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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

A Very Brief History of New York Perfume Houses - and a Prize Draw

By Donna

In modern times, New York City has truly become the co-capital of the perfume industry along with Paris, with all the major players having offices in the U.S. and so many famous fashion designers of modern times such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Bill Blass and Donna Karan introduced their own fragrances too. However, it was not always thus; at one time France ruled the perfume world and American houses were considered second-rate at best. Dozens of domestic cosmetic and fragrance firms rose and fell in the early decades of the twentieth century, many of them doomed to fail for reasons of both quality and competition, and American fashion designers of the time introduced their own perfumes just like the French couturiers did. Out of all this emerged some enduring classics, and more than a few which deserved more recognition but languished in obscurity.

Certainly one of the best known names in the former category is Prince Matchabelli. Casual perfume fans may not know that Georges Matchabelli was a real person, an amateur chemist who opened a little shop on Madison Avenue after fleeing the Russian revolution. Most of the very early fragrances from this house are lost to us, although the beautiful crown-shaped bottles are much sought after by collectors, and it was only after the business was sold in 1936 that their most famous perfumes were introduced; Beloved, Prophecy, Stradivari, Golden Autumn and of course the most famous all, Wind Song in 1953. The company changed hands several times and today the only older classic in the lineup is Wind Song, now much changed from its original formula. At one time the Matchabelli perfume company was an American tradition. Several of its fragrances, including the feminine floral Added Attraction, were once given away by car dealers as a free gift with purchase of a new Chevrolet automobile; something for “the little woman” as it was assumed that her husband was the one paying for the car. How times have changed! I have had the opportunity to smell several of the vintage Prince Matchabelli perfumes, and they are much better than the drugstore version sold today.

Other New York based companies have long since passed into oblivion, but their names still echo in the minds of collectors and perfume historians. Blanchard Perfumes only released a few scents, but the names Jealousy and Evening Star still arouse longing in the hearts of vintage fragrance aficionados. The name Lander may be familiar to most Americans for their toiletries such as deodorant and shampoo, but the company also produced a number of perfumes including Cave Man (1943) and Golden Gardenia (1947). The Mary Chess line is no more, but this All-American firm was noted for its quality perfumes, including White Lilac (1932) and Tapestry (1934.) One of the least known names today is Nettie Rosenstein, a talented fashion designed who released only five fragrances, all of high quality. The most famous of these was a wonderful Oriental style perfume called Odalisque in 1953.

Of course, no discussion of New York originals would be complete without talking about the big players of American cosmetics: Revlon, Elizabeth Arden, Estée Lauder and Helena Rubinstein. These powerhouses were greatly responsible for putting America on the world business map and giving American cosmetic and fragrance products the international respect they deserved. Even today, such classic scents as Elizabeth Arden's Blue Grass (1934), Estée Lauder's Youth-Dew (1953) and Revlon's Charlie (1973) are sold in department stores all over the world. They found success where so many others failed, but I find the stories of the older perfume and fashion houses to be fascinating; many of them held to a standard of quality that is rarely seen today.

I have long been an admirer of the Helena Rubinstein cosmetic line, and I was very disappointed when the company was sold to L'Oreal and its products withdrawn from the U.S. market some years ago. Helena (née Chaja) Rubinstein, a Polish immigrant who gained considerable success in Australia before coming to New York, introduced a large number of perfumes, including the very popular Apple Blossom in 1936 and of course the enduring icon Heaven Sent in 1941. The latter's formula is now owned by Dana and the fragrance is still sold today, but of course it's not the same as it once was. Two fragrances that were introduced after “Madame” Rubinstein died in 1965 were Courant (1972), a lovely sophisticated floral chypre, and Barynia (1985) a little-known but very beautiful fresh aldehydic floral. I own and wear both of these excellent perfumes. Anyone with even a passing interest in the beauty business probably knows of her great and contentious rivalry with Elizabeth Arden; these two titans of business fought their way to the top and paved the way for female-run businesses. (Recently a new Helena Rubinstein brand perfume called Wanted was introduced as part of the line's re-entry to the U.S. Market, but I found it formulaic and uninteresting, although quite pretty.) The excellent television documentary called The Powder & The Glory, based on the well-researched book called War Paint: Miss Elizabeth Arden and Madame Helena Rubinstein — Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry by Lindy Woodhead is well worth watching, or read the book if you really want to dig into this fascinating study of two American beauty tycoons.

I am offering a drawing for a selection of vintage American perfume samples to one lucky U.S. reader – Prince Matchabelli Added Attraction and Stradivari eau de toilettes, Nettie Rosenstein Odalisque eau de parfum and Mary Chess Tapestry eau de toilette. Please leave a comment in order to be included in the draw, which will be open for one week only. (Sorry, I can only ship to U.S. addresses.)

Image credits: Prince Matchabelli Beloved crown bottle from collector site Vintage Nettie Rosenstein Perfumes ad from EBay image.

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Blogger taffynfontana said...

I love the depth that vintage perfumes can have. Please enter me in the draw.

12:32 AM EST  
Blogger Diana said...

Ooooh, vintage! Love it! Sign me up.

1:18 AM EST  
Blogger Tama said...

I'd love to be in the draw. Nice article, Donna! I'd love to have a perfume made by someone named "Nettie". I think Heaven Sent was my first perfume purchase as a pre-teen - I am afraid of what it must smell like now....

2:38 AM EST  
Blogger Katherine said...

I remember my grandmother had Odalisque in the medicine cabinet, probably a Valentine's gift from my grandfather. Please do enter me in the draw.

2:44 AM EST  
Anonymous Richard Crawford-Conway said...

Is anything more invocative of lost worlds than a small drawer containing an empty Prince Machiavelli perfume bottle that I found in great Mom-Mom's bedroom after her funeral? All the other relations had taken what they desired, the rest of her things waited for a Faith Farm pickup....thus our past and future.

3:44 AM EST  
OpenID said...

Very interesting article. Thank you! I loved the book War Paint.

4:05 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have only dipped my toe into vintage; I would love the opportunity to learn more. Please enter me into the drawing. Thanks!

Ann C.

6:40 AM EST  
Blogger queen_cupcake said...

I am always on the hunt for vintage perfumes. I will now add a few more to my wish list! I remember my sister's "crown" bottle of one of the Matchabelli perfumes. They are highly collectible now. I always hope that people will cherish the contents as much as the bottles. Please enter me in the draw & thanks.

6:46 AM EST  
Blogger Beth Gehring said...

What a great article Donna! I loved those Matchabelli bottles! I loved Blue Grass , especially the stories about how she formulated it for her racehorses. No need to enter me, justvwanting to tell you I loved it !

6:52 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would love to be in the draw! I would love to smell Odalesque!


7:29 AM EST  
Anonymous mocards said...

I remember blissfully wearing Blue Grass and Prince Matchabelli favorites when I was young...never dreaming that they'd not always be around. I think if I could smell Blue Grass (the original) right now it would transport me to a very happy place in my memory. Thank you for your thoughtful review.

7:36 AM EST  
Anonymous *jen said...

Love, love, love! Pick me, pick me. :)

7:59 AM EST  
Anonymous hotlanta linda said...

Odalisque! I have a dram-size flacon of this, purchased from Regenstein`s - store of women`s fashion - here in Atlanta. NICE and smooth :-) Thank you for putting my name in the hat!!

8:46 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still remember the beautiful wind song ad. Please enter me in the draw. Jill S.

10:03 AM EST  
Blogger ~elise said...

enter me too! Great article! Love to read about perfume history...

10:07 AM EST  
Blogger Tammy said...

I very much enjoyed reading your history lesson....I didn't realize that some of those houses were so old, or even that American perfumery dated back that far.

I definitely prefer vintage perfumes to the modern ones, and I thank you for a chance to sample some, thanks!

10:53 AM EST  
Blogger tmp00 said...

Fascinating reading!

11:09 AM EST  
Anonymous RusticDove said...

Being an ardent fan of vintage fragrances, I loved this article! Please enter me in the draw and thanks for the opportunity.

11:19 AM EST  
Blogger arlene20 said...

Ahhh, the memories. Your write-up conjured the aromas of my youth -- Blue Grass, Heaven Sent, and Wind Song -- that set the stage for my fascination with fragrance today. Please enter me in the draw.

11:22 AM EST  
Anonymous gautami said...

Please enter me in the draw. I would like to try dome vintage scents. Thank you.

11:35 AM EST  
Blogger Katherine said...

please enter me in the draw, thanks!

11:44 AM EST  
Blogger Cecilia said...

thanks for entering me in the draw!

12:26 PM EST  
Anonymous jms said...

I would love to be entered in the draw! Thank you!

12:32 PM EST  
Blogger Ashley said...

I would love to try these! Please enter me in the draw!

12:44 PM EST  
Blogger Alice said...

I would love to sample some of the good stuff! Thanks for the chance...(you're so generous!)

12:47 PM EST  
Blogger Fernando said...

This is very interesting. Clearly there have been a lot of nice things done in the past. A pity so many are gone.

12:55 PM EST  
Blogger Dink said...

Fond memories of many of the scents mentioned here. Would love to be entered in the draw. Thanks.

1:22 PM EST  
Blogger Doc Elly said...

Oh yes!!! I would love to try these vintage perfumes that I'd probably never have the opportunity to sample unless I found them at an estate sale. And who has the time to go to estate sales?

Please enter me in the drawing.

2:49 PM EST  
Blogger rosarita said...

Sounds wonderful, sign me up, and thanks for the opportunity!

3:35 PM EST  
Anonymous ElizabethC said...

I love exploring history through vintage fragrances! Please enter me in the drawing!

3:43 PM EST  
Blogger Tasha said...

please enter me! :) would love to meet vintage american perfumes...

4:20 PM EST  
Blogger ScentScelf said...

Thanks for the vintage tour, Donna. I had to chuckle at the Chevrolet gift with purchase...see the USA, in your Chevrolet, wearing (and perhaps being the) Added Attraction.

Barynia, eh? (Chypre loving ears perk up...)

I have a bottle of Hayloft, by Jean Lasalle, another New York purveyor of perfume. It's always nice when you roll a few toward a mystery perfume and have it turn out to be interesting...or, in this case, even a happy something.

Lovely of you to host a draw; don't include me, but thank you for doing that for perfume fans.

5:42 PM EST  
Blogger Prettywitty504 said...

There's nothing like vintage. Please enter me in the draw, and thanks so much!

6:18 PM EST  
Blogger Dixie said...

Thank you for the educational article! I'd love to be entered into the draw!

6:50 PM EST  
Blogger a.k.a. Warum said...

I'd love a chance to try some vintage perfumes. I am new to this, and women in my family wore little perfume, so I know very little and always ready to learn more.

7:19 PM EST  
Blogger woodgirl said...

Fascinating article. I'm a big fan of vintage perfumes. Please enter me in the draw and thanks for the opportunity.

8:51 PM EST  
Blogger saralevy said...

I would love to enter the drawing! Thanks.

9:53 PM EST  
Blogger Liz said...

Yummy, vintage... an area I don't know at all... please sign me up!

10:21 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any chance at quality vintage fragrances and I'm there! Please add my name to the drawing! FERDIE

2:40 PM EST  
Blogger christine said...

Please include me in the draw!

3:25 PM EST  
Anonymous maggiecat said...

Fascinating - I'll be looking for that book! One of my first scents was Wind Song, and I remember it fondly (though I'm sure it wouldn't be the same today). Still, it was one of the gateway drugs that led to my happy life as a perfumista today!

6:50 PM EST  
Blogger Undina said...

Please include me in the draw: I'd love to try more vintage perfumes.

9:39 PM EST  
Blogger Gail S said...

I enjoy sampling vintage scents and these would all be new to me. Would love to be entered in the draw!

9:54 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Hi everyone, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your interest in the vintage perfumes! Everyone who has expressed interest will be entered, and there is still time to put your name in!

1:31 AM EST  
Blogger Netto said...

Terrific article, and I'd give my right arm to sniff these scents. Well maybe not my whole arm. Please enter me

8:41 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to try more vintage.. they take me back to my Aunt's vanity...

12:24 AM EST  
Anonymous Monica said...

beautiful article Donna, I would be honored to try fragrances from you :-)

12:25 AM EST  
Anonymous Lori said...

Beautiful article, Donna! Love a good history lesson.

11:10 AM EST  
Anonymous Flora said...

REMINDER: Anyone who enters the draw under the name "Anonymous" and does NOT leave a "nickname" in the body of their comment will not be entered in the draw. Thank you!

6:20 PM EST  
Blogger Dominique said...

Plz enter me in the draw. THNX!!!

11:48 AM EST  
Blogger sean's jo said...

Thanks again for a great article. Please enter me in the draw if it's not too late.

2:29 PM EST  
Anonymous Flora said...

Thanks for commenting everyone -the draw is now closed and the winner will be anounced shortly. Good luck!

4:07 PM EST  
Blogger Lynnmarie Clark said...

Shocked you did not mention Avon. Founded as the Calfornia Perfume company in NYC in 1886 it's the oldest or one of the oldest perfume houses in the United States

3:40 PM EST  

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