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"Libraries: The medicine chest of the soul."
Library at Thebes, inscription over the door
Plants and herbs have had both medicinal and perfumery uses for thousands of years; extraction of oils from the plant began in the still room.
Ancient Egyptian Pefumes
Many ancient cultures have created natural perfumes and oils from the aromatic oils of plants; the ancient Egyptians created a well known fragrance called Kyphi. However, plants were not just used for perfume; the Ebers Papyrus of ancient Egypt records the use of many plants that were used for medicinal purposes. For centuries, the Chinese, Indians and Arabs were all frequent users of natural aromatic plants for both medicinal and perfumery use too.
Ancient Roman Perfume Houses
Both the ancient Greeks and Romans were frequent users of natural essential oils and used them for many occasions, including bathing and banquets, as well as for medicinal purposes. In Pompeii, there is much evidence preserved in the lava of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. that suggests many herbs and plants were in evident use.
Roman plants and herbs include many common names such as rose (Rosa damascena), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). There are written records which show ingredients of some perfumes and oils which were in popular use at that time. Evidence has also been uncovered in the archaeological excavations of Pompeii of perfumery making houses or, in other words, early forms of still rooms.
How Early Perfumes and Plant Medicines Were Made
Early perfumes were made of pure natural ingredients unlike many of the synthetic brand perfumes today; flower petals, plant seeds and tree bark were combined with naturally fragrant resins and gums. The process of making perfumes altered over the years; early ancient perfumes were called unguents. Unguents were body perfumes and were made by immersing the plant material in a fat or oil base; this process was called enfleurage. Similarly, plant oils used for medicinal purposes were made in a similar way.
The European Still Room
The still room became commonplace in the sixteenth century and by the eighteenth century many large European country houses had their own still room. Aromatic plant material was prepared in the still room for cosmetic, medicinal and culinary uses, using the plants, flowers and herbs found on the country estate. The still room was firstly used for the making of remedies for medicinal and hygienic purposes and secondly used to make culinary oils and wines.
Natural Remedies and Perfumes Made in the Still Room
The still room was also used to make perfumes, soaps, candles, fragrant waters, home remedies, cosmetics, pot pourri and moth repellents; however, even fragrant perfumes had many beneficial medicinal properties due to the natural plant materials from which they were made. Many medicinal home remedies were made from common herbs and plants such as peppermint (Mentha piperita), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and rose (Rosa damascena).
It is only in recent history, about 150 years ago, that the emergence of synthetic perfumes eradicated the desire for natural perfumes made from essential oils of plants. Today's perfumes are composed almost entirely of synthetically engineered fragrances; however, many people are finding that they are experiencing an adverse reaction to a surplus of chemical material in perfumes and natural fragrances, made of pure essential oils, are starting to make a comeback.
Lawless, Julia, 2001 The Aromatherapy Garden UK: Kyle Cathie Ltd
Giordano, Carlo, Casale, Angelandrea, Profumi, Ungenti e Acconciature in Pompei Antica (Perfumes, Ungents and Hairstyles in Pompeii) Roma, Italia: Bardi Editore
This article was written by Sharon Falsetto and appeared in its original format on Suite101 as The History of the Aromatic Still Room
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