‚ÄčEssential Oils: A Brief Historical Perspective

"Sita Finds Rama Among Lotus Blooms." Illustration by Warwick Goble for "Indian Myth and Legend" by Donald A. Mackenzie, published 1913 by Gresham, London.

Sandalwood Essential Oil is very valuable and rare nowadays. Many forests were destroyed by temples being built with the wood.  To obtain the oil it must come from the heart of a tree at least 30 years old. In India especially, massive conservation plans are already in place, and most Sandalwood fields are heavily guarded. Australia now has Sandalwood plantations, and their own version of the oil.

Scheherazade by Edmund Dulac 1907; Tales from the Arabian Nights

Centuries ago, merchant caravans crossed the desert of the Arabian Peninsula and the Silk Road to China and India. They crossed continents, laden with valuable cargoes containing luxury items such as silk fabrics, spices, and essential oils. Frankincense and Myrrh, (the Gifts of the Magi) were two of the most well known. The trade route journeys, were so long, pessaries (stones) were often placed in the wombs of female camels to prevent a pregnancy, which would hold up travel and business. 

The Perfume Makers by Rudolf Ernst 1929


Essential oils and natural products like beeswax were the only ingredients in perfumes of yesteryear, until synthetics were invented. The fragrance industry is a multi-billion dollar business annually. Today, almost all conventionally sold perfumes and colognes are synthetic. The cost is cheaper and the quality is consistent because it is controlled in the laboratory and not by nature. For example, if Lavender fields in France have a drier than normal year, the quality of the yield is going to be slightly different than a year with more rainfall.

Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptians were one of the earliest civilizations to use essential oils in their daily lives. Clove and cinnamon to repel sand bugs, cedarwood to promote the mummification process, and rose and lavender for personal hygiene. Both women and men adorned their wigs with scented wax headcones which melted in the desert heat, releasing its fragrant scent.

Entertainers in a banquet scene from the tomb of Nebamun.

A Doctor with flowers inside the beak.

Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel [Dr. Beak], a plague doctor in the 1600s

About The Plagues of the 1300s-1600s

In the times of the early plagues in history, workers in perfumeries  were more likely to be survivors. This is most-likely due to the antibacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties of the essential oils that they used to make perfume. This afforded them (unwittingly) protection. There were no Boards of Health and Louis Pasteur's "germ theory" was still hundreds of years away. The worst Black Death pandemic of the Middle Ages began in China in the 14th century, and  caused the death of 60% of the entire population Europe. The infectious agent of the Black Death, was the bacterium Yersinia pestis, from infected fleas on rats stowed away aboard the trade ships. The bacteria entered through broken skin and used the lymphatic system as its host. Infection caused swelling of the lymph nodes at the neck, armpit, and groin. Other symptoms included coughing, fever, and black spots appearing on the skin (Black Death). Italian writer Boccaccio said its victims often "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise." The Black Death, also known as bubonic plague, caused over 75 million deaths, roughly one death for every three people who contracted the disease.   https//www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=229027