#Book Club – Microhistories – ‘Perfume’

Microhistory is the “intensive historical investigation of a well-defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual)” (stolen from Wikipedia)


There has been quite a few books popping up recently that focus in on a small object or event, and then look at a larger picture in history. Its a refreshing perspective on the writing of history books, and in many ways makes vast histories of people and events more accessible. And I’m absolutely addicted to them.

As a new feature of this blog, I’m going to read and give short reviews of a few of these microhistories, beginning with ‘Perfume: A Century of Scents’ by Lizzie Ostrom (2015).

Perfume: A Century of Scents


The human ability to smell is not perhaps at the forefront of the list when we think about our most important human senses. Yet, smell is everywhere, and our brains are capable of storing and remembering around 10,000 various smells (according to the BBC…). Even more so, our brains constantly connect smells and scents with memories, which is why we can get all nostalgic when we catch a whiff of something, even if you can’t quite place where you’d ‘sniffed’ it before. Such is like the memories given to us by scents in the form of perfumes. Perfume is one of those things in the modern world that we often take for granted. Many of us wear it daily, or have that one bottle applied religiously on special occasions, it has become part and parcel of getting ourselves ready for life. It is because it is such an everyday thing that it is easy to forget that the wearing of scent has been around for centuries, if not millennia. Nobody would blame you if you thought there couldn’t be a rich cultural history attached to this. But as Lizzie herself comments in the first paragraph:

Scent has radiated from the the collars of politicians as they stand on the steps triumphant, and when they leave, hounded and broken. It has been dabbed on by performers getting into character  for their next role. And it has been present – even playing a supporting or confidence boosting role – in negotiations, tussles, crimes, parties, productions and seductions.


Lizzie, in this wonderfully glitzy hardback, reflects upon the last 100 years of perfume wearing by delving into exactly 100 different scents, popular in their time. She really captures the feel and the impact of each scent, without flapping about trying to convey the actual smell, seeing as they are, in fact, long gone. Its written in an entirely accessible way, and by no means do you have to be a history buff to follow it.

I think the best way for me to explain this book is to give you a little sniff of it:


Mouchoir de Monsieur by Guerlain, 1904. (p.22-23)

I thought this would be a great example from the book to illustrate whats included, not just women’s scents!

Lizzie tells us that this one by Guerlain was what was known as a ‘handkerchief’ scent. Scents in this period would often be daubed onto pieces of cloth or clothing, rather than onto the skin. This was designed to ward off the ‘bad airs’  or revive someone with the flick of your handkerchief. But, as Lizzie explains, these scents weren’t just meant to be strong and powerful, like Dettol, they were designed by expert perfumers.

Lizzie explains that this particular perfume’s cultural history ties in with the Flaneurs. This was a name given to certain men of leisure, men who wandered about towns from cafe, to  theatre, to park, seeking philosophical enlightenment (probably unsuccessfully). A little like a rich bohemian, perhaps. Finally, somehow Lizzie has been able to track down how this perfume actually smelt. She describes it as a “balance between creamy-smelling coumarin and campherous lavender” with some “typical animalic dirtiness beneath” to mimic the urban smells of the Flaneur’s city.

I quite like to imagine this book as a sort of tour-de-force exhibition on the history of perfume. In fact it would make a great physical exhibition, say, at the V&A. But for now we have Lizzie’s book, and I can only hope someone who reads this will give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.

Available at: 


Amazon UK

The next #BookClub microhistory will be ‘The Button Box’ by Lynn Knight.




The Wipers Times

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. A battle which, in the first day alone, injured 60,000 men and wounded/killed more than 1 million soldiers in just a few months. We find it hard to truly get our heads around the horror experienced by these men, especially when statistics, artifacts, and photographs are all we have now. But there is something that we still have that gives an insight to those experiences, a perspective that is both brutal and absolutely hilarious. The Wipers Times.

Capt. F J Roberts, M.C

This is Capt. F. J. Roberts, M.C. He was part of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters, and stationed in Ypres Salient at the front line. Early on in 1916, Roberts and his soldiers (I’ll get to the names later on) stumbled across a printing press, apparently abandoned by a Belgian, forced to flee from his building. It was a brilliant stroke of luck that there was a sergeant in the Foresters who happened to be a printer in civilian life, and thus The Wipers Times was born.

(‘Wipers’ after the Tommy slang for ‘Ypres’)

Other contributors to the paper were Lieutenant J. H. Person DSO MC, Artilleryman Gilbert Frankau, and E. J. Couzens contributed brilliant engravings of a platoon commander that became the paper’s motif.

The Wipers Times, in essence, was a home-grown satirical magazine rather like today’s Private Eye. In fact, Ian Hislop has himself done a huge amount for pushing this piece of WWI history into the public eye, and even co-wrote BBC drama The Wipers Times in 2013. Yet I still believe this wonderful section of WWI history isn’t talked about quite enough as it deserves.

A group of soldiers reading the Wipers Times, circa 1916

The first edition was published on Saturday 12th February 1916, with 100 copies printed and distributed. Now whilst that doesn’t sound a lot, these guys were printing with limited resources, and under dangerous conditions. Plus, copies would have been read aloud communally and passed from solider to soldier. The Wipers Times was a lighthearted approach to the daily horrors of Ypres. It is also interesting to note that the paper’s name changed in accordance to the movements of the regiment, at times being the “New Church Times” and “The Kemmel Times” etc., which only fueled the amusement at their unrelenting determination to publish.

The content of this magazine was a mish-mash of amusing faux adverts, love-lorn letters to agony aunts, bets, editorials, programmes at ‘Cloth Hall’, and submissions from everyday soldiers. Before I get to the hilariously satirical material in Wipers, I just want to highlight the importance of those submissions by soldiers. Many of those submissions were poetry, often naive and overtly passionate, by amateur poets who craved an output for their strained emotions.

No. 2: Vol. 1 – 26th February 1916

“Now hope lies buried, all that once could give a satisfaction, or could soothe the eye, with signs of work, which, being done, would help those other who with jar of rum did hasten about their nightly duty in the line.”

Although the paper teased the infantry about their incessant poetry, “We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry.” it was in-fact a genius way to get men talking about their experiences, and also letting those at home know, as a small facsimile of copies was published as soon as 1918. This was an important aspect in a time where news from the front was often ‘sugar coated’,  a fact that The Wipers Times often satirized:

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No. 2 Vol. 1 – 26th February 1916

“By Belary Helloc.” was a satirical feature of the paper. It was a crude swipe at the war commentator, Hilaire Belloc, who frequently wrote about WWI in the Land and Water magazine. His articles and political views were not met with widespread agreement from soldiers, his writing could be impersonal, cold, and less than realistic in a time where the reality was destroying lives.

Another feature that I truly love is the ‘Things we want to know’ list in each paper. This part was not meant for outsiders, it was designed to boost morale by shared experiences, and wasn’t afraid to be hilariously rude. For example,

  • “The most pop’lar tree in Belgium”
  • “The price of second-hand Flammenwerfer”
  • “Who leads in Kirchner collections” (‘kirchner’ a euphemism for local brothels)
  • “Who is it that makes an infernal din on a horn at 2am???”
  • “The name of the subaltern who told the Major that to take his wife to Nottingham Goose Fair was like taking a sandwich to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet.”

Finally, I have to mention the spoof diaries of ‘Lieut. Samuel Pepys’ entitled ‘Our Diary’ (again with the shared-experience thing) and amusingly describes the day-to-day life of a lieutenant, such as rum-drinking and brothel-attending. The lightheartedness and pomposity of the ‘diary’ almost takes away the drudgery and hurt caused by daily life. However, the idea is a product of the better educated editors (like much of the paper is), and I hope that it wasn’t lost on the majority of working class soldiers.

If you want to find out more, and read The Wipers Times for yourself, Conway have published a complete book of every edition of the paper.


WW – Margaret Fountaine, Lepidopterist extraordinaire


LepidopteristNoun: A person who collects or studies butterflies and moths.

Margaret Fountaine, Victorian lady, and a serious lover of butterflies. Margaret spent the best part of her lifetime collecting and creating illustrated guides to her vast collection of butterflies. She was part of the Victorian craze for collecting and cataloguing natural history, but few men or women came close to her obsession. Many historians love to portray Margaret’s hobby as a convenient way to travel and escape domestic duties, there may be truth to that, but the primary fact is that she just LOVED these winged creatures.

In 1978 a trunk, left by Margaret, was opened after one hundred years according to her instructions. Inside this trunk were twelve volumes of her personal diaries, from aged 15 to her death in 1940. Having literature alongside entomology collections isn’t rare, but the amount of detail in her diaries and collections are of outstanding quality. She isn’t a lady to be ignored.

Some writer has said (I think it is Bulmer Lytton[6]) that “a woman’s whole life is a history of the affections – the heart is her world.” And indeed, there is alas!

Margaret wrote this note to go with her diaries, presumably not too long before her death, in regards to her ill-fated infatuation with a man named Septimus Hewson. Yet, I think the quote says the same for her passion for lepidopertry – it was in her heart. Just because a Victorian woman chose to travel & study rather than marry does not mean her life went unfulfilled. In fact, Margaret writes fondly of her close companion, Charles Neimy,

whose love and friendship for me endured for a period of no less than 27 years, ending only with his death, I felt a deep devotion and true affection; and certainly the most interesting part of my life was spent with him.

In Charles, Margaret found a perfect unromantic but not dispassionate person to share her hobby and life with. Maybe today we would consider them soul-mates. But that’s enough of the men, back to Margaret.

Margaret was fortunately fairly comfortably off, which allowed her to travel across the globe for rare specimens. In fact, she managed to hop around 60+ countries, across 6 continents, in a time where women did not travel as freely as perhaps men did, and especially when unaccompanied by a husband. Her diaries from these study trips thus add to the growing plethora of women’s travel writing, a genre that provides us with an insight to the freedom of movement for oppressed women and the experiences that came with it.

As well as her diary entries, Margaret also wrote numerous papers for entomology publications, helping to further the knowledge and interest surrounding butterflies. Her diaries and her outstanding collection of around 22,000 butterflies are kept in the Fountaine-Neimy collection at Castle Museum, Norwich. Her beautifully illustrated entomological sketchbooks are kept at the National History Museum in London.


WW: Princess Sophia the Suffragette


I don’t know how many of you have seen the film Suffragette staring Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, and various other very famous very white actresses, but there’s no doubt many people worldwide have done. Before I go into this I want to say that I definitely enjoyed the film, it was visually great, script was quite good, acting excellent, and it focused upon the working class suffragettes. But they were all white. Now, it is most likely that white British women were the majority, yet there seems to be an abyss where all suffragettes of colour disappear into. I don’t want to go into a fully blown debate on whether or not Suffragette was a product of ‘Hollywood’ white-washing, but I do want to tell you about Princess Sophia.

Sophia Duleep Singh campaigning

Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of the last king of the Sikh Empire, Maharaja Duleep Singh. Her father was close to Queen Victoria, she had introduced the princess as a débutante, and the family had a respected standing within the British royalty. We know that there were plenty of well off and middle class white suffragettes within the movement, but less is discussed about the participation of Indian women from the Empire. Seeing as the British Empire grew to a ridiculous scale, I almost feel a duty to these ‘other’ suffragettes to follow up their stories and contributions.

Sophia was not the only Indian suffragette. An Indian women’s group took part in the 1911 coronation procession of 60,000 suffragettes.¹

Ada Wright with Police on Black Friday.

Princess Sophia was not cautious of the effect of her suffragette status upon her royal status, and vice versa. Quite the opposite in fact. In 1910 she led a demonstration alongside the very Mrs Pankhurst as a reaction to the rejection of the Conciliation Bills, which would have given the right to vote to over 1,000,500 wealthier women. It would have been a parliamentary start to female equality. To those unfamiliar with this event, it was dubbed ‘Black Friday’ after it was made clear that 150-200 women were injured after riots broke out between suffragettes and police. Alongside her diplomatic immunity, Sophia also had contacts within the Indian Nationalist Movement, securing herself as an outright rebel, and used her wealth to help fund the Suffragettes. So much so that she was eventually disowned by her father after an arrest warrant stopped her from travelling to India. Fortunately for Sophia, this wasn’t as disastrously problematic as it would have been for the working class suffragettes. Sophia would carry on participating and vocalising injustices such as battling gender inequality in the British army, and her very presence in India in 1924 helped booster the Indian Suffrage movement.

A few other quick facts:

  • Princess Sophia would mostly dress in Edwardian styles, and rarely in traditional Indian dress.
  • Her mother sadly died of typhoid when Sophia was just 10 years old.
  • In 1909 she joined the WSPU, a controversial Suffragette movement that used militant tactics such as violence and hunger strikes.
  • Her hobby of cycling brought her to become the poster girl for the activity, encouraging women to embrace it when it was still considered vulgar and dangerous for women.


¹ British Library intro to Sophia Duleep Singh, http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item124196.html

WW – Mary “Perdita” Robinson

‘Women Wednesday’ will hereby be a pit-stop, quick-fire, on-the-go history of numerous historical women. Historical men are great, too, but who doesn’t love an underdog? I plan to take a sneaky peak at those women who got lost in translation.


Quick note – ignore that this was posted on a Thursday. It won’t happen again. Maybe.

Anyway, I want to introduce you to the badass Mary Robinson (née Darby) 1757 – 1800.

Mary was, in essence, a kind of human embodiment of the 18th century fascination with both morality and debauchery. Her careers included actress, author, and mistress, all of which caused a cocktail of fame and ridicule in the public eye.

Caricature of Mary & Prince of Wales. Much satire would be produced about them.

Now, Mary didn’t lead a ‘bad’ life, but it wasn’t easy being a woman in the 1700s, let alone a woman with several lovers and some naughty literature under your skirts. Her father, having galloped off with another woman when Mary was young, was the beginning of her bad luck. Following this, and a brief interlude of acting, her mother married her off to a money-squandering scoundrel who ended up in debtor’s jail (they eventually separated, but this was the least of her troubles). Mary then went back to acting as a way of financial support. This, pretty much, is where she gets shoved into the sour limelight.

It was her performance as “Perdita” in Florizel and Perdita  that caught the regal eye of George IV, Prince of Wales (who, may I add, was a few years her junior) and consequently bribed into becoming his mistress. Mixed feelings on her part, euphoric on his. Unsurprisingly, the boy Prince of Wales then got bored, and poor Mary was kicked out without a redundancy package, with just her damaged reputation in tow.

Excellent biography and worth reading for more on her life.

It was now that Mary started to swing between more high-profile lovers, and write seriously, contributing some amazing works to 18th Century literature. I will highlight two of her writings, Sappho and Phaon: A Series of Legitimate Sonnets, and A Letter to the Women of England

– Mary also contributed much to the emergence of Romanticism, but that’s a whole other story.

Title page of ‘Sappho and Phaon’. Copyright (c) 2000, University of California

In short, Sappho and Phaon is a ~naughty~ poem. But a naughty poem that was way ahead of it’s time, and one that is arguably proto-feminist. It concerns Sappho, an ancient authoress, and Phaon her lover. Now, Mary deliberately uses Sappho as a character to convey her own romantic and sexual experiences. Themes of sex in 18th century literature were usually rare, covert, and almost always masculine. So not only does Mary dare to write about this, she also writes about this from her perspective. Bad. Ass.

Three years after this, and a year before her death, Mary would pen a letter to the women of England. In this letter, she draws attention to the issues and injustices against English women. Most interestingly is that Mary writes this after the death of the famous proto-feminist Mary Wallstonecraft,

I will not expatiate largely on the doctrines of certain philosophical sensualists, who have aided in this destructive oppression, because an illustrious British female, (whose death has not been sufficiently lamented, but to whose genius posterity will render justice) has already written volumes in vindication of The Rights of Woman.

Mary clearly saw her strength of character and intelligence in Mary Wollstonecraft, and this letter in her memory thus serves as a kind of reiteration of her progressive beliefs. Mary was ruthless, even to the end.

She died in 1800 at the age of 43, partially paralysed, very ill, and unfortunately in poverty.