Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Love is in the Air: Victorian Perfume Buttons ~ Valentine's Day Countdown Part 3.

Our love-hued feature on Perfume Shrine takes on the historical approach today exploring the delightful  tradition of the Victorians who were known for many elaborate rituals when it came to flirting, from the secret language of flowers to the flirtation routine which involved the cunning use of gloves, handkerchieves or a fan.

pic from etsy/thelostrooms via Pinterest

Although perfume lockets and scent-filled jewelry is making a resurgence among collectors and craftsmen and craftswomen who are very active online with dedicated eshops or boutiques on sites such as Etsy or Ebay, the lesser known tradition of perfumed buttons is one that has been passed by. It's also something which can be fairly easily replicated by anyone as a flirting trick, as it requires simply a few easily found buttons and some perfume at hand (and I'm sure that readers of this site are amply decked with the latter!).

Among functional little objects, such as the humble button, the Victorian and Edwardian women and craftsmen knew no boundaries in their imaginative prowess into creating patterns and styles that would both visually please (such as the portrait buttons, jet with lustre or the ones featuring French enamel on the high end or the calico ones on the lower end) or occasionally serve other, less obvious purposes. Victorian "perfume buttons" specifically involved fabric-covered buttons which were including pieces of velvet in their sewing pattern which were then dabbed with a woman's favorite perfume. This way the thickish fabric retained the scent, subtle but lingering and creating a hint of a fragrant wake.
The tradition took an especially poignant and romantic purpose when these perfume buttons were sewn under the lapel of a beau's jacket going off to fight on some far away land in dangerous trenches or in the American Civil War, or -less riskily- when he was traveling, so that the fragrance wafting from the chest upwards would remind him of the woman he had left behind. Since both women and men shared their fragrant innocuous blends that invariably revolved around violets, rose, lavender and such ~if we refer to polite society and not the demi-monde who favored heavier and more animalic-smelling scents ~ there was no social faux pas in having a man waft a woman's scent.

pic from etsy/alliesadornments via Pinterest

Another reason for the popularity of Victorian perfume buttons had a twofold explanation. The Victorians had a romanticized and slightly puritanical vision of the body, as an abode and sanctum, where no scent should actually touch the skin, therefore favoring the scenting of accessories such as handkerchieves, fans and the good ol' gloves (for more on that see PerfumeShrine's article on Scented Gloves and their History). Since some of the scented essences involved oily carriers, preceding as they did the modern era of ethanol dilution of powerful synthetics that bypass the problem of staining, the medium of carrying the perfume was important to be stain-proof. Dark velvet wasn't exactly immune to oily stains, but they didn't show as they would on the satiny silk and wool fabrics of dresses. Therefore a sort of decorative brass buttons with velvet fabric inside were created to accommodate and a vogue for long "necklaces" or decorative "edges" of buttons emerged. There were even sometimes crafted into pieces of jewelry, such as bracelets, necklaces or earrings, some of which survive in modern re-interpretations for the antique and vintage lover.

A tradition that should see a rebirth, if you ask me!

pic from etsy/alliesadornments via Pinterest


  1. As history delights me more and more (and is such a head trip, why does no one mention this?), this post was great fun! I'm so intrigued by perspectives on the body through time as well as the guiding influence of class structure. With me love of dense animalic perfumes, I know where I'd belong! But Jicky is in that group, so I think I'm ok when I travel backward in time ;)

  2. I want some of these! I knew about perfume lockets and brooches but not buttons. They're beautiful.

  3. Laurels22:56

    I'd never heard of perfumed buttons either. How resourceful they had to be! (I wonder if the less {ahem} ladylike wore perfume on their skin, when the occasion called for it.)

  4. Miss Heliotrope05:28

    That would be fun - although could require a heap of buttons & possibly re-sewing for those of us with in the shocking position of having more than one favorite scent.

    It does occur to me, however, that the enterprising gentleman, with perhaps more than one such scented lady friend, would benefit by their all sharing the same perfume...& that more hidden relationships again would be well served too.

  5. Was just looking up what I called 'Button Boxes" today, and found they are called 'hanky, lingerie, or boudoir boxes. Mine are filled with buttons from the turn of the century. Once had some earrings carved out of redwood, with a rose on the redwood, like a cameo. Don't know if redwood is as scented as sandalwood. Wonder where they went?

  6. Jared,

    thanks for saying so. Yeah, history is totally fascinating and no one tells you so at school, right? It's especially fine because it's different in different sources, so one is on a constant (and a constantly changing) landscape of perceptions and interpretations. :-)

    I think that your choice of Jicky is a might fine one which would be nicely poised between the two worlds: the lavender and the civet ones. ;-)

  7. R,

    aren't they? I was especially joyous to see that crafty people have turned them into actual pieces of jewelry, so one doesn't even need to sew them on. They can put on as changing accessories.

  8. L,

    no wonder, as these never got a mention in the perfume community (though they're very well known among the button collecting and chronicling community). A little bit of digging was in order.

    The demi-monde was definitely no hesitant to put some fragrance on the skin, because the skin was their modicum of earning their upkeep, if you get my drift. ;-)

  9. MH,

    indeed and this is why I believe that it is ingenious to take hold of some of these and fashion them into jewels (as the pics show), so that one wouldn't need to sew and resew and change the buttons etc. They'd just change the bracelet of the buttons or the button-belt etc. It would require more than one for us perfume collectors, that's true enough!

    As to the gentlemen, I wonder whether the habit of some men to choose the same scent of lady of the house and mistress on the side has to do with the practicality of the matter more than the idleness of shopping. It certainly wouldn't create unwanted questions!

  10. N,

    very interesting information. I don't know whether redwood is as fragrant as sandalwood, could it be that it refers to rosewood? That is fragrant indeed.
    Your collection sounds beautiful. Do rummage through the house for them, as you can see they can be turned into a beautiful and unique accessory.

  11. I have rummaged through that button box so much over 40 years that the only thing left are the small bone buttons for underwear. And my sister made black velvet Christmas stockings with old buttons and old pins. I got a stocking out of it, but not many buttons returned, alas. I am sure they have gone to a better home on her stockings.

  12. Maria15:24

    My first thought was... A few centuries earlier sewing a smelly thing to somebody else's clothes could get you accused of witchcraft, no? Or another Victorian vogue - brooches and rings made of hair... I guess we have to say, on n'arrête pas le progrès! :D

  13. N,

    it sounds like they saw good use, then! That's good to know. :-)

  14. Maria,

    ha, absolutely true! :-D

    I think the Victorians had some creepy (and creepy cool) habits and rituals, which are fascinating to explore. (What about their photographing dead people, children especially?)

    But yes, le progres est difficile d'arreter! (excuse the lack of accents)


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