In an era lacking indoor plumbing, not surprisingly, the excavation of the SS Republic yielded dozens of perfume bottles including a few rare examples with their contents and glass stopper still intact.
Life in the 1800s necessitated the use of perfume and cologne. Without the conveniences of hot or cold running water, nor washers and dryers to automatically launder one’s clothing, personal hygiene was a constant problem intensified by the heat of the summer and made unbearable by the heavy woolen clothing of the winter. The use of cologne was in fact essential, and as common as today’s use of deodorants. In addition to its use at home, cologne and perfume was regularly carried by women in their purses for the often needed “pause that refreshes.” In early America, the first scents were colognes and scented water. Perfume would undergo a profound change in the 19th century when changing tastes and the development of modern chemistry laid the foundations of perfumery as we know it today. Alchemy gave way to chemistry and new fragrances were created. Under the post-revolutionary government, people once again dared to express a penchant for luxury goods, including perfume. Soon a number of perfumery manufactories were established in the country with small quantities of fragrant waters and colognes frequently put into glass bottles.
The wearing of perfumes, colognes, rosewaters and other concoctions of scent played a major role with both the ladies and gentlemen of the era. It also appears that their use was not entirely restricted to the more cosmopolitan middle and upper classes. By the mid-19th century, widespread advertisements for cologne and sweet waters of all kinds had increased dramatically, often published in small-town local gazettes as well as in larger urban newspapers—strongly suggesting that the sale of colognes and other scented waters was not limited to the burgeoning metropolis’ nor to society’s upper crust, but rather more broadly targeted the general public.
While many of the perfume bottles recovered from the SS Republic carry the embossed company name of distinguished 19th-century perfumers, both European and American, others remain anonymous, including this small example. Lacking identifying embossment and its paper label long lost to the sea, its history and manufacture remains a mystery.