A Brief History Of Perfume & The Rise Of Men’s Colognes In The 20th Century

A Brief History Of Perfume & The Rise Of Men’s Colognes In The 20th Century2018-09-10T11:55:25+00:00

1811 jean marie farina eau de cologneHumanity has been making perfumes as long as it has been writing history. Fragrances today are used as sensual ornaments that we apply to our skins. If you go back far enough, fragrances were actually practical or an absolute necessity.

Many were used to compensate for bad hygiene whilst others had sanitary functions. Fragrances were often perceived as deeply spiritual and were associated with religious ceremonies.

Fragrances for men are a relatively new concept compared to the long history of perfume. In fact, for a very long time perfume was a perfectly unisex terminology applied to any fragrance. It’s only been since the emergence of 20th Century social insecurities that masculine needed self-assertion by using other terms to describe their fragrances.

In this guide, you will discover the long history of perfumery as well as the relatively short story of men’s fragrances in the 20th Century. Keep scrolling to read it all or jump straight to a section that interests you the most:

A Brief History Of Fragrances

ancient egyptian perfume oil extractionFirstly, we often credit the Ancient Egyptians with its origins. Indeed, they invented glass and were the first to store perfumes in bottles. The Egyptians would notably use fragrances for ceremonies and burials.

However, this extended to daily wear among the elite. Fragrances were usually composed of myrrh, frankincense and native flowers such as lily and rose. The practice certainly caught on and was adopted by the Persians.

Meanwhile, the Ancient Greeks and Romans refined perfumery into an art-form. After all, the word “perfume” derives from the Latin meaning “through smoke”.

Similarly, the Romans even developed aftershave, which was an antiseptic and anaesthetic concoction made with medicinal herbs and spices.  In 2004, archaeologists in Cyprus unearthed a 4000 year-old Bronze Age perfume factory suggesting that fragrances were already big business.

Fragrances in The Middle East & Beyond

Ernst Rodolphe - The Perfume MakerThe Middle East was probably the most significant geographical area for perfumery. Babylonian Mesopotamia was an empire that linked the Mediterranean Sea with the Persian Gulf through most of modern-day Iraq, Turkey and Syria.

In fact, the world’s first recorded chemist was a woman called Tapputi who worked at the Mesopotamian Royal Palace around 1200 BC. She notably developed advanced perfumery techniques with distillation, cold enfleurage, tincture and solvents.

However, the rise of Christianity saw the use of perfumes fall. Nevertheless, the Arabs preserved it for daily wear and practising religion. Much later between the 6th and 10th centuries, Islam innovated perfume culture with steam distillation techniques and new raw materials. Many flowers and citrus fruits were native to the region. Meanwhile, trade would consequently facilitate access to spices, resins, herbs and wood.

However, the Indians also have a long perfumery history that predates some middle eastern techniques. Archaeologists discovered terracotta distillation equipment in the Indus Valley that was carbon dated to 3000 BC. Therefore, this suggests that essential oil extraction by distillation had been discovered by the Indus civilisation long before their neighbours.

Perfumery In Western Europe

Renaissance essential oil distillation courtesy of wellcome imagesFinally, the Europeans eventually mastered perfumery largely thanks to the Arabic influence. In 14th-Century, Queen Elisabeth of Hungary commissioned the first modern perfume. Although it was first known as Eau de Hongrie (Hungary Water), it soon became the blueprint for eau de toilette.

In due time, the fragrance industry blossomed between the 14th and 16th Centuries. The Renaissance witnessed perfumery spread across Europe and notably settled in France.

Meanwhile in 1709, a unique concoction was invented by Italian living in Germany. Giovanni Maria Farina named his creation Kölnisch Wasser (Cologne water) after his new hometown.

However, perfume served a largely sanitary purpose. The term “Eau de Toilette” derives from an old French term for personal grooming, which essentially means “cleaning water”.

Queen Elizabeth I of England hated bad smells and had all public places scented with perfume. Likewise, Louis XV’s 18th Century royal court was known as “la cour parfumée”. In summary, fragrances were used to hide bad smells like body odour.

A New Age of Perfumery Dawns

fougère royale houbigant 1920s advertFinally, it was the Industrial Revolution that changed the came forever and brought about modern perfumery.

Around this period, particular statesmen were known for their penchants for fragrances. Napoleon Bonaparte had a standing order of 50 bottles of eau de cologne per month from Chardin, which he used after bathing. Some years later in 1850, Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria Hungary had an exclusive sandalwood fragrance made for him by the house of Creed.

A golden age of scientific discovery brought about the dawn of synthetic aromatic compounds and new extraction techniques.

For example, the very first fougère fragrance was created by Jean-François Houbigant in 1882. Named Fougère Royale, it was the first to feature coumarin by synthetically isolating the particles found in tonka beans.

As a result, fragrances became cheaper to make and buy. Moreover, they were better preserved allowing large quantities to be shipped around the world. With advances in hygiene, fragrances today are widely used as an aesthetic and sensual experience.

What Is The History Of Men’s Fragrances?

caron pour homme 1934 advertIn 1934, Caron founder Ernest Daltroff, created the very first fragrance for men. He simply named it “Pour Un Homme” (For A Man) and it featured an accord of lavender and vanilla over a musky amber and cedar wood base.

Until this moment, men could only really choose between traditionally unisex eau de cologne or English lavenders. Creed’s offerings were usually exclusive commissions from royalty. Alternatively, Acqua di Parma Colonia was a fragrance devised for scenting handkerchiefs rather than skin.

Otherwise, they would venture into a largely feminine-oriented industry or even forego fragrances altogether. Nevertheless, aftershaves such as Aqua Velva had existed since 1917 or indeed earlier. However, their function was largely sanitary and medicinal.

Pour Un Homme de Caron was wildly successfully and Daltroff basically created an entirely new market. Fragrances for men flourished.

In 1937, the Shulton Company redeveloped their Early American Old Spice fragrance for women for the Christmas market. In 1938, they introduced Old Spice, which is still one of today’s most successful colognes for men.

Men’s Colognes After The Second World War

vintage dior eau sauvage posterMen’s fragrances grew across post-war Europe and America during the baby boom. With developing hygiene, aftershave brands realised that their largely sanitary and medicinal function become obsolete. Therefore, many left the shaving culture and transitioned towards new identities as colognes or fragrances.

In 1949, the house of Dana created English Leather based on MEM’s 1930’s formula for Russian Leather. Some years later in 1955, Chanel released Pour Monsieur. In 1959, German house Mäurer & Wirtz, notably known for their 4711 eau de cologne, launched Tabac Original.

The 1960s witnessed the birth of new and exciting French fragrances. Fabergé’s Brut Pour Homme (1964), Lancôme Balafre (1967) and Christian Dior’s Eau Sauvage (1966) were the most prominent. New men’s colognes emerged abroad such as Estée Lauder’s Aramis (1964), Dana’s British Sterling (1965) and Hai Karate (1967).

The Rise Of Designer Fragrances For Men

Paco Rabanne Pour Homme 1973 advertAt this point in time, men’s fragrances had carved itself a tangible identity. Although all perfumes by definition, the vocabulary was altogether different. Men’s fragrances appropriated “cologne” as their distinctive definition and distanced themselves from the feminine connotations of “perfume”.

Furthermore, advancements in synthetic aromatics the following decade provoked men’s fragrances to truly explode as a consumer market. Most resulting concoctions featured strongly aromatic fougère themes that occasionally edged towards orientals.

Following Christian Dior and Chanel, other fashion designers toyed with the prestige of introducing a men’s cologne. The 1970s saw designers release fragrances including Paco Rabanne Pour Homme (1973), Gucci Pour Homme (1976)  Ralph Lauren Polo in 1978. Meanwhile, perfumer Azzaro launched their own Pour Homme in 1978.

Competing luxury designer houses soon rushed for a piece of the market and the 1980s become a volatile but exciting period. Firstly, Calvin Klein introduced Calvin in 1981. Likewise, Giorgio Armani released Pour Homme (1984) while Hugo Boss launched Number One (1985).

Other major game changers to the market were Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir (1982) and Davidoff Cool Water (1988).

Finally, the 1990s saw a diversification of the market as the remaining major designer brands released their first men’s fragrance.

However, their interpretations were a fresher approach compared to the aromatic fougères that dominated the market. For example, Kenzo Pour Homme (1991) was an aromatic aquatic. Alternatively, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Le Male (1996) was an oriental fragrance with notable fresh mint notes.

Other major newcomers to men’s fragrances emerged including L’eau d’Issey Pour Homme (1994), Thierry Mugler A*Men (1996) and Bvlgari Pour Homme (1996). Chanel rounded off the century in 1999 with their game-changing Allure Homme.

Men’s Fragrances In The 21st Century

With increasing pedigree from established brands or new houses emerging in the industry, the market is ever-changing. In 2006, Hermès revitalised the market with the introduction of Terre d’Hermès. Creed modernised its range with the release of the wildly successful Aventus in 2010. The dawn 21st Century has seen fragrances as a staple part of consumerism with new colognes released on an almost rhythmic daily basis.

Men’s colognes are no longer limited to conventionally masculine oriental of fougère notes. Furthermore, many comparatively young houses are turned back to unisex fragrances fashionably labelled as gender benders.

Finally, with new advances in molecule extraction from natural sources, a Renaissance in natural fragrances created through technologically advanced means is soon upon us.

Timeline of Men’s Fragrances

19th Century Men’s Fragrances

Although these predate Caron Pour Un Homme,  note that they were solely marketed towards men at the time. For instance, Creed Santal Imperial was exclusively made for the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

  • 1850: Creed Santal Imperial
  • 1872: Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet
  • 1880: Geo F. Trumper Extract Of Limes

20th Century Men’s Fragrances

Don’t want to scroll through all of these? Check out our recommendations of the very best men’s classic and traditional colognes!

giorgio armani pour homme 1984 advert

Fragrances that predate Caron Pour Homme are chiefly aftershaves. However, as mentioned above, Acqua di Parma Colonia, was a fragrance destined to scent men’s handkerchiefs.

  • 1908: Proraso [Aftershave]
  • 1916: Acqua di Parma Colonia
  • 1917: Aqua Velva [Aftershave]
  • 1931: Mennen Skin Bracer [Aftershave]
  • 1934: Pour Un Homme de Caron
  • 1934: Dunhill For Men
  • 1938: Old Spice
  • 1949: English Leather
  • 1951: Floris No89
  • 1955: Chanel Pour Monsieur
  • 1959: Tabac Original
  • 1961: Guerlain Vetiver
  • 1964: Fabergé Brut Pour Homme
  • 1964: Estée Lauder Aramis
  • 1965: Dana British Sterling
  • 1966: Christian Dior’s Eau Sauvage
  • 1967: Lancôme Balafre
  • 1967: Hai Karate
  • jean paul gaultier le male 1997 advert1973: Paco Rabanne Pour Homme
  • 1974: Givenchy Gentleman
  • 1976: Gucci Pour Homme
  • 1978: Ralph Lauren Polo
  • 1978: Azzaro Pour Homme
  • 1981: Calvin Klein Calvin
  • 1981: Coty Stetson
  • 1982: Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir
  • 1984: Giorgio Armani Pour Homme
  • 1985: Hugo Boss Number One
  • 1985: Annick Goutal Sables
  • 1988: Davidoff Cool Water
  • 1989: Joop! Homme
  • 1990: Cerruti 1881 Men
  • 1991: Kenzo Pour Homme
  • 1994: L’eau d’Issey Pour Homme
  • 1995: Jean-Paul Gaultier Le Male
  • 1996: Thierry Mugler A*Men
  • 1996: Bvlgari Pour Homme
  • 1999: Chanel Allure Homme

Now that you have read all about the history of men’s fragrances, you can learn about fragrance families too. Alternatively learn how to test fragrances to put your knowledge to practical usage.


  1. Marc Sandall January 7, 2018 at 8:46 pm - Reply

    The author seems to have forgot about George Washington’s fave was No. 7 in 1770s. How could the first men’s cologne be made in 1934?

    • Charles-Philippe January 8, 2018 at 12:24 pm - Reply

      Hi Marc,

      Indeed, I overlooked Caswell-Massey’s Number Six Cologne, which was supposedly Washington’s favourite. However, like the majority of colognes of the era, it wasn’t gendered and sold to both men and women alike. In those days, people would choose fragrances that they personally enjoyed rather than that what was labelled for them to wear.

      Although men generally had their own preferences, the products they tended to enjoy usually shared the same shelves as those popular among women. Penhaligon’s typical store layout today is one of the best examples of what it would have been like in that era.

      It wasn’t really until 1934 with Ernest Daltroff’s release of Caron Pour Un Homme that specific fragrances became consciously marketed and labelled for men. This is arguably what started the distinctive divide between fragrances for men and women that evolved over time into the industry that we see today.

      I hope that this answers your question!



  2. Harvey C June 25, 2018 at 4:35 am - Reply

    Love the timeline! Any must-have recommendations??

    • Charles-Philippe June 25, 2018 at 6:08 am - Reply

      Hi Harvey!

      Where to begin! I think that each of these fragrances are significant and should be part of a true fraghead’s collection. My personal favourites are Pour Un Homme de Caron and Paco Rabanne Pour Homme. Both are green fragrances and great for the spring or summer.

      However, if you want something classic and representative of their eras, consider also Dunhill For Men, Aramis, Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir and Jean-Paul Gaulthier Le Male.



      • Mike July 5, 2018 at 3:16 am - Reply

        Paco Rabanne was so formulated it’s a different scent now

        • Charles-Philippe July 5, 2018 at 4:30 am - Reply

          I don’t think it’s been reformulated as much as you say. Although it’s heavier on the Tonka Bean, according to my grandfather who’s been wearing it since it came out in 1973, it’s very loyal to the original composition.

          You’ll have to forgive my stiff and stilted performance in that video I’ve linked up there, it was my first one for Bespoke Unit!

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