In Elixir: A Parisian Perfume House and the Quest for the Secret of Life, Theresa Levitt tells the story of two scientific outcasts whose work rewrote the boundary between life and nonlife—and in so doing, takes us on a sensory journey through nineteenth-century Paris. We asked Levitt a few questions about some of the unexpected things she discovered while writing this fascinating history.
Author - Editorial Staff
Date - 3 October 2023
Time to read - 6 min
What first brought you to writing a book about the history and chemistry of perfume?
I had been interested for a while in the question of whether there is anything “special” about life. People often think that once you get the development of modern chemistry, everyone accepts that living and non-living things are made up of the same matter, and there is no difference between them. But I was seeing plenty of people in the nineteenth century who remained convinced there was a fundamental distinction (and who ultimately turned out to be right!). Two of my favorites were a grouchy, reclusive physicist named Jean-Baptiste Biot and a down-trodden, oft-ignored chemist named Auguste Laurent. One day, I noticed that both of them mentioned working with a certain perfumer, Edouard Laugier. I decided to try pulling on that thread to see who he was, and it revealed a whole world where aroma and essential oils were at the center of one of the liveliest scientific debates of the time.
I think when people hear the word “perfume,” they sometimes think of an esoteric, even frivolous, luxury product. But it was really part of one of humankind’s oldest endeavors: to capture and preserve the ephemeral qualities of plants. And its pursuit helped revise our understanding of life itself.
Could you describe what it was like to work in a Parisian distillery in the 18th/19th century?
Distilling was one of the most skilled and delicate operations of the time. For centuries, it had been part of the alchemists’ practice, with recipes written in secret code involving sometimes over a hundred ingredients. By the eighteenth century, it was taught in the apothecaries’ guild. Distillers and perfumers emerged as more specialized offshoots of the apothecaries, but their practices were largely the same. They would have a variety of different stills and alembics in the back room, suited to different purposes. In some they might try to capture the volatile essential oils of a plant directly. In others, they might pass brandy through again and again, adding different botanicals each time, or pausing for stages of maceration or infusion. Everything had to be exactly right—the timing, the sequence, the materials—for the product to turn out.
The distinction between natural and synthetic chemicals continues to be a scientific mystery. How can that be?
It does seem wild that there are big, fundamental questions that science is still trying to figure out. But this is one of them. Organic molecules can come in both right-handed and left-handed varieties, and when chemists make them in a lab, both kinds appear in equal numbers. Chemically speaking, they are identical to one another. But right-handed molecules can’t interact the same way with left-handed molecules. Since our bodies are made up of these asymmetric molecules, this has a huge impact on how food is digested, medicines affect the body, and even how things smell. It was quite a detective story to figure this out, especially coming at a time when chemists thought it was naïve to talk about atoms as physical objects that had a particular spatial arrangement.
This book is not just about perfume—it also tackles revolution, the vibrant culture of bohemian Paris, shifting trends in health and hygiene, scientific breakthroughs, and more. How did all these aspects of your research and writing come together?
The bigger story here is the invention of the modern world. It’s an intensely exciting time period, seeing the end of a social structure that had been in place for centuries and the foundations of an entirely new one. Science and technology were at the center of all this change, kicked off by the magic trick of being able to turn fossil fuels into usable energy. There was hope that this technological bounty could bring about a new era of liberty and equality, and that things that had been hoarded by the elites would be available to everyone. In particular demand were the resources for health and hygiene, which included perfume in this period. And perfume does have a front-seat to all these changes. It’s among the first products to be artificially synthesized from petroleum products—another exploitation of fossil fuels that profoundly shaped the modern world.
Elixir features a wide cast of characters, including Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, and Louis Pasteur. What surprising things did you uncover about some of these figures?
Well, they all relied on the restorative powers of perfume! There are letters from Pasteur’s father telling him to put drops of cologne in his hair to keep from getting headaches while he studied. And Napoleon went through nearly a bottle a day, crediting it with giving him superhuman energy. He would empty a bottle of cologne in the bath, and then spend hours there, reading letters and conducting business. Marie Antoinette, meanwhile, was so concerned with being surrounded by fine scents, that she used perfume not only on herself, but also on the sheep and cows she kept at her Petit Trianon retreat.
When we think about the Palace of Versailles and its opulence, we usually aren’t thinking about how it smelled as part of that. What was the role of perfume in the royal residence?
The scents of Versailles were as central to its function as its mirrors and gold paneling. Nearly everything in the palace was perfumed—the people, the wigs, the fabrics, the air itself—and every interaction was informed by the competing aromas. Much of this had to do with status, of course. Members of court could spend a good portion of their budget on signature perfumes. But I’m convinced there was a deeper impulse as well. I was shocked by just how much effort went into supplying the court with perfume. There was an entire industry devoted to growing fragrant plants in the south of France, concentrating them into small vials, and sending them to Versailles. This was motivated not just by vanity, but by an impulse to life itself. Medical theories of the time held that bad smells brought disease and promoted decay, while good ones were associated with growth and vitality. For the residents of Versailles, these little bottles thus held their best bet for preserving their life and youth.
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