The Factory and the Rose Fields: A Visit to the Schimmel Library in Miltitz

The autumn air smells faintly like lollipops.

It's late November, and I’m passing through the main gates of Bell Flavors & Fragrances’ European headquarters in Miltitz, just outside of Leipzig, on my way to visit the Schimmel Library, possibly the largest collection of flavor- and fragrance-related books in the world. I walk sniffing the air, bunny-like, trying to pin names on spectral fruits. But the atmosphere keeps changing. I catch a whiff of something sharp and sulfurous, like the burnt residue at the bottom of an office coffeepot crossed over by a skunk. When I sniff again, it’s gone, and there’s only a faint earthy odor, a mushroom’s dank gills – impossible to say whether it emanates from ground beneath the row of ashen birch trees, sopped with the morning’s drizzle, or from the low white building behind them, blank and garlanded with HVAC ducts. I keep walking. The molecules in the air continue to rearrange themselves. As I push in the ornate wooden doors of the building that houses the library, I once again inhale only fruitiness.     

Schimmel Library front desk, with librarian Ricarda Bergmann, a real star. The inscription above her head reads: "Among these books sat scientists, scholars and Nobel prize chemists dedicated to discovering the mysteries of nature as it relates to essential oils, flavors, fragrances, and aroma chemicals. To the pioneers of the future who follow in their footsteps those of the past send their greetings." 

Schimmel Library front desk, with librarian Ricarda Bergmann, a real star. The inscription above her head reads: "Among these books sat scientists, scholars and Nobel prize chemists dedicated to discovering the mysteries of nature as it relates to essential oils, flavors, fragrances, and aroma chemicals. To the pioneers of the future who follow in their footsteps those of the past send their greetings." 

This land, and the library I am visiting, once belonged to Schimmel & Company, one of the first flavor and fragrance companies. Since purchasing Schimmel in 1993, Bell has restored the library, which had fallen into disuse and disrepair during the decades when Leipzig was part of the DDR (East Germany), and Schimmel was a state-owned enterprise. This is now a thoroughly modern flavor and fragrance manufacturing facility. The grounds are silent, the odors in the air are muted. In this little sketch about my visit to the Schimmel Library last month, I want to raise some of the ghosts of the past, paint a picture of what it was like to make flavors and fragrances in Miltitz in the years immediately before the First World War.   

The company that would become Schimmel & Co. was founded in Leipzig in 1829 as Spähn and Buttner, a drug-maker at a time when many medicines were derived from botanical materials. The company quickly passed through several owners and name changes, but by the 1870s, it was known as Schimmel & Co. and was solely in the hands of the Fritzsche family. During this time, it shifted its focus from the manufacture of pharmaceuticals to the production of essential oils. Under the Fritzsches’ leadership, Schimmel & Co. grew rapidly, pioneering scientific analysis and production methods. The company established the first research laboratory in the essential oil business, and incorporated several foreign branches, including Fritzsche Brothers in New York, to manufacture and distribute its products globally.

In the early 1880s, Schimmel began manufacturing its own rose oil in mass quantities, supplementing and improving upon traditional sources in Bulgaria. Rose petals are fragile, and must be processed as soon as possible after harvest to retain their evanescent fragrances, with gentler steam rather than high heat. The company purchased dozens of acres of land in Miltitz, a town about six miles west of Leipzig, on the path of the Thuringian railroad. There, it cultivated German and Bulgarian roses in tidy, thorny rows. "It goes without saying that here the crudities of the Bulgarian process are not tolerated," wrote Edward Gildemeister, Schimmel chemist, in his description of the company's methods in his foundational 1899 monograph on essential oil chemistry. "Owing to the greater care exercised, the odor of the German oil is far superior to that of the Bulgarian."

Harvesting rose petals to make rose oil in Miltitz. From  The Volatile Oils , the english translation of Gildemeister and Hoffmann's  Die Aetherischen Oele,  the first scientific monograph on essential oil chemistry, first published in 1899. Gildemeister was a chemist at Schimmel & Co., and much of the information included in the book was based on research conducted at the company. 

Harvesting rose petals to make rose oil in Miltitz. From The Volatile Oils, the english translation of Gildemeister and Hoffmann's Die Aetherischen Oele, the first scientific monograph on essential oil chemistry, first published in 1899. Gildemeister was a chemist at Schimmel & Co., and much of the information included in the book was based on research conducted at the company. 

Images of rose fields and rose field workers, from the small exhibit of the company's history displayed in the atrium outside the Schimmel Library.  

Images of rose fields and rose field workers, from the small exhibit of the company's history displayed in the atrium outside the Schimmel Library.  

I don’t know how many people worked in those fields, plucking petals off roses in bloom, who they were, or what their labor was like. But this should suggest the scale of the project: one kilo of rose oil required five to six thousand kilograms of flowers. Roses were also quite fussy to cultivate. A cold night in early June 1911, when the temperature fell below freezing while the flowers were still in bud, destroyed that entire season’s crop.  

In 1900, Schimmel & Co. left Leipzig behind and relocated to Miltitz, raising a large complex of factories, workshops, and laboratories amidst its fields of roses.  By the beginning of the First World War, Schimmel & Co. owned around 300 acres of land in the town. It had its own post office, power plant, printing shop, water purification system, and sewer network. It also built a model village for its workers and managers to live in, just across the street from the walls of the factory complex, surrounded by gardens and rose fields.   

Zeppelin's-eye view of Schimmel & Co. in Miltitz, from the April 1914 Schimmel & Co.  Semi-Annual Report . The twin smokestacks correspond to the two boiler-houses, which supplied steam for distillation to the complex. The model worker's village is to the right of the factory complex. the town of Miltitz lies behind the factory. Railcars on the Thuringian railway can be seen in the mid-left margin of the image, approaching or receding along a diagonal. Rose fields stretch across the foreground and border the worker's village.  

Zeppelin's-eye view of Schimmel & Co. in Miltitz, from the April 1914 Schimmel & Co. Semi-Annual Report. The twin smokestacks correspond to the two boiler-houses, which supplied steam for distillation to the complex. The model worker's village is to the right of the factory complex. the town of Miltitz lies behind the factory. Railcars on the Thuringian railway can be seen in the mid-left margin of the image, approaching or receding along a diagonal. Rose fields stretch across the foreground and border the worker's village.  

At this time, Miltitz, on the fringes of Leipzig, in the middle of Europe, on the cusp of the First World War, became a central collection and redistribution point for a world’s worth of fragrant, pungent, and aromatic stuff.  In addition to the roses and other aromatic herbs cultivated in the surrounding area, the Schimmel factory processed hundreds of raw materials imported from foreign and colonial sources: sandalwood, patchouli, orris, and cedar; lavender, eucalyptus, and jasmine; animal musks and ajowan seeds; camphor and turpentine; ginger roots and caraway. (Ten tons of caraway seeds a day in 1908, according to one source.)

In Miltitz, these substances were reduced to their essences, analyzed, purified, concentrated, standardized, and packed into uniform bottles, ready to be incorporated into a diversifying range of consumer goods: perfumes, soaps, cosmetics, disinfectants, medicines, and flavorings for liqueurs, sodas, candies, and other manufactured foods. The mechanical and chemical processes perpetrated upon raw materials at Schimmel & Co. made a growing number of new sensations available to expanding circles of people. In some regards, this was a kind of democratization of luxury — the otto of roses that once perfumed the silks of a wealthy lady, now wafted from the handkerchief of the girl at the factory —  but the effect was more than simply making rare things more common, or costly things cheap. What was made in Miltitz were the building blocks of a new sensual order, based in chemical technologies, which permitted sensations to be reimagined as discrete and manipulable molecular arrangements.

The French historian Alain Corbin has called the nineteenth century an era of deodorization. Cities had always stunk, with their concentration of bodies, animals, excrement, and garbage, but around the beginnings of the industrial revolution, people began minding the stench. Governments took up large-scale hygienic projects — subterranean sewers, water treatment facilities, slum clearance — and passed laws regulating insalubrious odors from workshops and factories, with the related goals of improving public health and minimizing obnoxious smells. (The relocation of Schimmel & Co.’s factory from Leipzig to its outskirts was likely part of this process, removing a smelly factory to a place where it might bother fewer people.) Meanwhile, personal habits and norms changed concerning bathing and cleanliness, body odors, underwear, and laundry.

The technological and cultural processes of “deodorization” didn’t leave behind odorless places and unscented bodies. The world that industrialization produced — both deliberately and incidentally — still smelled, just different. (I think Melanie Kiechle writes about this in her new book, The Smell Detectives.) You can think of it as a redistribution of the planet’s olfactory potentials. Certain kinds of aromas multiplied, attaching themselves to bodies, clothing, cleaning products, living spaces, public spaces, just as other odors were suppressed, scrubbed away, deemed offensive.

Schimmel & Co.’s business was at the center of this large-scale re-scenting of the industrial world. This enterprise required an immense concentration of raw material, energy, resources, and labor. In 1912, the factory employed more than 100 clerks, around 250 workmen, 16 analytic chemists, and 20 technicians. In 1908, the factory used about 880,000 gallons of water a day, comparable to a town of 50,000 people. In 1912, it burned through 45,000 tons of coal. Industrial waste and sewage was carried away by pipes “to distant irrigation fields, covering some 7 acres.”    

From  Schimmel & Co.'s Works , 1908.

From Schimmel & Co.'s Works, 1908.

There are two detailed English-language descriptions of Schimmel & Co.’s Miltitz works, published in 1908 and 1913, and the figures, quotes, and some of the historic images here come from those (I’ll include links to sources at the end, if you’re curious). Both make it clear that transforming blossoms, leaves, woods, seeds, resins, and other botanical stuff into essential oils and aromatic chemicals was a noisy, smelly, messy business.

The largest building in the complex was where essential oils were manufactured. Its second floor was filled with a variety of “disintegration machines,” each specially designed to reduce specific raw materials to the form from which their essence could be most effectively extracted. The pounding, sawing, crushing, and pulverizing machines was “deafening,” filling the air “with the incessant roar and screech of ceaseless, throbbing energy — a veritable symphony of modern labor.” Nets shrouded the room, to catch the dust.

Once “disintegrated,” raw materials funneled down through the floor to custom-built distillation stills on the ground level, where they were separated and concentrated under carefully controlled conditions of heat and pressure. “Here we are met by the hissing, the roar and the rush of the steam.” This was a vast space with 26-foot ceilings and huge arched windows that let in the light and vented out the odors and the heat. “An all-pervading cloud of mysterious and indefinable perfume permeates this great hall,” the thick confounding mixture of aromas from everywhere.  

Elsewhere, in an adjacent building, some of these essences were further disintegrated into molecules, or reconfigured into new substances of value. Pure menthol was isolated from peppermint oil; thymol from ajowan seed oil; eugenol from clove oil. These were sold as basic chemicals, or were starting points for further synthetic processes such as the production of vanillin from eugenol, or lilac-scented terpineol from turpentine. Geraniol, a chemical component of rose oil, was synthesized from Citronella oil under a Schimmel-patented process, and combined with true rose oil, to produce an "artificial" rose oil (sold as Rose-Geraniol), which gave the sensory effects of the genuine product for a lower price. In this way, the natural and synthetic were intertwined in the molecular realm.    

There was also a dedicated research building, where chemists toiled in “seven large, light and airy work rooms, each for two or three chemists.” This building is where the library was originally located, stocked with several thousand volumes, including chemical journals and dissertations, an international collection of pharmacopeias, and botanical encyclopedias. Other kinds of reference materials were also available: botanical specimens, chemical samples, and “many objects of ethnological interest.”

Research laboratory, site of the original Schimmel Library. From  Schimmel & Co.'s Works , 1908. 

Research laboratory, site of the original Schimmel Library. From Schimmel & Co.'s Works, 1908. 

In the research building, chemists analyzed essential oils, identifying chemical components and establishing physical constants, standards of identity, and methods of detecting adulteration. They also worked out ways of manufacturing valuable chemical compounds synthetically. Methyl anthranilate, the chemical used in artificial grape flavor in the U.S., was first identified at Schimmel in neroli (orange blossom) oil, and first produced synthetically there. Chemical analysis was a service that Schimmel & Co. offered, for free, to any clients or potential clients. Send in a sample of a lavender oil or aromatic chemical that a merchant was trying to interest you in, and Schimmel chemists would evaluate it, gratis: exposing adulteration, low-quality materials, or misleadingly labeled goods.

The printing presses in a moment of serenity. From  Schimmel & Co.'s Works , 1908.

The printing presses in a moment of serenity. From Schimmel & Co.'s Works, 1908.

At Schimmel, the production and distribution of scientific knowledge was intrinsically connected with the production of essential oils and aromatic chemicals. In addition to price lists and catalogs, beginning in 1886, the company published the Schimmel Semi-Annual Report, which compiled the latest scientific, technical, and market news from around the world relating to aromatic chemicals and essential oils. These reports were not just advertising Schimmel’s expertise, they were instrumental in the invention of essential oil chemistry as a scientific field – designating its scope, detailing its methods, and certifying its standards. Nearly 20,000 copies of each issue of the Semi-Annual Reports were printed, in German, French, and English language editions. These and other printing needs kept the four “modern high-speed printing presses” in the company print shop in frequent use, “fill[ing] the air with the hum of restless energy.”

The Schimmel complex in Miltitz was more than a manufacturing and research facility; it was a community, a model social organism. The company provided its employees with on-site health care, opportunities for healthy recreation, and subsidized housing.

Semi-detached cottages for workmen. From  Schimmel & Co's Works,  1908.

Semi-detached cottages for workmen. From Schimmel & Co's Works, 1908.

Detached villa for officials. From  Schimmel & Co's Works,  1908.

Detached villa for officials. From Schimmel & Co's Works, 1908.

Across from the factory was the “model village,” homes available to Schimmel employees at below-market rent. (For workmen, annual rent amounted to about ten weeks’ pay.) The residences were scaled in accordance with the status of the inhabitants. Families of ordinary workmen lived in semi-detached cottages. Company officials lived in grander, detached villas, with ornate architectural features. Every residence had a large garden, “sufficiently large to provide the families fully with vegetables and fruit.” Additionally, “everyone has the option of a piece of land of about 2000 sq. feet, free of charge, for growing potatoes, cucumbers, beans, etc.”

I don’t know enough about the Fritzsche family, or about German industry and labor politics in the late nineteenth century, to feel entirely confident speculating about the motives behind this corporate paternalism. But part of it was likely the need for securing a stable, skilled workforce outside of a city. Evidently, it was also an effort to correct insalubrious personal habits, and encourage sober and responsible family life by offering positive incentives and opportunities. “At 8 AM the men are given coffee and milk gratis,” according to one of the accounts of worklife at Miltitz, “on the condition that they drink no spirits during working hours.” Workmen could return home for lunch, and enjoy a warm meal with their families, strengthening those bonds of affection. The bucolic location also removed workers from the dissolute temptations of city life. “Instead of spending a considerable portion of their leisure time in the public house, as is otherwise only too often the case, the men are here for nine months out of the twelve occupied in their gardens in the midst of their families.” The houses, the gardens, the annual holiday bonuses, were part of a social project to produce better workers and more virtuous citizens.

Schimmel & Co. was not typical; it was exemplary — and it meant to be. The company deliberately represented itself as a standard-bearer not only for the essential oil industry, but also for the progressive force of chemical knowledge upon the historical trajectory of mankind. What better symbol of the benefits of “progressive chemistry” (as it was sometimes called) than the scientific flavor and fragrance industry, which promised not only to expose false and fraudulent substances — to guarantee authenticity and purity — but also to multiply, by technical means, pleasure-giving molecules? As the world hurtled toward the cataclysm of war, the Schimmel & Co. factory complex and its model village projected a fantasy where all human needs were met, where the rewards of progress were fairly distributed.

The homes still stand today, across the cobblestone street from the factory. (Amazingly, the taxi driver who drove me on the first day of my visit lived in one of them.)

Schimmel Worker's Village, 2017. 

Schimmel Worker's Village, 2017. 

And the original brick factories, laboratories, and warehouses are still standing, largely intact, though shuttered and silent.  

Chemical manufacturing building on the right. The main essential oil manufacturing building is the large one further back. I think the structure between them was a smaller auxiliary distillation building, where much of the herbs and flowers grown in Miltitz (including roses, hyssop, wormwood, and lovage) were distilled.

Chemical manufacturing building on the right. The main essential oil manufacturing building is the large one further back. I think the structure between them was a smaller auxiliary distillation building, where much of the herbs and flowers grown in Miltitz (including roses, hyssop, wormwood, and lovage) were distilled.

Main factory building on the left. The building on the right was one of the boiler-stack buildings. The smokestack was demolished in the early 1990s, after Bell bought the property.

Main factory building on the left. The building on the right was one of the boiler-stack buildings. The smokestack was demolished in the early 1990s, after Bell bought the property.

How it looked in 1913. From "A Visit to the Works of Schimmel & Co., Miltitz, Near Leipzig," from  American Perfumer and Essential Oil Review , May 1913. 

How it looked in 1913. From "A Visit to the Works of Schimmel & Co., Miltitz, Near Leipzig," from American Perfumer and Essential Oil Review, May 1913. 

Bell’s current offices, the library, and manufacturing buildings stand where rose fields once spread. (I was not permitted to photograph them.) Much of the land immediately west of Miltitz remains agricultural. A resident of the town told me that they grow corn, wheat, and strawberries.

I hadn’t anticipated that the material in the Schimmel Library would thin after 1948, when the company was nationalized under the East German regime.  Once a hub in the global exchange of fragrant substances and chemical knowledge, Cold War geopolitics sealed Schimmel off from many of its business and scientific colleagues. The publication of the Schimmel Annual Reports, which had become irregular during National Socialism and the Second World War, ceased completely. At a time when American flavor and fragrance companies were rapidly expanding their research and development operations, the Schimmel Library in Miltitz was stunted by politics. The factory continued to operate, supplying the eastern bloc and Soviet client states with : orange flavor for Cuban toothpaste, cheap floral perfumes for East German ladies, as well as the flavor for Vita Cola.

Some of stuff containing Schimmel & Co.'s flavors and fragrances produced in the DDR. 

Some of stuff containing Schimmel & Co.'s flavors and fragrances produced in the DDR. 

vita cola.jpg

Vita Cola was the DDR’s answer to the Coca-Cola and its smooth inducements to global capitalist hegemony. I’d like to buy the world a Coke… Vita Cola gave East Germans an alternative way to quell their thirst and their desires for refreshment. Originally imagined as a caffeinated lemonade, Vita Cola provided liquid pep to sustain industrial toil and lift sluggish spirits. It had a distinctive citric tang, and was less sweet, than its Western rival.

Vita Cola advertisement in Hungarian that I found on Pinterest. Wish I had more info on this...

Vita Cola advertisement in Hungarian that I found on Pinterest. Wish I had more info on this...

Apparently, Vita Cola is having a moment right now, at least around Leipzig. It is the number one cola beverage in Thuringia, making the region one of the only places in the world to favor a local cola over Coke's global hegemon. The craving for Vita Cola is generally related to what's been called "Ostalgia," a nostalgic longing for the symbols and quotidian artifacts of life in East Germany -- a phenomenon that points to kitsch's emollient power to soften and heal, but also perhaps to the wish that another kind of world were (still) possible. (It is.)  

The production of Vita Cola was suspended after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but it reappeared in the early 1990s. Its essence is still made in Miltitz, though now under the auspices of Bell Flavors and Fragrances (the lollipop scent in the air?) 

A bottle of Vita Cola stood waiting for me when I visited the Schimmel library, effervescent with the past and with the welcome chemical boosters of sugar and caffeine.  


A 1908 English-language booklet that offers a virtual tour of the Schimmel Works at Miltitz from the University of Wisconsin Madison library is digitized, searchable, and fully viewable at Hathi Trust:

You can also find many copies of the Schimmel Semi-Annual report on the site:

The American Perfumer and Essential Oil Review published a similar (but not identical) account of the Schimmel works at Miltitz in its May 1913 issue, but it was an unpaginated insert, and doesn't seem to be included in digitized copies of that publication available online. 

Essential oil nerds may want to check out Gildemeister and Hoffmann's Volatile Oils (or the find the original, in German, if you can read it). The English edition was translated in the early 20th century by Edward Kremers, a professor of pharmacy at University of Michigan, a character who appears often in the debates around pure food and flavor additives, but who I don't know that much about. Volume I of Volatile Oils is entirely historical -- it includes a history of the spice trade, of particular oils and scents, and of methods and technologies for producing essential oils. Here's a link to Volatile Oils

"Here's how you can see how superior socialist consumerism can outmatch capitalist production." For those of you who want a place to start on your Vita Cola internet rabbithole. 


From Neroli to NuGrape: Methyl Anthranilate

Oof! It's been a while since I've posted anything here. My excuse is that I've been writing, or pantomiming writing, or sitting in front of my laptop furrowing my brow and wondering, "what is it... to write?" I think this is a pretty common dissertation symptom. Writing ceases to be a series of deliberate actions and instead becomes a sort of misty tunnel that you enter and exit each day wondering, "What happened? What is happening? Is this real life?" But! I have a couple of other blog posts on the transom, "somewhat finished," and so I promise that there will be new material here more than semi-seasonally.

In the meantime, here's a preview of something that I might talk about next week at my Fellow in Focus lecture here at Chemical Heritage Foundation. (The lecture is free! So if you're in Philadelphia on April 2, come out and hear me talk about this stuff in real life!)


The question I'm starting from is this: if you wanted to make a flavor additive, in or around 1920, what would it take? What would you need to know? What would you need to have access to?

The first thing to realize is the most obvious. Making synthetic flavors meant working with what was available -- in terms of both knowledge and materials.

When it came to knowledge -- that is, certain knowledge of the flavor chemicals actually present in foods -- for much of the first half of the twentieth century, there was little to go on. Even as other material components of foods -- proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins -- were chemically determined and quantified, flavor research lagged behind. There are several reasons for this. Usually, flavor chemicals are only present in tiny amounts in food -- parts per million or even less. In early twentieth-century chemistry laboratories, isolating and identifying chemicals present in such small quantities was tricky, and labor- and material-intensive. (For instance, USDA chemists in the early 1920s attempting to identify the chemicals that gave apples their aroma had to start out with nearly a ton of apples to get less than two grams of aromatic material for analysis). Complicating matters further, flavor chemicals are often volatile, unstable, and reactive. It took meticulous work to ensure that the chemicals identified in the final result were not artifacts created in the process of analysis. Which is all to say that identifying the chemicals responsible for flavor in foods is a very difficult problem, and, until the 1950s -- when powerful analytic technologies such as gas chromatography became available -- very few people attempted it.

E.J. Kessler's  Practical Flavoring Extract Maker  from 1912.

E.J. Kessler's Practical Flavoring Extract Maker from 1912.

So, in most cases, when a maker of flavoring additives circa 1920 was formulating an artificial "strawberry" or "pineapple" flavor, he (almost always he) was not pretending to reproduce the natural world on a molecular level. That is, he was not trying to synthetically replicate the actual chemical components of actual pineapples. He was working from standard chemical recipes gleaned from formularies, handbooks, or trade journals, or kept under lock and key as company secrets. He was also using his sensory and scientific knowledge of different chemicals, so that he could combine available materials in appropriate ways to obtain desired qualities (a "fresher" tasting peach, a strawberry flavor that was suitable for candy lozenges.)

Getting the raw materials for flavor-making meant shopping in the same chemical marketplace as perfumers, pharmacists, and soap and cosmetics makers. Supply houses such as Schimmel & Co., W.J. Bush & Co., Synfleur, and others typically sold both proprietary perfume and flavoring formulations and "raw materials" for the industry -- synthetic aromatic chemicals or purified isolates, natural essential oils, extracts and essences. Frequently, the same chemical would be put to work in different contexts, appearing in different types of products, producing distinct effects, acquiring different meanings.     

Which brings me to the story of exemplary chemical: methyl anthranilate.

By the turn of the twentieth century, methyl anthranilate was already an important chemical for perfumers. In the mid-1890s, it had been identified as a key component of neroli -- the essential oil of orange blossoms. Its presence was subsequently discovered in other natural essences: tuberose, jasmine, gardenia, ylang-ylang, and bergamot. In other words, methyl anthranilate was a frequent chemical denizen of the lush pleasure gardens of early twentieth-century floral perfumes, scenting a lady's handkerchief, or the bosom she held it to.    

I mentioned earlier how tough analytic organic chemistry could be? People in the essential oil and perfumery business needed to be well-versed in its techniques and methods, and to have a comprehensive analytical understanding of the chemical components of their materials. Essential oils are costly; they vary in quality; dealers can be unscrupulous. Careful chemical analyses could not only detect frauds, but also determine purity, and thus value. Knowing the chemical components and physical properties of essential oils was necessary to staying in the business.

An advertisement from 1899 for Schimmel's Synthetic Oil of Orange Blossoms, "identical with the oil distilled from Orange Flowers." Methyl anthranilate was a crucial component in this compound.

An advertisement from 1899 for Schimmel's Synthetic Oil of Orange Blossoms, "identical with the oil distilled from Orange Flowers." Methyl anthranilate was a crucial component in this compound.

Some, however, turned their analytic knowledge of the chemical constituents of essential oils to commercial use, by manufacturing synthetic versions of chemicals present in natural oils. This is how synthetic methyl anthranilate began to be produced and sold, as "artificial neroli oil." I'm still trying to figure out exactly how methyl anthranilate was manufactured synthetically, but according to an 1897 article in the Journal of the Society of the Chemical Industry, one way was to combine methyl alcohol with anthranilic acid under an inverted condenser, and then saturate it with gaseous hydrochloric acid.

In any case, in the first decades of the twentieth century, methyl anthranilate was sold by major perfume material supply houses such as Schimmel, Van Dyk & Co., W.J. Bush & Co., alongside both "synthetic" essential oil blends and natural materials.   

 But methyl anthranilate doesn't just smell like springtime and orange blossoms and fancy, old-fashioned ladies. Diluted, it has a distinct quality that many of us would find familiar: the odor of grape jolly ranchers, or grape soda, or any of the deep purple sweets of indiscriminate childhood.

The affiliation of methyl anthranilate with grape-flavored soda and candy dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when it became a widely available chemical material. People who worked with flavors began using methyl anthranilate in flavoring syrups used for grape soda pop, candy lozenges, and other grape-flavored things. They also used the chemical in in other fruit flavorings: banana, orange, and pineapple.

Let me underscore one point: when perfumers first used methyl anthranilate in their synthetic perfumes, they knew that the chemical could be found in actual neroli, jasmine, and so on. When flavoring manufacturers first adopted it for use in their fruit flavors, they had no way to make the claim that the chemical was an actual aspect of the "true fruits."

But, in addition to essential oil dealers, there was another group of chemists who were interested in analyzing and cataloguing the chemical contents of natural materials: government regulators at the USDA Bureau of Chemistry and in state health agencies, who were responsible for enforcing the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. In addition to monitoring the safety of the food supply, the law also aimed to protect consumers against fraud -- to protect them from being deceived by sophisticated chemical additives into taking "imitation" goods for the real thing. The law created a statutory distinction between "natural" and "artificial" in the food system. Foods that included synthetic flavor additives would have to bear on their labels the scarlet letter that declared their second-class status: ARTIFICIAL.

According to the law, the unannounced addition of synthetic chemicals like methyl anthranilate to soft drinks, jams, and so on constituted illegal adulteration. Violators faced a seizure of their goods, fines, and subsequent loss of business. But to enforce the law, regulators had to prove that the food in question contained a chemical additive.     

And this proved to be a problem. As the Journal of the Franklin Institute put it in 1922: "Inasmuch as methyl anthranilate in a dilute form possesses a decided grape-like odor, its detection in commercial grape juice appears to have led to the conclusion on the part of some of those engaged in the control of these products that in all cases of its occurrence an artificial flavoring agent has been employed."

But in fact, this was the wrong conclusion to draw. As researchers at the Bureau of Chemistry discovered while trying to develop official methods for proving that synthetic methyl anthranilate had been added to foods, the chemical was present not only in artificial grape flavoring, but also in actual grapes. Frederick B. Power, the head of the Bureau's phytochemical laboratory, and his lab partner Victor Chesnut, did not find it in Vitis vinifera grapes, the "old world" European varietals. But they did find it in the foxy, foxy Vitis labrusca and other grape varietals of the New World: Niagara, Catawba, Delaware grapes. Concord grape juice, in fact, contained the highest concentration of the chemical. So, in trying to find a way to determine the presence of a chemical adulterant, Power and Chesnut confirmed the chemical's presence in actual grapes.

So far, we've followed methyl anthranilate from its identification in "natural" Neroli oil, to its synthesis for use in synthetic perfumes meant to imitate this sensation, to its inclusion in artificial grape flavors, to the discovery -- by government regulators -- of its presence in actual grape juice.  

Part of what this story should suggest is the problematic distinction between "natural" and "artificial." Molecules like methyl anthranilate are discoverable in haunts throughout the natural and artefactual worlds, appearing in various guises, for various purposes. At different concentrations, in different contexts, they have different effects and properties. For instance, one of the current uses of methyl anthranilate is as a bird repellent. Asking whether something is "real" or "fake" tells you less about the thing in question, more about the social and cultural contexts in which that thing is evaluated and exchanged.  

(This is also, by the way, one of the reasons it's ridiculous to claim that a chemical shouldn't be in foods because it's also in yoga mats, or whatever. Its presence in both the edible and non-edible world has absolutely nothing to do with whether it's toxic, or good, or gross, or anything.)

My chemists -- the ones who prance through the pages of my dissertation -- will most likely tell you that a molecule is a molecule, that it's impossible to distinguish a molecule of methyl anthranilate within a Concord grape's glaucous globe from one produced in a laboratory by mixing chemicals under a condenser hood in the presence of hydrochloric acid gas.

But I'm not a chemist; I'm a historian. And even if there is no distinguishable chemical difference between two molecules -- one synthetic, one "natural" -- there are historical differences, and those differences have a meaning. Things have histories, things come from somewhere, and how they got here matters. Tracing the history of flavors means following the threads of all these material and sensory entanglements -- chemicals, workers, technologies, laws, markets, foods, consumers... 

Some people reading this might know that the origin of this whole research project started with grapes, or maybe with methyl anthranilate. The short version: once, I was tempted to try a dusky violet Concord grape at the Union Square farmers market. "Wow," I thought. "This totally tastes like fake grape." I wondered whether the Concord grape was more common back when "fake grape" was "invented."  "Maybe 'fake grape' was supposed to taste like real grapes, only these were the real grapes, back then." 

I've spent the past two years and change on the trail of this idea, mostly learning how to ask the right questions.      

On a final note, here's the excellent NuGrape song, recorded by the mysterious and beuatiful "NuGrape Twins" in 1926. I first heard it on the collection American Primitive, Vol. II, on Revenant Records, but you can listen to it here.

This is how it begins (lyrics transcribed by Michael Leddy):

I got a NuGrape mighty fine
Three rings around the bottle is a-genuine
I've got your ice cold NuGrape
I got a NuGrape mighty fine
Got plenty imitation but they none like mine
I got your ice-cold NuGrape...

Skunkiness, Coffee Chemistry, and Naturalism in Flavor

"Like flowers, but with garbage!" is how Roslyn, Jennifer Lawrence's character in American Hustle, describes her favorite Swiss topcoat. "It’s like perfumey but there’s also something rotten and I know that sounds crazy, but I can’t get enough of it. Smell it, it’s true. Historically, the best perfumes in the world, they’re all laced with something nasty."

Don't stop sniffing your nails, Roslyn, because you're onto something. The notion that the pleasant has to be laced with the foul to achieve its full effect has a long history in perfumery -- the term of art here is pudeur. Mary Gaitskill, in her 2006 novel Veronica, writing about the Paris runways in the early 1980s, describes the effect this way:

"Thumping music took you into the lower body, where the valves and pistons were working. You caught a dark whiff of shit, the sweetness of cherries, and the laughter of girls. Like lightning, the contrast cut down the center of the earth: We all eat and shit, screw and die. But here is Beauty in a white dress."

There's a satisfying, counterintuitive logic to this, even as the sentiment has become kind of a platitude: Your flaws make you beautiful, baby.

But this idea -- the putrid grace note -- seems a bit less appealing when it comes to flavor. Could there be something rotten or excremental undergirding the savoriness of our savories? Does vanilla flavor really come from the anal glands of a beaver? This might seem like one of the points where the flavor and fragrance industries diverge, where the logics of "good taste" differ depending on whether you're considering the aromatic and the edible. The history of the flavor chemistry of coffee, however, offers a more nuanced spin.   

Imagine for a moment the gorgeous, plush aroma of coffee. Wafting from the percolator, it eases you into the morning, cushioning the cruel shock of awakening, bringing the clan together around the breakfast table. Morning! Comfort! Optimism!

Now imagine a skunk trotting into the breakfast room, tail aloft, trailing the fumes of his distinctive parfum.

Is there any similarity between these two smells, the fair and the foul? A skunkiness in the Stumptown Hairbender? An element of Caffe Verona in yonder fair skunk?

Okay, by way of an answer, here's my story: in 1949, Cargille Scientific, a chemical and instrument supply company in New York, began selling something they called "Coffee-Captan."

"A smell is being made commercially available for the first time," toodled the Associated Press in 1949. "It is described as an essential constituent of the aroma of roasted coffee that provides a new scent for perfume and flavors." Food Industries also ran an item announcing that quantities of the synthetically produced furfuryl mercaptan were available for the first time manufacturing and for research. "In addition to its many uses in the food field for enriching flavors and aromas, it should also be useful as an intermediate in organic synthesis." Maison DeNavarre, in the June 1949 iteration of his monthly "Desiderata" column in the American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review, squealed: "The recent announcement of the availability of alpha furfuryl mercaptan, one of the essential constituents of the aroma of roasted coffee, has probably been read by everyone." He thought the powerful chemical could possibly help make the scent of formulas for "cold wave" permanents less offensive. Meanwhile, Chemical and Engineering News (March 28, 1949) noted its potential as a polymerization agent,and an accelerant in rubber vulcanization.

But what is furfuryl mercaptan? Also known as 2-furanmethanethiol, it is a sulfur-containing compound, not present in the green coffee bean, but created during roasting via the Maillard reaction. At very low concentrations (like, one part per million), it has a pleasantly familiar coffee aroma. At higher concentrations, it provides a... different sort of experience. Cargille's "Coffee-Captan," Kiplinger's noted in 1954, "is powerful stuff, having to be kept under double seal because in concentrated form it gives the impression that there has been an explosion involving a skunk about the size of an A-bomb." One flavor chemist remembers an entire facility being evacuated after an someone accidentally broke empty bottle had once contained the chemical.

How did this foul chemical become a commercial product?

Chemists had been trying to determine the constituents of the aroma of roasted coffee since the beginning of the nineteenth century. (There's a good technical account of this history in the textbook, Coffee Flavor Chemistry, written by two Firmenich chemists, Ivon Flament and Yvonne Bessiere-Thomas). Analyzing organic compounds was a painstaking and difficult process, demanding maximum skill and care. Chemists wondered: were the chemical changes that took place in green coffee beans specific to coffee, or were they common to other roasted things? Furthermore, was there a simple chemical "principle" that accounted for the smell of a substance -- a singular "essence" -- or instead, did a set of chemicals, interacting together in complex ways, produced what we recognize as an aroma?  

A minor tangent (file it under "Coffee, usefulness thereof"): In an 1832 article in the Leipzinger Zeitung entitled "Coffee Arabicae: Its Destructive Effect on Animal Emanations as a Protective Agent Against Contagion," the German chemist Christian Conrad Weiss described the power of roasted coffee aroma to neutralize stinks of all kinds: rotten eggs, putrid meats, animal musks, asafoetida. In an era before germ theory, when foul odors were thought to contribute to the spread of disease, Weiss believed that concentrated coffee extract or a pinch of finely ground coffee, burned in a lamp, could disinfect and purify a room for days. Coffee extract might also serve as a more pleasing alternative to the typical contents of the vinaigrette, the fashionable lady's dainty respite from intrusive odors. Weiss, however, did not make much progress in actually identifying the chemical components of roasted coffee aroma. At the beginning of the twentieth century, chemists had succeeded in provisionally identifying only ten volatile compounds in coffee.

The major leap in the understanding of the chemistry of roasted coffee aroma would have to wait until after the First World War. Starting in 1920, in a meticulous research project spanning more than a decade, two chemists working in Switzerland, Tadeus Reichstein and Hermann Staudinger -- both would later, separately, win the Nobel Prize -- definitively identified nearly thirty components in coffee that contributed to its aroma. One of these was furfuryl mercaptan, a previously unknown molecule. 

The Chemical Heritage Foundation, where I'm a fellow this year, has a 1985 oral history with Reichstein in its fantastic Beckman Center collection. In addition to kind of hilariously undermining his incendiary former PhD advisor Staudinger ("I didn't like his methods because... it's a kind of brutal chemistry. He liked everything which made noise and caused explosions. These were the things he liked." Whenever Staudinger worked in the laboratory, "afterwards everything was full of broken glass..."), Reichstein also pontificates about the role that small quantities of foul-smelling compounds play in flavor.

He tells the interviewer: "The sense for flavor is very delicate. If you have such a mixture and you take only one of the things out, the rest will go flat. For instance, what I realized at this time was that a very good smell in some flowers, jasmine or roses or violets -- the really good smell is only produced by some compounds present in very small quantities which smell awfully bad -- terrible -- if they are alone or concentrated. But without them, the good smell is not natural. It is like a cheap coiffure shop."

Producing a smell that was both "good" and "natural" was an important end goal of their research. Reichstein and Staudinger received funding from Kathreiner's Malzkaffee, a company that produced a sort of ersatz coffee from malted barley. After the miserable shortages of coffee (and other foods) in Europe during the First World War, Reichstein says: "they were interested because they thought they could add a little flavor to make their malt coffee smell like real coffee. They were very pleasant people. I worked through many tons of coffee to get only a few cubic centimeters of the flavor." Reichstein and Staudinger took out several patents in the 1920s in the UK and the US for their research, including for a "new or improved method of producing artificial coffee aroma."

After the coffee flavor project, Reichstein would go on to an illustrious career, doing important work on the synthesis of Vitamin C, and eventually being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950 for his work on the chemistry of cortisone and other adrenal hormones. Staudinger would nab his own prize three years later, in honor of his visionary work on macromolecules and polymers.

But the significance of their work on the flavor chemistry of coffee does not seem to have been widely recognized before the late 1940s. Indeed, once Reichstein and Staudinger caught wind of Cargille's "Coffee-Captan," they cried foul about the company's claim to offer this synthetic chemical for sale "for the first time." They called attention to their work and their earlier patents, claiming priority for their discoveries. Indeed, Flament and Bessiere-Thomas note that furfuryl mercaptan was already one of the components of a flavor additive, "Cofarom," manufactured by the German flavor and fragrance firm Haarmann & Reimer. (Reichstein and Staudinger's research was not completely unknown, as it was respectfully cited in a pair of articles on coffee flavor by pioneering flavor chemist Morris B. Jacobs, which ran in the March and April 1949 American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review.)

Why did it take so long for this work to catch on? Part of it may be that flavor companies prior to the mid-1930s were not in the habit of using basic research into the flavor chemistry of foods to fuel product development. (There are some exceptions to this.)  Furthermore, much of their research and development focused on isolating and synthesizing organic compounds of Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen -- aldehydes, ketones, ethyls, alcohols -- or, more rarely, Nitrogen-containing compounds such as methyl anthranilate (you know this one as the smell of a grape Jolly Rancher, or a Concord grape). Stinky sulfur-containing chemicals seem largely to have been shunned. Indeed, Alois von Isakovics, the founder of Synfleur, one of the earliest synthetic fragrance and flavor manufacturers in the U.S. called sulfur-containing compounds the "enemy of the perfume or flavor chemist." In a 1908 lecture to students at Columbia University, he advised "eliminating from perfume substances even the smallest traces of constituents that contain sulfur."

These early products may have been "good," but they did not necessarily also produce an impression that could be called "natural." However, by the late 1930s, flavor manufacturers were more and more interested in reproducing the effects of nature, creating "blended" flavors that had depth, delicacy, and complexity. And, as Bernard Smith, of the flavor company Virginia Dare put it in a speech to the landmark "Flavors in Foods" American Chemical Society Symposium in 1937: “It is a well-recognized principle that in minute traces compounds of even objectionable flavor or odor may greatly assist in producing a finished product of superior excellence." With an increasing number of volatile chemicals produced by organic chemical research, flavorists and flavor manufacturers had a growing field of materials with which to tailor specific, "naturalistic," effects.

Compounds like furfuryl mercaptan illustrated the complex way that flavor chemicals operated in foods and on the senses. Chemicals that at full strength were unambiguously foul, could also be the key to producing effects that were not just pleasant, but convincingly, compellingly "natural" -- whether or not they were actually materially identical to the "real thing."  

Dying at the Bench: The Hazards of a Chemical Career

Some days I seem to come across very few actual people in the parched wilderness of trade journals, biennial census reports of manufacturers, and bulletins of chemical societies  -- the archival terrain where I'm currently wandering. But of course, all of these things are full of people, even if they're very deliberately not raising their voices. It's a hazard to mistake all the statistical tables and formulas and price lists as things that have somehow shaken themselves free of human beings, that represent the effortless interactions of chemicals, the frictionless relations of markets.

But then, sometimes, I'll be on the trail of a name -- some minor analytical chemist, or some voluble manufacturer, who seems to hold a key or serve as a connection between things or ideas -- when, unexpectedly, I trip across the obituary and realize that I've been compiling a dossier on an actual person. Shaken, I realize that the person has taken on the same tone as the tables and graphs, has become one of my "historical actors," etiolated, unresistant, a pawn that I move around my paragraphs in service of my arguments. 

For the past couple of weeks, I've been researching methods for manufacturing synthetic vanillin around the turn of the twentieth century, especially processes that rivaled the patented techniques of the leading French and German manufacturers. And that's how I came across a small notice about Edward C. Spurge's premature death -- in the laboratory -- overcome by toxic fumes from his own chemical experiments. A reminder that, as with the fatal "dissection wounds" of nineteenth-century medical students, or Mme. Curie's radium-martyrdom, the pursuit of scientific knowledge can take its toll.

From  The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook, Being a Guide for Visitors from Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, MO, 1904.  Published by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

From The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook, Being a Guide for Visitors from Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, MO, 1904. Published by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

E.C. Spurge was one of first vanillin manufacturers in the US. Born in Essex in 1875 (or possibly 1874), a graduate of the Bloomsbury College of Pharmacy with a B.S. from London University, Spurge was a working chemist who specialized in what were sometimes called "fine chemicals." After putting in time with pharmaceutical and perfumery companies in England and Paris, he emigrated to the US in 1904. Two years later, he patented a method for synthesizing vanillin from isoeugenol (derived from clove oil), and founded the Ozone-Vanillin company in Niagara Falls around the same time to put his ideas into action.

Why Niagara Falls? The ozone-generating machines necessary for the process to work needed a reliable electric current, and Niagara Falls, the center of the electrical and electrochemical industries in the U.S., was just the place.

In the wake of the 1906 Pure Food & Drugs Act, the ambiguous status of synthetic vanillin -- chemically identical to the compound that gave "real" vanilla its prized odor and flavor, yet legally declared an adulterant of "vanilla extract," an "unlike substance" -- meant that, even while demand increased, the prestige of the chemical was questionable. A triumph of synthetic chemistry, but disparaged as a "coal-tar" flavor by many pure food advocates. The Ozone-Vanillin Company tried to distinguish itself from its competitors -- and define its position relative to genuine vanilla extract -- by emphasizing the immaculateness of its product.

Take this advertisement from a 1914 issue of Simmons' Spice Mill:


"Ozone-Vanillin is not an imitation of nature, but an absolute reproduction of the natural aromatic principles of the vanilla bean by the combination of the very same elements which have hitherto been found only as blended in Nature's own laboratory.

Our method of manufacture is an improvement upon approved methods, so that we obtain a snow-white and absolutely pure vanillin by a harmless electro-chemical process."

Snow-white and absolutely pure! 

But Spurge was not alive to see this advertisement run. He died two years earlier, November 6, 1912, "at the bench" -- in the company laboratory, felled by fumes of hydrocyanic acid while working on a series of experiments to present at an upcoming meeting of chemists. Hydrocyanic acid is a solution of hydrogen cyanide and water; hydrogen cyanide was the chemical that would be used in Zyklon B. At the time of his death, Spurge was 37 years old. Several obituaries noted that he was survived by his wife, whom he had married earlier that year. 

Spurge was a practical chemist, a manufacturing chemist -- not an academic chemist. The honorific that he appended to his byline, F.I.C. -- Fellow of the Institute of Chemistry -- indicated "professional competence," not "full training." Nonetheless, his professional identity and the success of his synthetic chemical business were tied up with research, with continued experimentation, as was his collegiality with fellow chemists.

Who found his body? In 1908 testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee on vanillin imports, Spurge argued that American manufacturers needed tariff protection because of the scarcity of professional chemists in the US; instead, there were intelligent but unskilled workmen, who needed to be trained. Did one of these "intelligent but unskilled men" find his boss's body, in a small room full of precise glassware and toxic fumes? What exactly was Spurge working on?  What did he hope to prove? And what about the fate of his vanillin factory, on the American side of the falls, catalyzed by ozone, "the cleanest and most agreeable oxidizing agent known"?

The first mention of using ozone to synthesize vanillin from isoeugenol that I've found dates back to 1895, when two French chemists, Marius Otto and Albert Verley, received a patent to cover this method of production. I also found a remark about a Parisian factory -- I assume Verley's -- producing several kilos of vanillin a day this way. But the ozone-generating machine did not work properly, the yield was inconsistent, profits drooped, and they soon were forced to cease production. Spurge's method was intended as an improvement upon this original electrochemical method, but although his company survived him, it did not outlast him for long. A 1923 article in the journal Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, reconsidered the processes used by Ozone-Vanillin, lamenting that "after expensive experiments, the method was abandoned, even as it seemed on the verge of success."

(Probably) Albert Verley, synthetic perfumer, student of Satie

(Probably) Albert Verley, synthetic perfumer, student of Satie

Albert Verley, one of the men who held the original patent, has another claim to distinction: he was Satie's only composition student. According to this, as a young man, Verley had dreamed of a career in music, but trained as a chemist; then a serious accident in the lab gravely damaged his right hand. (The hazards of a chemical career!) And so he parted from his piano, and instead devoted himself fully to chemistry.

He did well for himself as a manufacturer: he owned a factory outside of Paris that made synthetic perfume materials, including a renowned version of jasmine that he had developed. Satie's brother Conrad was a chemical engineer, and he may have been the one to make the introduction to the composer. Satie appears to have taken on this pupil mainly for money, not love, but Varley was not, apparently, without talent. Satie strongly recommended Verley's "strange piece" -- L'Aurore, which Satie had orchestrated -- in a 1916 letter to Varése. Verley also composed a ballet inspired by Edgar Alan Poe, Le Masque de la Mort Rouge, The Mask of Red Death, and launched the career of the young conductor, Vladimir Golschmann, by bankrolling a series of concerts of new music. 

Spurge certainly knew of Otto and Verley's method for turning clove oil into vanillin with ozone. He probably first learned of it while working as a chemist at the Societe Anglais-Francais des Parfums Perfecciones, in Courbevois, outside of Paris, the same town where Verley's operation was based. This must have been around the time, 1899, when Verley perfected his synthetic jasmine. What must it have been like, for Spurge, as a young man and a young scientist, strolling in the evening, outside of Paris, at the very coda of the nineteenth century, the suburban landscape faintly scented by the now-deathless odor of chemical jasmine?


The first fragrance insert?

According to this fascinating article, fragrance inserts in magazines -- the scented matte strip that, when unhinged, releases a waft of Coty's Chypre or White Flowers or whatever -- first appeared in in the 1940s, with microencapsulation technology developed by the National Cash Register Corporation (soon after to play a big role in the history of computing).

Looking through old trade journals at the Hagley, I found an example of this technology in use three decades prior to the 1940s, implying that it was first in use in 1910. From the May 1912 The American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review:

Rose Aldehyde C Fragance Insert.jpg

I did obligingly smell the circle, but alas, the odor of Rose Aldehyde C has been lost to time and history...