There are those who insist that Dick Whittington’s “cat” was in fact a small boat, and that he made his fortune with a fleet of such boats. No bells pealing “turn again Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London”, no Sultan’s palace, no rats for Dick’s splendid cat to catch... just an ordinary merchant with a few small boats and the statue of a cat halfway up Highgate Hill a commemoration of a mere myth.
There are also those who say that Dick Turpin was no Highwayman, that he never waited at the Spaniard’s Inn for the Barnet coach to leave so that he could follow it, race through a secret tunnel on to the Heath, vault onto Black Bess and be waiting for them, pistols cocked, at the crossroads before they even lurched into view. Many now say that in fact, he was nothing but a common horse thief. It is now commonly held that he never rode to York with or without Black Bess, indeed, that the Highwayman who did was actually one Richard Neilson, and that the double grave at York said to contain the mortal remains of Turpin and Bess is nothing but a fraud – a tourist trap.
Well, as Diana Vreeland said: “a little exaggeration never hurt anyone; if the facts are not fancy enough – fake it!”
- and I choose to believe that James Atkinson walked 400 miles from Cumberland to London with his pet bear...
Californian Poppy – 1908
Californian Poppy was created by Atkinson in 1908 and achieved astronomical worldwide sales. In the years leading up to WW2, no other perfume, not even Bourjois’ Soir de Paris (Evening in Paris), could match its success.
In the words of one perfume expert, it was “a masterpiece painted with cheap paints.”
In an act of gross betrayal, Atkinson were so ashamed of the saviour of their fortunes that they took the extraordinary step of marketing the perfume without revealing the maker’s name. When it first appeared it was presented in very average, functional perfume bottles, redeemed only by glorious Art Nouveau designs on both its box and its label. Like Soir de Paris, it arrived on the counters of Woolworth’s presented in bakerlite containers of every shape and form, including a grand piano.
These were God-given gifts for children to buy long-suffering mothers for birthdays and Christmas, in sure and certain hope that once the perfume was finished, the magnificent piano would find its way into their doll’s houses.
Californian Poppy was classed as a “shop girl’s scent”, the lowest of the low. To admit to wearing it was to admit to being working class in the days where very few wished to make such an admission.
In fact, nobody would want to admit to wearing Californian Poppy, which is why Atkinson removed their name from it, and why it went down in history as a house-maid’s perfume.
What a tragedy. For with a cynicism beyond the dreams of avarice, it became somehow poetic justice that Atkinson, confronted by the success of Revlon’s Charlie, should give up all hope, up sticks to Milan, leaving their precious history of flaconage designs and labels to a more astute and intuitive firm, Crabtree and Evelyn, to take up and market with astounding success.
Californian Poppy was available once more, for one brief summer, in department stores, presented by Mary Chess, only to disappear permanently shortly afterwards.
Such a shame. It may have been a “masterpiece painted with cheap paints”, but it still kicks the current chemical offensives presented as perfumes into a bucket.
White Rose – 1910
Two years following the creation of Californian Poppy, Atkinson’s White Rose became their most popular fragrance, or “odour” as it was called in those days – when odour meant something other than an unpleasant emanation from a drain or the latest scandal from Whitehall.
White Rose did not just appear as an essence, an odour and a toilet water; you could put it on your hair as an oil, a pomade, or a brilliantine.
You could wash your hair with the shampoo, your face with the soap, and shave with the shaving soap. Not only that, you could even clean your teeth with White Rose toothpaste, rinse your mouth with toilet vinegar scented with it, moisturise your face with White Rose scented milk, sprinkle White Rose salts in the bath, soften your hands with White Rose glycerine, and finally talc yourself with it.
If that were not enough, you could sweeten your breath by sucking White Rose cachous, stroke your moustache with a stick of it, and if all that made you feel faint, there were even White Rose smelling salts available to bring you around again. In the home, you could scatter sachets of it in your smalls drawers, whilst pastilles were available to sit on your lamps and waft the smell through your salon.
Surely, this was the “all-over” experience to end all “all-over” experiences.
Stern warnings were issued to beware of counterfeiters: “None genuine without this signature!” the labels yelled, and not all of them pertaining to the pavement vendors outside Selfridges, but to other companies keen to copy Atkinson’s winning formulae.
[the following paragraph was written in red pen]
Eonia (1902), Insouciance (1919), Columbine (1920), Carillon (1936)
Company recently revived under the ownership of Brand Managers of Richmond after being absent from the UK market for 20 (trading overseas), 1996 brought back English Lavender (created 1910) under the label “I Coloniali”
Constance Spry did the first window display for Atkinson’s Bond Street Shop.
Further notes found in the Atkinson file:
“The expenditure of 3/- (15p) on a perfume that is not known is too much to expect, but at 7 ½ (1/6) in a very nicely presented pack, there should be no difficulty.”
(Blue box – label “gothic” with silver bells sounding through a casement window. The cap carries on the blue of the box”)
Test sampling in Vogue – previous autumn – by over 2000 readers in a test distribution – favourably received: “the perfume that remains freshest”
Already part of Lever in 1937
Photostat of Bear-Pot picture (expensive, 2/6 and 5/-)
Poinsettia or Fleur de Pacques! (Flor de Pasque?) 1911
4 leading actresses said 4/6 too cheap – make it more. But it didn’t catch on.
Californian Poppy’s appeal so wide – it was sent out under its own name only, as Atkinson were afraid it would diminish their reputation. Munition workers loved it – unadvertised, unheralded and cheap.
Tax on alcohol. Prohibitive colognes. Others used synthetics. But Atkinson never.
Perfumes for the Handkerchief
Bouquet du Grand Prix (Paris Exhibition – 1900)
Lily of the Nile (dedicated to Lord Kitchener of Khartoum – not Gordon?)
Bottles were not cheap.
One cost £384 (19-4-0!) Granted, you got 36oz!!
They all varied. But an ounce was approximately 22/- to 42/- and always seemed to be 1½oz.
The Queens and Lavender Water perfumed with musk.
Esprit de Lavande au Bouquet
Esprit de Lavande aux Millefleurs
Esprit de Lavande Ambré
Ethereal Essence of Lavender and the Myretta Lavender Water.
The film “Out of Africa” was completely ruined for my mother. Wife to a television director, sister to a Film Producer, mother of a child actress, and, as a former actress herself, nothing bothered her more than sloppy dressing on screen or on stage. The first irritation with the film was actually Robert Redford’s refusal even to contemplate attempting to subvert his American drawl when playing the role of the quintessential Englishman, Denys Finch-Hatton (something all the more incomprehensibly arrogant when stood next to the Danish accent mastered by his lesser paid co-star, Meryl Streep). However, even that paled into insignificance when the camera came to rest on the dressing table of Miss Streep’s character, the Baroness Blixen.
“There is no way on this earth a Danish Baroness would have worn Californian Poppy!” Sally shrieked.
|"If you're going to make scenes at garden parties, honey, for God's sake, at least wear Caron..."|
Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in Out of Africa
Much as my mother eulogised about Atkinson, Californian Poppy was possibly the Charlie of its day. The most successful and most embarrassing of their creations. Ever put your nose in a poppy and smelled its scent? No, neither have I. They don’t smell. James Atkinson, I guess, felt they should.