Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Napoleon of Sweet Scents

A question on early cosmetics on a recent TV quiz show sent me scurrying to find out about Eugene Rimmel, the founder of Rimmel Cosmetics. 
Image NYPL Digital Gallery
As with an earlier blog about Dison's lace, my search took me on various diversions beyond discovering that the first factory-made mascara, hair dyes and mouthwashes were all pioneered by Rimmel in London from the mid-19th Century. 
The Oxford Dictionary of Biography states that he was born in France in 1820 and served as an apprentice under his father (Hyacinthe Mars Rimmel) in London.
At the early age of 14 he established his own shop and laboratory at Gerrard Street, Soho, later moving to 96 Strand. Other branches were at Cornhill and in Regent Street, as well as in Paris. 
His father was declared bankrupt in 1837 and his partnership with his son was later dissolved, although it is not known whether this was amicable or otherwise.
Rimmel also claimed to be the first perfumer in England to use female labour and he eventually held 10 Royal Warrants including that of Queen Victoria.
Rimmel's "Toilet Vinegars" were very popular throughout the Victorian era and he also specialised in gift packs, scented Valentine cards, cushions and other perfumed objects. 
A case of his perfumery was displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition described in one newspaper ... 
"... at the centre of which is a beautiful little fountain sending forth delicate jets of eau de cologne with which the obliging exhibitor permits ladies to perfume their handkerchiefs". 
The famous French artist Jules Cheret designed for Rimmel
At the 1862 International Exhibition, Rimmel first encountered the pungent essential oils such as Australian eucalyptus and he successfully experimented in using these in toilet soaps and perfumes, although they proved to be a hazard as the Strand premises burned down in May 1875, the fire thought to have started in the huge quantities of these oils and other spirits stored on the premises. 
Rimmel was a great friend of the exiled French author Victor Hugo, often visiting him in his exile in Guernsey, and was fully fluent in English and French as well as various other languages. He translated Shakespeare into French and also wrote the Book of Perfumes and Recollections of the Paris 1867 Exhibition, both of which are profusely illustrated and can be found in various online free book websites.
The "Napoleon of Sweet Scents" as he was known, died in 1887 and his obituary in the Aberdeen Journal had little regard for how he made his money, but focussed almost solely on his altruistic side.
"He was the life and soul of every work which had for its object the amelioration of the condition of the afflicted and the poor."
"He was the most modest as well as the most charitable of men. Though decorated with the Cross of the Legion of Honour, and with other insignia, he never wore them in public except when it was compulsory, and whenever possible he suppressed the mention of the honour."
He received this Legion of Honour in March 1872 from the President of the French Republic, not for his contribution to commerce or perfumery, but for founding the French (Shaftesbury) Hospital and other work on behalf of French and other foreigners in London. He also founded the Bureau de Bienfaisance (later Société Française de Bienfaisance) in Poland Street. He set up a fund to support the Society of the Professors of French. 
Although he died in London, Eugene Rimmel was buried in his family's vault at Varenne-sur-Seine.  His sons took over the business and the name continues to the present day, although it is now owned by Coty. Read more here.
This vintage Rimmel mascara currently for sale at Etsy.

The Rimmel name and products can be found all around the world.  A couple of bottles said to be Rimmel from city archaelogical excavations can be seen at the Melbourne Museum.
Bottle 1. Bottle 2.

These images of Rimmel cards from the Fotolibra Collection