The civet: its popularity now dwindled from a luxury affordable only to kings, to perfumery jargon known amongst perfumers and historians. In popular culture, the civet is known in another context, Kopi Luwak, Indonesia’s famous coffee bean. For the non-coffee-drinkers reading, that is a type of coffee brewed from beans that were pre-digested by the civet cat indigenous to maritime Southeast Asia. Yes, we are talking about cat-poop coffee. But coffee is not the only trendy thing to have come from its butt. The musk-like secretion from its perineal gland was once incredibly popular in Europe, used in perfumes designed for royalty. Yes, we are talking about smelly butt juices.
This musk-like substance goes by the name civetone, or more commonly as civet. When extracted freshly from the anal gland, the civet is yellowish brown with a buttery, waxy texture—not unlike honey. In its natural habitat, the civet cat secretes this glandular pheromone to mark its territories with a strong urinous, musky odour that naturally hangs in the air for days. But it was the civet’s desirability amongst high-class men and women—who adorned perfumes, wig powders, and scented snuff—that scented the air with this lasting fragrance for decades. In fact between 18th and 19th century, civet perfumes were an item to gloat about; and the fact that such an aroma is obtained from the buttocks of civet cats did not seem to cause much ruckus. The warmth of the aroma paired well with natural human scent during a time when bathing was an infrequent phenomenon. Although, come the end of the 19th century, the civet perfume fell out of fashion—due to the fact that musky-scented perfumes were not as fashionable as floral-scented ones and the fact that providence of the scent is, quite frankly, undesirable. Nonetheless, at the height of this civet fad, the scent itself had a sensual connotation.
In the 18th century, civet was deemed as an aphrodisiac and marked the sensual musk with a kind of animalistic sexuality. Shakespeare lustfully wrote in King Lear, “Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination”. Similarly, civet came to be known as a prostitute’s perfume in cities like Paris and London. After the “olfactory revolution of the 19th century” which was introduced by way of public sanitization, English thinker Havelock Ellis also noted the disappearance of the smell of prostitution which he could tell by the decreasing presence of civet perfumes (Hwang, 2013). And a century later, in 1932, the same association between sex workers and civet remains; perfumer Jean Carles concocted a perfume that “a prostitute would wear” with civet as one of the base notes (Herman, 2013). Many English poems also mentioned civet-scented courtesans and courtly individuals. Similarly this connotation would have existed in Holland, and the sex workers working around the Port of Amsterdam during its ‘golden age’. And as demand for civet rose between 16th century to 18th century, so did the idea that civet was best unadulterated became more popular. And here enters the civet merchants from Amsterdam.
Most civets in European apothecaries came from African civets: brought from Cairo, the Levant, and Ethiopia. But it was the Dutch-brand civet that is known to be the purest, because it was believed that non-Dutch producers often diluted their civet with other fragrant plants. And if the scent of civet cats reared in warmer climates produced the best odour for perfumes, than the Dutch’s connection to Southeast Asia, by way of the VOC proved to be valuable to introduce Asian civets into European markets. At this point, the Dutch “enthusiastically imported” the Asian civet cats into Amsterdam for domestication and perfume-production (Plumb, 2015). These animals were kept in cages and used specifically to harvest their scent in Amsterdam (De Buffon, 1800). And to ensure the purity of the Holland civet, Dutch merchants even included certificates of genuity on their sealed pots; and these sold for up to 50 shillings an ounce, at the height of its popularity (Brewster, 1829). Not only did the Dutch boast the quality of civet, but also the largest production center in Europe; thus, “afford[ing] a considerable branch of commerce in Amsterdam”. In other words, so profitable was the economy of civet production and ‘civiting’ (rearing of civet cats for harvest) in Amsterdam that it sustained its own industry (Plumb, 2015).
Who would have thought that a portion of the riches in Amsterdam was gathered through such a peculiar fad of animal pheromones! But to a certain extent, the attraction of the civet makes some sense:
“We want to smell intoxicating, and truly intoxicating things are often a little bit nasty — they have an edge that cuts deeper than simple sensory pleasure. And despite how it may seem, encounters with the beautiful are rarely entirely enjoyable”. (Kelleher, 2018)