Friday, February 27, 2015

The Scent of Sandalwood

by Lauren Gilbert

I have always loved the scent of sandalwood. It’s a warm, woody, sweet and sensual scent that is delightful on its own and forms a wonderful base note for some of my favourite perfumes, such as Samsara by Guerlain.

I was browsing a back issue of Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine and ran across this news item from 1805: “The value of the produce brought by the last fleet from India, consisting of teas, gold bars etc amounts, it is said to upwards of 16 million sterling, including the private trade.” (1) Trade items at the time would have included raw cotton as well as printed fabrics, tea, and other items, including sandalwood. This item made me think about sandalwood as a trade item during the Regency era, and wonder just what form sandalwood as an import took.  It turns out that sandalwood was imported in many forms.

Boxes were especially popular. Glove boxes, sewing boxes and other items were made of sandalwood and inlaid with ivory, quills and other decorative finishes. In my list of references, you will find some links to sites with some wonderful photographs of beautiful boxes from this era. Sandalwood was also used to frame mirrors, tables and gentlemen’s clothes presses. I can only imagine how delicious a pair of gloves or a suit of clothes stored in a sandalwood receptacle must have smelled.

Another popular use for sandalwood was for construction of fans. During the 18th century sandalwood fans became very popular. Sometimes it was just the sticks, or mounts, that were sandalwood with fabric or other materials attached to the sticks of the fan to form the blades. In other cases, the entire fan was sandalwood; an open-work design for the blades called brise’ was very popular in ivory as well as sandalwood. I have a modern example, shown here:

As you can see, the lacy design looks so delicate and feminine. This style was especially popular during the reign of Louis XVI, and the quality of the carving may have been influenced by the Chinese styles so popular at that time. My fan still generates a slight sandalwood fragrance when I waft it. I can only imagine how a fresh new sandalwood fan would scent the air around me.

Amazingly, in the 18th century, sandalwood was also used as an ingredient in cosmetics. Red make up (rouge) was made in many formulas from various ingredients. One was vermilion, which was ground cinnabar combined with mercury. Another was creuse, which resulted from the exposure of lead to vapour of vinegar. (Both were toxic.) There were also various vegetable formulas for rouge, and the possible ingredients included wood resin, brazil wood and sandalwood. The chosen ingredient would be mixed to a paste with a cream, grease or oil, or vinegar, and applied to the skin.

My favourite form of sandalwood, the perfume, has actually been a beloved scent for centuries. Aromatic oils from India, including sandalwood, were known to the Egyptians over 3500 years ago. Sandalwood was a popular component of unguents, pastes, and other vehicles for scent, and was used during rituals as well as to scent the body. Although perfumes lost favour during the early years of Christianity, a resurgence of perfumes’ popularity occurred during the medieval period, and has never really waned since then. In the 13th century, the use of alcohol in scent was discovered, which allowed the development of perfume as we know it today, resulting in a lighter, less greasy product that was less likely to stain. Sandalwood was a common element in perfumes for centuries.

During the Georgian era (including the Regency period), sandalwood was generally considered a masculine scent. However, it was also used in women’s perfumes as well. James Floris developed Stephanotis scent for women in 1796, which blended base notes of sandalwood and musk with orange blossom, stephanotis, lily of the valley and other scents. Truefitt and Hill had a gentleman’s scent that included sandalwood in 1805.

Perfumes came in bottles made of glass that are very similar to modern perfume bottles in many respects. I like to think that my little glass bottle of sandalwood perfumed oil would not look out of place on a Regency lady’s dressing table.

Sandalwood was important enough that, when the Indian sources were becoming exhausted, other sources were sought. One of the products that made the Hawaiian Islands an attractive target was a variety of sandalwood. Captain James Cook arrived in the Hawaiian Island January 18, 1778 (he named them the Sandwich Islands for his patron, the Earl of Sandwich). Trade with the Hawaiian Islands for sandalwood began in the 1790’s due to the popularity of sandalwood in China.

Sources include:

Demode’ website. “ Women’s Hairstyles and Cosmetics of the 18th Century : France and England 1750-1790.” (Undated, no author shown.)

English Historical Fiction Authors blog. “Make-up in the 18th Century-a fatal attraction” posted 7/21/2014 by Mike Rendell. “Hawaiians” by Elaine Winters and Mark Swartz.

Historical Hussies blog. “Regency Fragrances…and what does she smell like?” Posted 4/4/2011
by Donna Hatch.

Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine. Sept. /Oct. 2013 Issue 65. “WHAT MADE THE
NEWS IN SEPT AND OCT 1805.” Compiled by Judy Boyd. P. 31 (Footnote 1)

Michelle Styles website. “Regency Scents.” Posted 4/6/2008 by Michelle Styles.

“Perfumery in Western Europe around the 13th Century.”

Victoriana Magazine on line. “The History of the Fan.” (Undated, no author shown.)

For illustrations of boxes and other objects, visit these sites: “Anglo Indian Boxes.” Item 2. Veneered Boxes.

Patrick Jefferson website. “A Pinch of Spice: A Small Collection of Anglo-Indian Furniture,
Objects and Pictures.” Item 8-Candelsticks, made of hardwood, possibly sandalwood. Item 9-
Ivory & Lac Inlaid Sandalwood Glove Box.

Selling Antiques website. “Antique Sandalwood Boxes.”


Lauren Gilbert, author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, lives in Florida with her husband. She wears sandalwood scent, and enjoys the Florida weather. Her second novel, A Rational Attachment, is due out later this year. Visit for more information.


  1. Thanks for the interesting information, Lauren. Sandalwood was my favourite back in the heady hippy days when patchouli and musk seemed to pervade the air!

    1. I loved it then, too. Patchouli and musk were just a little too much for me. Thanks for commenting, Marie!

  2. Love this! Thank you for sharing this info. Cheers!

    1. You're most welcome, Hunter. I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Fascinating post. Did not know about the fans. I love the smell of Sandalwood. Thanks!

    1. The rouge is what surprised me most, Regan. I learn something new every time! I appreciate your comment.


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