Matters of scent
: aesthetic expertise, industrial research and luxury production in the twentieth-century European and American perfume industry

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis focuses on the practice and pursuit of chemical knowledge and olfactory expertise in the perfume industry in Europe and the United States, 1900-1960, analysing the links between the chemical industry and luxury production. It is an attempt to take luxury production seriously, situated within a history of science and technology framework. In so doing, this thesis shows the significance of materials, experts, processes and places taken to be insignificant, affecting narratives in the history of chemistry and the history of technology by showing that the ‘old’ forms of expertise, materials and techniques persisted and were blended in with, but not subsumed by, the ‘new,’ even in processes of industrialisation and corporatisation.

Building on historiography which studied France and perfumers and using business archives, government reports, trade journals and a variety of published work, I show that the industry was concentrated in locations unexpected for perfumery such as Leipzig and London. I emphasise that the supplier companies were the main sources of invention and the most important link in the chain to manipulate and analyse materials, using old and new techniques even after the introduction of synthetic chemistry. The circulation of people, materials and tastes challenge the standard narratives of well-known centres of expertise and of industrial synthesis crushing natural raw materials industries, and so help to inform our understanding of changes in technology use.

With a foundation in Shapin’s concepts of the sciences of subjectivity and the aesthetic-industrial complex, I examined how sensual and aesthetic expertise was managed and organised in an industrial context in two British firms, becoming codified in ways which reflected firms’ own conceptions of quality, luxury and marketability. Studying perfumer training through the prism of a popular British textbook, I trace the industrialisation of the connoisseur and attempts to rationalise the perfumer’s craft, as fragrance production became an increasingly corporate activity oriented toward functional products.

Finally, by looking at the research connecting Otto Wallach, Leopold Ruzicka and Wallace Carothers, I place the study of perfume as a significant contributor to the development of organic chemistry research and the chemical industry, highlighting the importance of the industry’s financial support for research.
Date of Award1 Jul 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorDavid Edgerton (Supervisor)

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