Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Nobody who was alive in the sixties and seventies would be unfamiliar with the scent of patchouli oil. Utilised partly for nefarious purposes, i.e, masking the scent of 'funny cigarettes', it was deeply associated with the anti-establishment and hippie movement, and it still invokes those same associations today.
But how did patchouli oil come to be the unofficial scent of this sub-culture? The following is my personal theory, and it involves some big events in history.
This association with the smell of patchouli, in the West, was born over 100 years before the free love era, during the 19th century. The Napoleonic wars saw trade from England into Europe forbidden, so Europe began turning to other countries. International trade in general was seeing a huge increase during this time, and unique and exotic textiles in particular from the mysterious East were becoming highly desired.
Patchouli oil had already been used for hundreds of years in Asia, India and Arabia for personal perfumery and incense. Patchouli leaves were also used to perfume fabrics, which had the dual benefit of repelling moths and other small insects. Goods being sent across the seas during this growing era of trade needed to be similarly protected, thus items such as carpets, shawls, fabrics and cloth were scattered with these leaves before they were wrapped and packaged, to ensure they were not eaten by pesky critters on their journey. If these clothes and cloth and the like did not carry the unmistakable scent of the patchouli leaves they were packed with, buyers would doubt they had actually come from foreign lands and would question the item's authenticity. The scent had become so intrinsically woven into this belief that items simply would not sell if they did not carry the rich, earthy scent. (Here I can’t help but wonder if there were less than scrupulous European manufacturers who would roll their locally-made items in the leaves, in order to sell their wares as genuine articles).
So this association with the exoticism, spirituality and mystery of the east can be explained. But what about the counter-culture movement?
At the same time as various textiles were being traded from eastern lands, the industrial revolution was underway. The textile industry was the largest beneficiary of this new era, yet with the growth in manufacturing and consumerism, the boom in big business and mass-production of goods, which were no longer made by hand by highly skilled artisans, whose only income was their trade, but by machines, saw smaller enterprises put out of business. Lesser-skilled workers were now being employed in factories with poor conditions. Output was vastly larger, yet the authentic quality of artisanal craftsmen and women was lost. Wages were poor, yet the goods were being sold at a premium price, for the owners of these factories.
The class divide began to dramatically grow, protests erupted, and the destroying of machines in factories by rebelling groups (the Luddites) became rife. This upheaval eventually led to the ideologies of Marxism and communism – a rebellion against capitalist and exploitative society.
Textiles from the east were unique and exotic, and were still made by expert craftsmen rather than machines. Thus, as well as being associated with the exoticism, spirituality and mystery of the far east, it also represented all that was different to greedy, capitalist western society, an ethos the hippie movement also embodied. It could be that the scent of patchouli, being introduced to Europe at this time, intrinsically woven into goods coming from the east during a time of social upheaval, came to symbolise this counter-culture and its ideals.
The scent is also very sensual, spiritual, earthy and natural, all things that appealed to the free spirit movement.
With its rich, musky, earthy fragrance, it makes a regular appearance in perfumes, as a long-lasting base note. Related to the mint family, patchouli is used in the ancient healing systems of Ayurveda, as well as both Greek and Chinese medicine. Holmes states that "these medical systems know the herb to be effective for regenerating, disinfecting, moistening and cooling tissue, being used in both topical treatments and skin care in general". Modern uses of the essential oil bear out these effects - patchouli oil is wonderful for irritated, inflamed, dry skin, hydrating the skin and improving elasticity.
It is also calming to anxious conditions. Unsurprisingly related to the element of Earth, it is grounding, balancing and stabilising. It is also a very spiritual oil, helping us to find the sacred and sensual in ourselves and everyday life.
Battaglia, S. The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, 3rd Ed, Vol. 1, 2018. Black Pepper Creative Pty Ltd.
Holmes, P. Aromatica Vol. 2 (2019) Singing Dragon.