Please cite as:
DURARE Project (Marjolijn Bol, Jan van Daal, Grace Kim-Butler, and Henrike Scholten). "Making Scents of the Past: A Collaboration Between Het Geheugen van Geur and DURARE to Reconstruct a Seventeenth-Century Scent." Last updated 9 May 2022. Accessed 9 May 2022. https://story.durare.eu/making-scents-of-the-past.
Is it possible to reconstruct the scents of the past? Why should we try? Just as one plays music to bring historical scores to life, following historical recipes for scents connects us to the practices of the fragrance makers who left them behind. In the ArtLab of Utrecht University, we can trace a scent long dissipated while precipitating research questions for the present.
The DURARE team collaborated with researchers from Het Geheugen van Geur to reconstruct a historical "fragrant water" from a seventeenth-century recipe. We used hands-on experimentation to release the fragrance from its text. By bringing it to our noses, we open up something ephemeral for historical study.
Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) was a Dutch diplomat, painter, poet, scientist, composer, and father to five children, one of whom grew up to be the scientist Christiaan Huygens. It is less well known that he was also an avid fragrance maker. Among his writings on topics ranging from medicine to paints, a collection of over 150 recipes for a variety of scented substances has recently been discovered.
Historian Ineke Huysman (Huygens ING/NL Lab) warns us that "the ingredients in these aromatic compositions do not necessarily produce a concoction that our present-day noses would find pleasant."
One recipe titled "Fragrant water from my mother" seemed particularly interesting to reconstruct. The recipe stands out because it is personal, evoking Huygens's relationship with his mother, Susanna Hoefnagel. Their correspondence reveals that they were close.
The ArtLab at Utrecht University is a space where humanities and scientific research intersect. A well-equipped and controlled lab environment allows us to try and follow Huygens's recipe and reconstruct his "fragrant water." But, just like a musical score or a cooking recipe, there is much unsaid and plenty of room for interpretation.
Huygens's recipe lists eight ingredients. It includes plants commonly found today, such as fresh lavender, which we retrieved from a private garden and a local florist, and dried cinnamon sticks, which we found in a grocery store. A key ingredient—fresh Damask rose petals—was harvested from the gardens of Hofwijck, Huygens's historical estate (now a museum) in Voorburg near The Hague.
Huygens's recipe involves distilling a mixture of these plant materials steeped in rainwater to create his "fragrant water," which we call a hydrosol today. Distillation is the process of separating the components of a liquid mixture through evaporation and condensation. In other words, a hydrosol is a mixture of essential oils and water-soluble components that have been distilled from plant materials.
Seventeenth-century Dutch apothecaries sold such hydrosols in many varieties for medical, cosmetic, and scenting purposes. This is the first page of the section on distilled waters in the 1659 Pharmacopoea Hagiensis. It lists, among others, the "waters" of black cherries (Cerasorum nigrorum), roses (Rosarum), and sage (Salviae). These would have been sold by apothecaries in The Hague around the time Huygens composed his recipes, but of course they would not have carried the scent bearing the memory of his mother.
While gathering the different materials for our experiment, questions arose about the limits of our reconstruction. Are our modern-day plants comparable to those found in the seventeenth century? Of the different species of lavender, which one would Huygens have most likely used? What types of cinnamon were being imported to the Netherlands in the seventeenth century?
The availability of many of Huygens's ingredients also depends on the season. This means that his "fragrant water" could only be made during a certain time of the year. When is the best time to pick the most fragrant rose petals or lavender? How soon after harvesting should the plant materials be used? Trying to reconstruct Huygens's recipe sparked a conversation about the temporal constraints that governed his work.
Once we chose our plant materials, we steeped them in water as Huygens prescribes:
One will cut the fresh herbs, pound the dry ones roughly and set them to steep together in a pint of rainwater for the duration of 24 hours, thereafter distill[ed] until the materials are dry.
An important piece of equipment for our reconstruction was this copper alembic, which is similar to what Huygens himself would have used for distillation. The large chamber to the left is filled with the mixture of steeped plant matter and water. It is then placed on top of a hotplate so that the mixture can be heated safely and stably (though Huygens would have used a fire). As the mixture boils, the water and volatile plant components evaporate. The vapor travels up and then down the tube to the right. This type of distillation is known as "water distillation," and it is the oldest method of producing hydrosol.
The vapor travels through the coils, which are cooled by a constant stream of water. In the coils, the vapor condenses into drops of hydrosol that we capture in glass bottles.
This video shows the hydrosol as it is being collected in a glass beaker (at 20x magnification). The hydrosol contains droplets of fragrant essential oil. You can see these droplets floating at the surface.
Over time, the small amounts of essential oil gather at the surface like a film and can be siphoned out carefully.
A bouquet of flowers withers in the space of days, weeks at most, but hydrosols can keep for many months. Their exact shelf life depends on several factors, including the types of plants used, the conditions under which they were distilled (hygiene is especially important), and how they are stored (preferably in a dark and cool place).
Since acidic hydrosols have longer shelf lives, we also measured their pH. We found that all our batches were slightly acidic, with a pH of about 5. This means that our hydrosol could have a shelf life of up to two years!
A little durability would have helped Huygens to share his scents with friends and acquaintances across Europe through his correspondence. To find out what today's perfumers think of Huygens's "fragrant water," we sent a bottle of hydrosol to Paris. Indeed, even now, sharing a scent across long distances requires physically transporting it.
We also went to Paris ourselves to share our scent with perfumers there. Serendipitously, we found an organic apothecary that the owners had named "Huygens" when they learned that their apothecary is on the same street as the former home of Christiaan, Huygens's famous son. Daan Sins of Huygens Paris, in collaboration with Marypierre Julien, a perfumer at the fragrance company Givaudan, produced a scent based on our hydrosol.
Susanna—and her fragrance—may be out of reach in many ways. Historical reconstructions are informed approximations of the past. Yet the practice of executing Huygens's recipe in the present day can be an entry point for questions about seventeenth-century olfactory experiences:
The ArtLab filled with a sweet and spicy fragrance—a fragrance that likely reminded Huygens of his mother. Are we smelling what he would have smelled? For us, our experiments with Huygens's recipe sharpened our interrogation of the relationship between ephemerality and durability: lives that pass while their memories remain buried in an archive; plants that wither within the season while their species survive for centuries; scents that dissipate but are interpreted through the use of modern technologies by curious historians and perfumers.
In making scents from the past, we brought laboratory practice to history and engaged history with our noses.
- Astrid van Nes (Huygens' Hofwijck).
- Maureen van Dam (Stichting Brein in Beeld).
- Marypierre Julien (Givaudan).
- Daan Sins (Huygens Paris).
- With special thanks to Geeske Bisschop and Jeffrey Oostra.
For Huygens's correspondence online, see this database.
For a discussion of Huygens's perfume recipes, see Ineke Huysman, "Constantijn Huygens: amateur-parfumeur," pp. 108-114. In Vervlogen - Geuren in kleuren (Zwolle: Uitgeverij Waanders, 2021).