months when the plant had reached two to three feet in height. It was cut near the ground and one stalk was left to each bush. Two other cuttings happened to the plant afterwards, again in six-month intervals. Then the old roots of the plant were dug and up and new plants planted.

When patchouli was collected, it was prepared by being dried in the sun during the daytime. However, at night it was covered and it was also protected on the approach of rain. Care was also taken to not dry it too much as the leaves became brittle and crumbled into dust when packed into bales.

Popularity and wearing of shawls in nineteenth-century France. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When thoroughly dried patchouli was technically known as known as summitates patchouli. The dried tops were then sold to dealers or distillers and “imported into England in boxes of one hundred and ten pounds each, and half boxes.”[7] However, at one point, there was a scarcity of the patchouli because shippers refused to ship it as its “powerful odor” was often “communicated” to other goods. It seems that sometimes packers packed it improperly, which caused its smell to be transferred to whatever else was shipped.

Two kinds of oil could be created from the patchouli plant. One was green and the other a golden-brown. Both sold for the same price, but the green one was in higher demand.

“According to the statements of distillers, the brown oil is derived from the leaves of old plants and the green oil from the leaves of young plants. It would seem, however, that the color is dependent on the soil upon which the plants are grown.”[8]

Further information on the distilled product was provided by Ure’s Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines:

“When the patchouly-plant is distilled it yields a dense essential oil, to which it owes its odour; this dissolved in alcohol, in the proportion of 2 ounces to 1 gallon of spirit, forms the ‘essence of patchouly’ of the shops. The essential oil of patchouly is one of the least volatile of any known; hence it is one of the most persistent of perfumes from plants. Under the ordinary conditions, the essential oil of patchouly is a fluid, and will not congeal, expect by an excessively low temperature; but if the plant be distilled after it has been gathered several years, more than half the product will assume a crystallisable form, far less fragrant than the newer fluid essential oil, and would probably be quite odourless if repeatedly crystallised from alcohol.”[9]

The dried tops of the patchouli plant supposedly offered medicinal properties. For instance, it was claimed wealthy natives used the plants to stuff mattresses and pillows. They did this because it supposedly prevented disease and contagion and “prolonged life.” Although patchouli was considered medicinal, the excessive use of patchouli did not always make for a happy, healthy life. Indicative of this was how one nineteenth-century lady was seized with an overriding passion for it:

“Her linen, dresses and furniture were saturated with [the golden brown essential oil] … In a short time she lost her appetite and sleep. Her complexion got pale, and she became subject to nervous attacks.”[10]

Dried Patchouli, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Dried Patchouli, Courtesy of Wikipedia

There were also apparently other nineteenth century people with sensitive constitutions, and they suffered greatly when patchouli was introduced:

“[H]eadache and innumerable … affections … produced by the agreeable odors of flowers and other perfumes … even cases of poisoning are supposed to have occurred from inhaling the emanations from odoriferous plants [such as patchouli].”[11]

Patchouli was used primarily with other essential oils, notably otto of rose, and it remained popular for quite some time. Of its popularity in England it was noted:

“Less pure in scent, but more potent and more enduring than jasmine or tuberose, the leaves and steam of that Eastern herb, patchouli, are also of invaluable service to the perfumer. Indeed, we cannot understand how Broad Street got on at all in the days when patchouli was not.”[12]

However, by the late 1800s, it was a different story as there were reports that patchouli had fallen out of favor. The Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press reported on the most popular perfumes of the times and noted:

“Patchouli is quite gone out. The use of bergamot is restricted to middle-class mammas with very large families … but Cherry Blossom (which is said to be not only a very delicate but also a very durable perfume) is the odour par excellence of the fine fleur of society; and its presence has been remarked at the most patrician bazaars of the season, the stalls being, in many instances, decorated with the natural blossom.”[13]


  • [1] Titbits, 1,000 answers to 1,000 questions, a reprint of the first (-sixth) 1,000 questions in the Tit-bits inquiry column, with the replies thereto (London, 1884), p. 253.
  • [2] The Ladies’ Companion (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1856), p. 108.
  • [3] Titbits, p. 253.
  • [4] Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser, “Perfumery – Its History and Its Cost,” December 22, 1855, p. 7.
  • [5] Vick’s Monthly Magazine v. 8 (Rochester: James Vick, 1885), p. 247.
  • [6] C. Dickens, Household Words v. 15 (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1857), p. 239.
  • [7] Vick’s Monthly Magazine, p. 247.
  • [8] C. Deite and W. T. Brannt, A Practical Treatise on the Manufacture of Perfumery: Comprising Directions for Making All Kinds of Perfumes, Sachet Powders, Fumigating Materials, Dentrifices, Cosmetics, Etc., Etc., with a Full Account of the Volatile Oils, Balsams, Resins, and Other Natural and Artificial Perfume-substances, Including the Manufacture of Fruit Ethers, and Tests of Their Purity (Philadelphia: H.C. Baird, 1892), p. 131.
  • [9] A. Ure, R. Hunt and F. W. Rudler, Ure’s Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines: Containing a Clear Exposition of Their Principles and Practice (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1878), p. 516.
  • [10] Vick’s Monthly Magazine, p. 247.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] C. Dickens, p. 239.
  • [13] Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, “The Popular Perfume,” December 10, 1887, p. 2.

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