“Eau de Cologne and the Quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, or: The Birth of Chemistry from Spiritus and Scent”

In August 2020, I purchase a copy of Ernst Rosenbohm’s 1951 publication Kölnisch Wasser (“Eau de Cologne”) from an antiquarian online bookseller near Frankfurt. The scientific literature on perfumes and Eau de Cologne that I read for my current research project on the “Olfactories of Hygiene” is rather limited, so I’m quite excited when I discover what looks like a thorough study on the topic.

A few days later, a heavy book of 600-odd pages complete with dark blue cloth binding, golden letters and thread-stitching arrives by mail. As I open its cover, several sheets of paper fall out. They turn out to be the copy of a verdict brought in by a court in Cologne in 1951. The case was brought to action by a group of ten local producers of Eau de Cologne against another one for using cheap and potentially hazardous methanol instead of high-quality ethanol. I didn’t even know there were so many producers of Eau de Cologne around in Cologne during the mid-twentieth century! The book must have been in the possession of one of those involved, I assume. The most spectacular finding however turns out to be the story told at the beginning of the first of its two volumes: the birth of chemistry from the alchemical quest for the philosopher’s stone; a quest that resulted in the proclamation of an “elixir of immortality” and, eventually, in the emergence of a type of fragrance now commonly known as Eau de Cologne.

Born in 1888 in Northern Poland, the book’s author Ernst Rosenbohm became a lecturer in inorganic chemistry at the University of Hamburg after World War II. Except for an entry on the website of the University of Hamburg, little is known about his life. He completed his Ph.D. in chemistry in Erlangen in 1913 and left Germany to work with Israel Lifshitz at the University of Zurich (Switzerland) and Frans Maurits Jaeger at the University of Groningen (Netherlands). Rosenbohm published a number of articles on thermoelectric behaviour of solid substances, especially metals, electrical resistance, magnetism and magnetochemistry. Apart from his PhD dissertation thesis in 1913, the two volumes about Eau de Cologne are his only book-length publication. Kölnisch Wasser is the last text he published before he died. Why would a chemical scientist, I wonder, devote his opus magnum to a history of Eau de Cologne?

My personal copy of Rosenbohm’s Kölnisch Wasser

The first volume is devoted to the history of alchemy but starts off with a long quote from an approbation issued by the medical faculty of the University of Cologne in 1770, which consists of a long list of illnesses that can be treated and healed with the ‘miraculous elixir’ of Eau admirable de Cologne. The report recommends the water for ‘internal and external application’. For internal application, one is advised to mix ‘50,60 or 80 drops’ of the healing water with ‘white wine, fresh well water or cold bouillon.’ For external application, one washes one’s ‘head, vortex, temple, pulse, joints, or sore limbs’ with it. 

Several hundred years before the approbation was published, medieval alchemists took to the ancient Egyptian idea of a substance or stone that may turn metal into gold and provide its owner with eternal youth and immortality. In ancient times, the so-called philosopher’s stone was imagined as a powdery substance (xerion) rather than a stone proper, translated into Arabic as “al iksir.” In Medieval Latin, al-iksir turns into elixir and is increasingly imagined as a liquid substance. Following the Thirty Years’ War, alchemy booms during the seventeenth and eighteenth century across Central Europe and the search for the elixir of life becomes a major preoccupation of medical practitioners, healers, alchemists, pharmacists and druggists, whose division of labour was not yet as clear-cut as it is today.

The act of distillation, Rosenbohm writes, was of particular interest for alchemists, because it separated a seemingly pure, ‘essential’ substance  from a more profane hydrolate treated as waste. In search of the precious elixir of life, imagined as a pure, concentrated and essential substance capable of working miracles, alchemists distilled all kinds of herbal, floral and animal substances. Stories and tales of alchemists and witches, who were in the possession of elixirs that kept them forever young and powerful abounded. Among those, who were said to possess such an elixir was Albertus Magnus, a 13th century scholar who in his days taught at the newly founded University of Cologne.

The Alchemist’s Quest for the Philosopher’s Stone (1771), Joseph Wright of Derby

For centuries, techniques of distillation, such as the destillatio per descensum (‘distillation by descent’), which emerged in the Mediterranean in the 3rd and 4th century AD and was commonly practiced by Arab medical scholars, remained rather basic and did not allow for the distillation of pure alcohol. The distillation of a pure and highly concentrated ethanol (‘spirit of wine’) –a prerequisite for the production of Eau de Cologne– was developed around the end of the 11th century, Rosenbohm claims. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the production of concentrated alcohol remained unknown to the wider public and was an esoteric knowledge, practiced but by a small group of ‘adept’ alchemists. In northern Italy, alcohol was commonly termed aqua vitae, the water of life, used for expensive healing substances rather than everyday consumption.

One of the precursors of Eau de Cologne, oleum mirabile (‘wonder oil’), was a mix of rosemary oil and alcohol, which first made its appearance in the work of the well-known physician and adept alchemist Arnaldus de Villa Nova, born in the mid-13th-century in Southern France or Northern Spain. During the 14th century, it was produced in a Florentine monastery  as Acqua de Regina, Queen’s Water, probably due to the fact that the Roman name for its main ingredient, rosemary, was rosmarinus coronaria, crown-rosemary. From around 1672, the healing water was marketed as Hungarian Water, or even more prosaic, under the name of “Water of the Queen of Hungary” (Eau de la Reine de Hongrie, 136ff.) by French producers across Europe. Rosenbohm goes to considerable length to show that the renaming of the earlier rosemary oil and alcohol mix into the evocative “Eau de la Reine de Hongrie” and its promotion as a miraculous healing water was a clever marketing strategy, later to be partially copied by the producers of the Eau de Cologne. In spite of its name, it was produced in France rather than Hungary and its sales story –namely that the Hungarian Queen was cured by a healing water which was given to her by an obscure recluse never to be seen again– drew on earlier stories of kings’ and queens’ magical powers and the esoteric knowledge of eremite alchemists. At the Parisian court and among the European upper class the miraculous Hungarian Water created a frenzy soon to be replaced by the Eaux de Cologne (p. 142ff.). 

Arnaldus de Villa Nova, a Medieval physician and, according to Rosenbohm, alchemist, who produced one of the healing waters that preceded the Eaux de Cologne (here in a medical treatise from 1584; public domain).

Some scholars describe the Hungarian Water as one of the plague waters that were common during the so-called second plague pandemic (cf. Stoddart 1990) –and indeed, one of the many names of the plague, which spread westwards from Eastern and Central Europe during the fifteenth until the seventeenth century was the “Hungarian disease.” However, Rosenbohm contends that while rosemary was commonly used as a fumigant, its distilled oil or water was not commonly used against the plague. Nevertheless, the antibacterial and healing effects of essential oils from thyme, lavender, neroli or rosmarin (still used for some of the original Eaux de Cologne) were well known at the time and within the monasteries and cloisters of Western and Central Europe they were produced and sold as healing substances in the complexes’ pharmacies.

By the sixteenth century, the alchemists’ quest for the philosopher’s stone, which would turn metal into gold and provide eternal youth and immortality, was commonly regarded a hoax. Nevertheless, the art of distillation and the analysis of the composition and effects of essential oils stood at the beginning of what eventually became modern chemistry. This must have been the reason for Rosenbohm to devote his opus magnum to the history of Eau de Cologne. Given the usages of scented and alcohol-based waters against the plague in Medieval and early modern Europe, the contemporary use of Eau de Cologne against the coronavirus in Turkey and elsewhere suddenly appears invested with historical meaning and depth. In any case, Rosenbohm’s book shows the multiple entanglement between aromas, fragrances, spirituality, and the quest for knowledge, cults and healing in Europe in pandemic times.

While today, it would be difficult to publish such a wild mix of historical materials, interspersed with poems, chemical formulas, newspaper articles and grey literature –the flyers that accompanied the early flacons of Eaux de Cologne in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century!–, I cannot help but feel impressed by the scholarly zeal and trans-disciplinary curiosity which makes reading Kölnisch Wasser a veritable experience.


Stoddart, D. Michael 1991. The Scented Ape. The biology and culture of human odour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosenbohm, Ernst 1951. Kölnisch Wasser. Ein Beitrag zur europäischen Kulturgeschichte. Berlin: Albert Nauck & Co.

Kolonya in the News

In the early days of COVID-19, supermarkets in Turkey quickly ran out of stock in medical hand sanitizer and disinfectants. The day the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic, Turkey’s Minister of Health publicly declared that given the scarcity of medical hand sanitizer citizens should use alcohol-based kolonya, Turkish for Eau de Cologne, to protect themselves from the Coronavirus. Research in the news archives of four Turkish mainstream print media shows that kolonya has remained on the news in Turkey ever since. While mass sales and production are a major topic, articles also deal with what could be termed a particular kind of kolonya nationalism and the cultural effects of the Turkish kolonya renaissance.

In the early days of COVID-19, supermarkets in Turkey, like elsewhere, quickly ran out of stock in medical hand sanitizers and disinfectants. On March 11, the day the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic, Turkey’s Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca publicly declared that given the scarcity of medical hand sanitizer citizens should use alcohol-based kolonya, Turkish for Eau de Cologne, to protect themselves from the Coronavirus. Following his announcement, prices soared almost immediately and the next day, news outlets all over Turkey reported that stores had run out of supply. Some local producers also ran out of stock of ethanol, a major ingredient of kolonya­. The same day, the government banned the export not only of kolonya but also, of ethanol. By the end of March, the price of a kilo of lemon, the most popular fragrant ingredient in kolonya had increased threefold and papers also reported a lemon export ban. Research in four major newspaper archives –of Hürriyet, a liberal mainstream daily, which in 2018 was taken over by a pro-government holding; Posta, a mass market tabloid with high circulation in Turkey; Yeni Şafak, a Muslim conservative daily paper, known to be very close to the AKP government and Sabah, a right-wing and pro-government mass market paper– shows that kolonya has remained on the news in Turkey ever since. While mass sales and production are still a major topic, articles increasingly also deal with what could be termed a particular kind of kolonya nationalism and the cultural effects of the Turkish kolonya renaissance.

The great sale: kolonya mass production

In the first few days after the Ministry of Health’s kolonya announcement, Hürriyet, like many newspapers in Turkey, ran several articles a day under the tag of ‘kolonya’. By March 12, the demand for hand sanitizer had increased 15-fold and the demand for kolonya had more than tripled (Hürriyet, March 12). It was reported that shopkeepers sold more kolonya in one day than they usually did in a year (Hürriyet, March 11), even though individual sellers rationed the portions their customers were allowed to buy (Hürriyet, March 13). While toilet paper was stockpiled in Germany, kolonya was in Turkey. The Hürriyet website ran a picture gallery of the overcrowded sales office of a small kolonya-producing firm in the town of Izmit, located at the eastern Sea of Marmara, showing long lines of customers waiting to be served; the owner was quoted saying that ‘if the situation goes on like this, we will have to produce at night’ (quoted from Hürriyet, March 11).

Izmir residents lining up in front of Tarış, an agricultural cooperative, to buy Eau de Cologne (screenshot from a video posted by Hürriyet, 13 March 2020, https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/video/izmirliler-kolonya-sirasina-girdi-41468117).

Indeed, this is what happened in many kolonya producing factories: By September, Sabah (September 14) reported about a factory in the western Black Sea region of Düzce that organized night shifts to produce kolonya 24 hours a day since March. Similar extensions of production were  reported from large kolonya factories in Edirne, in Eastern Thrace (Sabah, September 17), and Kayseri in Central Anatolia (Sabah, September 24). Moreover, a thriving black market evolved, which also included products based on cheaper, but potentially hazardous methyl-alcohol instead of ethanol. In late March, Hürriyet reported about a large raid in 25 cities across the country, issued by the Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, which resulted in the capturing of 71 and the arrest of four persons involved in the illegal production and sale of hand sanitizers and kolonya, as well as the confiscation of 65,000 boxes of disinfectants, 750 bottles of kolonya, 4,375 litres of ethanol, 340 litres methyl alcohol and eleven tons of other chemical substances. Indeed, explanations and recipes for home-made kolonya or disinfectants had been shared not only in talk shows and among friends, but also in the print media (for example, Hürriyet, March 17). Not least, the boom in kolonya production and sales was not restricted to Turkey. In mid-August, the Turkish Statistical Institute reported that during the first half of 2020, Turkey had sold kolonya to 86 countries worldwide and exports had hit a record high of over 13 million US dollars (see Hürriyet, August 22). Hürriyet (March 18) also interviewed a German producer of Turkish origin about the rise in demand of ‘Turkish’ kolonya in Germany.

Chemical substances for the production of kolonya and disinfectants confiscated during a police raid (published by Hürriyet, 26 March 2020, https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/son-dakika-haberler-bakan-soylu-talimat-vermisti-25-ilde-operasyon-41478691)

Corona Biopolitics, kolonya nationalism

With the above-mentioned statement by the Ministry of Health in mid-March, kolonya became a quasi-official cure against rising Corona infection numbers in Turkey. Beginning in early April, millions of care packages, including facial masks, a bottle of kolonya and a letter from the President were distributed among elderly and chronically ill citizens. The campaign and the first days of distribution in Istanbul were covered extensively in the Turkish media. The newspapers’ websites offered picture galleries and even videos (for example, Hürriyet, April 7) showing teams of police men knocking on residents’ doors and handing out care packages. In the pro-government newspapers, these packages were closely associated with President Erdoğan himself and occasionally called ‘Erdoğan’s hygiene packages.’ The campaign was part of the regime’s attempt to effect the image of an all-powerful government taking good care of its national community. In its wake, kolonya became a patriotic symbol, part and parcel of Turkish nationalism on the rise.

One example for this kind of nationalism appeared on April 4th in the pro-Muslim government loyal Yeni Şafak under the title of “As the kolonya produced to meet the instructions by President Erdoğan hits the road, workers can’t hold back their tears”. Reporting about a kolonya-producing factory in Düzce where workers laboured for ten days without proper sleep to meet a government order of 300,000 bottles, Yeni Şafak commented not on the horrendous working conditions, but emphasised the workers’ heroic efforts. The accompanying pictures depict almost exclusively female workers uniformly dressed in dark pants, headscarves and wine-red overcoats waving national flags as trucks decorated with “Homeland First” banners leave the premises of the factory to distribute the first shipment. The factory’s executive manager is quoted saying that the order from their (‘our’) President and Minster of Health was so dear to them that they were prepared to continue the pace of production for another three or five months. One of the workers is described as weeping as the first trucks leave the factory; he is quoted speaking of the workers’ personal effort to fulfil the state order out of the hope to provide ‘healing’ (şifa) to the people. He also declares his ‘love’ for Turkey and that he would sacrifice his life for the homeland (vatan).

Yeni Şafak also reported on another of the eight factories that received a tender for producing products intended for theCorona emergency kits, namely Eyüp Sabri Tuncer, one of the oldest kolonya brands in Turkey. Eyüp Sabri Tuncer’s general manager Engin Tuncer, is quoted saying that he motivated his workers by telling them ‘You are working for the public health sector now. Our product is like a medicine’ (Yeni Şafak, April 13).

Workers forming a guard of honour with national flags as trucks leave a kolonya factory in Düzce (photo: Tezcan Solmaz, DHA Samsun, published by Yeni Şafak, 4 April 2020).

Another genre of Turkey’s mediated (kolonya) nationalism during the Corona crisis consisted of comparing Turkey favourably with the ‘Western’ world. Again, the Muslim conservative Yeni Şafak was most eager in this regard: early on in the pandemic, in an article titled ‘Nothing Compares Globally: Turkey’s ‘Social State’ Reflects its Difference’ commentator Şahin Şen emphasises Turkey’s exceptional role in dealing with the Corona crisis. Whereas in the US and Europe, Şen claims, citizens were unable to get hold of disinfectants, masks, gloves or even food, in Turkey, public workers strove relentlessly to fulfil the needs of elderly and chronically ill citizens, distributing kolonya and masks in a national struggle (milli mücadele) against the virus. The crisis thus revealed the ‘social’ character of the state. Also in Yeni Şafak (March 24), featuring pictures from a small kolonya store in Eminönü, kolonya was characterised as Turkey’s ‘secret weapon’ (gizli silah), which had made it into the headlines of European media.

Given the fact that hundreds of journalists have been arrested and the Freedom of the Press in Turkey has deteriorated significantly over the last decade as well as our decision to focus on print media with a high circulation, which are all pro-government or government-controlled, it is perhaps of little surprise that no kolonya-related critical reports on the dealing with the crisis and the widespread use of kolonya as a hand sanitizer were to be found.

Practices of hand hygiene, epidermic anxieties

From early on in the Corona crisis, newspapers distributed practical tips on how to use and produce sanitizing and disinfectant products, including kolonya. In the Muslim-conservative Yeni Şafak (April 4), consultants of Alo Fetva, the telephone hotline operated by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), reported about numerous queries on the permissibility of using alcohol-based kolonya, given that alcohol was a forbidden substance in Islam. Alo Fetva consultants were quoted saying that the use of kolonya for sanitizing purposes was tolerable for cleansing purposes and did not ‘break’ the ritual ablution before prayer, thus reiterating an official statement by the Diyanet. From mid-March, public health experts and scientists were consulted by media outlets to support the minister’s claim that kolonya was antibacterial and explain its use during the current health crisis (for example, Hürriyet, March 11 and Hürriyet, March 12).

Sporadically, experts were quoted on the damaging side effects of an exaggerated use of kolonya, for example, offering tips on how to care for dehydrated or irritated skin (see Posta, April 2 or Sabah, June 2). The Muslim conservative Yeni Şafak published an article on the cleansing effects of rose water, which has a powerful religious connotation in Turkey and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Under the headline of “Constant use of kolonya creates skin irritation: To protect against microbes, use rose water,” a researcher from Istanbul University’s Institute of Maritime Sciences and Management was quoted saying that rose water was preferable to alcohol-based products due to its beneficial effects on dehydrated and irritated skin. While he did not claim that rose water effectively destroyed the Corona virus (which most certainly, it does not), the article nevertheless suggested that it destroyed ‘microbes’ and functioned as an antibacterial. In late May an announcement by the Clinical Microbiology and Infection Specialist of Istanbul Kent University’s Prof. Ayşe Wilke Topçu that kolonya with a high percentage of alcohol (above 70°) makes the Corona virus stick to the skin rather than destroy it created much repercussion and concern in the print media (see Yeni Şafak, Posta and Sabah on May 28).

Transforming kolonya Cultures: My Mask, My Kolonya

Another set of articles featured various cultural effects of Turkey’s current kolonya renaissance. Yeni Şafak’s Yaşar Süngü wrote about one of the first kolonya producers in Turkey, Eyüp Sabri Tuncer ( “A Perfumer’s Tale”), born in 1898 to a Bosnian family, who started producing and selling his own lemon-scented fragrance in Ankara around 1930.

A number of articles point to the strong affective relationship between fragrances and their users. For example, Yeni Şafak reports about an elderly man from Samsun, who over the years has collected more than 3,000 bottles of different types of kolonya and neatly arranged them in a room of his apartment. Due to the fact that his wife is asthmatic and doesn’t like kolonya, he did so secretly, saying that he loves his fragrant bottles ‘like my children’ (quoted from Yeni Şafak, April 17). Another article features an engineer living in İzmir, who has collected almost 2,500 bottles of kolonya made up of 75 different fragrances from 25 cities (mostly in Turkey). Dreaming of a Turkish kolonya museum, he claims that ‘these days, Turkey can be called the homeland of Eau de Cologne, due to the fact that as a society we are very interested in, and sensitive to scents.’ (quoted from Yeni Şafak, April 22). Yeni Şafak (May 10) also reports about the historical birthplace of kolonya, Cologne, showing pictures from the museum of one of the best-selling, though not the oldest, brands of Eau de Cologne, 4711. (Thus, Farina’s 1709 is certainly older and prides itself on a museum of its own.)

Private Eau de Cologne Collector in Samsun (photo: Yaprak Kocer, DHA Samsun, published by Yeni Şafak, 17 April 2020).

Here, like elsewhere, the early history of Eau de Cologne and the founding myth of one of the later producers of Eau de Cologne in Cologne (4711 among them), Mühlens, is reproduced rather uncritically, probably due to the fact that literature on the topic is hard to come by. Hürriyet’s Doğan Hızlan weaves historical anecdotes and personal remembrances into an essay on the changing role of kolonya in Turkey: from a symbol of hospitality and welcome during Muslim holidays or in the context of sick bed visits to a protective measure in pandemic times. And finally, as the epidemic situation is increasingly out of control and infection numbers are sadly on the rise again in early September, Hürriyet’s journalist Kanat Atkaya transforms Tanju Okan’s 1976 pop song slogan ‘My drink, my cigarette [are my only friends]’ into ‘My Mask, My Kolonya are my only friends’.

Eau de Cologne as a Haunting Matter

As Elizabeth Ettore writes in Autoethnography as Feminist Method, autoethnography means that the author reflects deeply on her actions and describes a ‘plausible journey of transition from “who I was to who I am”‘ (2017: 3). While my current research on the Olfactories of Hygiene is an ongoing journey, I indeed started noticing a kind of sensual re-attunment when it comes to Eau de Cologne. Upon embarking on this project, I readily associated Eau de Cologne, in particular the most classic one, 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser (Original Eau de Cologne, in German), with the older working-class relatives of my adopted mother, especially with Elli, her mother. As I grew up, Elli and her husband Fritz, a gardener, lived in a terraced house in a working-class district of Cologne, an industrial German city on the Rhine. Fritz passed away when I was six years old, but his presence lingered on in the large garden’s fragrant herbs and fruit trees as well as in the winter garden on the back of the house, which was filled with orchids and other flowering plants. In contrast, the house itself had an air of cool austerity to it which I readily associated with Elli.

The author and Elli in her house in 1977.

Elli extensively used 4711 and I suspect that she used it not only on her body and embroidered handkerchiefs to refresh herself, but also mixed it with vinegar to mop the stone floor of the house, which she did at least once a day. The slightly pungent scent of 4711, as ephemeral as it was (and still is), accompanied her as she moved in with us after selling the house. It travelled with us on our way south during summer holidays, with her sitting next to me in the back of the car. Later, when my mom could no longer take care of her, it permeated the room of the nursing home where she spent the last year of her life. This was in the late eighties/early nineties and by then, 4711 had long gone out of style. When in June 2020 I interviewed my uncle, born in 1942, about the role of smell and scents in his life, he noted that when he was young, 4711 was already considered something that only the elderly would use.

Nevertheless, it is still being produced and lately has seen increasing demand, especially in the form of wipes. In April 2020, after I had taken an interest in Eau de Cologne, which was now used as a hand sanitizer in Turkey, I discovered bottles of 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser at the bottom of a shelf in my local drug store. As I took up the blue and golden flacon and sprayed it on my hands, I sensed Elli’s presence almost three decades after she died: Elli mopping the floor in her apron dress with a flower design; Elli holding her scented handkerchief to her nose as we pass by freshly manured fields in the car; Elli sprinkling her temples with 4711 for relief from anxiety or headaches. The scent of a particular part of my childhood had been sitting on that shelf all along and I never noticed!

In Ghostly Matters, Avery F. Gordon writes of mediations that are of a haunting presence. Eau de Cologne and 4711 in particular, I realized, was such a mediating or haunting matter for me, defined by Gordon as a force or structure that ‘appear[s] removed from us [but] make[s] [its] impact felt in everyday life in a way that confounds our analytic separations and confounds the social separations themselves.’ (2008: 19) Scents and odors are paradigmatic haunting matters in that they may evoke memories one was no longer aware of. In the literature, this has been called “The Proust Effect” (Van Campen 2014), referring to an episode described in Proust’s Remembrance of Time Past, where a cake dipped in tea suddenly evokes a strongly affective childhood memory. The olfactory trigger is transported from the olfactory bulb straight to the limbic system of our brain, which is responsible for emotional processing and long-term memory. The sense of olfaction is the only sense linked directly to the limbic system. (Stoddart 1991)

4711 ad alluding to the disinfecting effects of alcohol and essential oils in front of the 4711 House in Cologne

A few days ago, I took my daughter to visit my hometown Cologne where Eau de Cologne –literally, the water of Cologne– has been traded since the late 17th century, with northern Italian tradesmen from Santa Maria Maggiore, especially Giovanni Paolo (de) Feminis and Giovanni Maria Farina, playing a major role (Rosenbohm 1951). Farina created a fragrance that reminded him of a spring morning in Italy, it is claimed, which he obviously missed while making a name for himself in Cologne. As I entered the 4711 flagship store, rebuilt after the war in Cologne’s almost completely demolished inner city, the scent of 4711 enveloped me once again. It emanated from a large fountain in the middle of the room, a reminiscence of the fact that Eau de Cologne, also called aqua mirabilis, miracle water, used to be consumed not just externally, but also internally (like the Plague Waters, which –some claim– have survived in the form of Eau de Cologne).

Sitting in the newly refurbished exhibition hall on the first floor of the building and talking to a fragrance developer of Mäurer & Wirtz, the manufacturer that acquired the 4711 brand in 2006, the pervasive scent of 4711 slowly lost its awe. The fragrance developer told me about the challenge to compose a contemporary 4711 remix series from its seven basic ingredients –bergamot, lemon, orange, neroli, petitgrain, lavender and rosmarin. Her love of the resulting product and indeed, its refreshing and cleansing feel came as a revelation. Like other visitors and employees that I talked to, the fragrance developer was well aware of the common stereotypes and affective aversions triggered by 4711, especially by those born in Germany before the 1980s. The French tour guide who guided us through the exhibition alongside a group of visitors told the story of a four-year-old who never smelled 4711 but when asked about it responded ‘it stinks’. My daughter turns out to be less indoctrinated and happily collects the tiny 3ml glass bottles of 4711 that I suddenly remember playing with as a kid.

Miniature flacons of 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser

‘To be haunted and to write from this location,’ writes Gordon, ‘is not a methodology or a consciousness you can simply adopt or adapt as a set of rules or an identity; it produces its own insights and blindnesses’ (2008: 22). I’m not sure yet what the haunting matter of 4711 Eau de Cologne produces in and around me, but exposing myself to its scent and thus creating new layers of olfactory presence and experience certainly feels like facing ghosts of the past. Elli was certainly haunted herself as a working mother and wife of a rather bohemian plant lover in the conservative post-war period in Western Germany. Her extensive use of 4711 was certainly part of an attempt at self-cure and healing. Like many other women of her generation and social background, she lived the frugal life of a hard-working and, she would have liked me to emphasize, a clean and respectable woman. The luxury promised by more expensive perfumes or fragrances was not just unaffordable, but it was also morally suspect to her. The hygienic freshness and unapologetic presence of 4711 fit well into the world that she created for herself.


Ettore, Elizabeth 2017. Autoethnography as Feminist Method: Sensitising the feminist ‘I’. London, New York: Routledge.

Gordon, Avery F. 2008. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Rosenbohm, Ernst 1951. Kölnisch Wasser. Ein Beitrag zur europäischen Kulturgeschichte. Berlin et al.: Albert Nauck & Co.

Stoddart, D. Michael 1991. The Scented Ape. The biology and culture of human odour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Campen, Cretien 2014. The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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