THE STORY 4711 EAU DE COLOGNE
BY WENDY HUGHES
Almost everyone who once visited Cologne returned with a souvenir of that famous Eau de Cologne, bottled and packaged in its equally renowned blue and gold bell scrolled label. But have you ever wondered about the story that lies behind that distinctive little bottle?
Legend has it, that it all began on the morning of 8 October 1792 when one of the largest social events of the year was about the take place in Cologne. Wilhelm Mulhens, one of the city’s richest bankers, was about to marry the daughter of an equally wealthy merchant. As the guests mingled and talked about the lavish arrangements, the Mulhens house was being filled with expensive gifts for the happy couple.
In the midst of the preparations, the couple were called to the furnished cellar below the house. It was here that a monk, given sanctuary by the family during the French Revolution, now lived. With sadness in his eyes, the monk explained that he couldn’t compete with the expensive gifts that they were receiving upstairs, but he too wanted to give the happy couple an extra special gift to celebrate their wedding. Walking to his study table, he opened it and pulled out a fading parchment with a red seal attached. The monk handed it to the young man, and smiled. ‘This is the most precious thing that I possess, and I want you to take it as a wedding gift’.
At first the young man refused, not wishing to take the monk’s only valued possession, but when he saw a look of disappointment on the monk’s face he relented. Wilhelm Mulhens thanked him for the gift, which looked so insignificant in comparison to the gifts on display upstairs, but that yellowing parchment proved to be of far more value than all the material gifts. It contained the secret formula for ‘Aqua Mirabilis’ – or miracle water, which had been produced by the Carthusian monks for centuries and regarded, when taken internally, as a cure for all ailments. Mulhens soon realised the value of the gift, and set about installing the required equipment and staff to enable the monk to produce this ‘miracle water’ on a large commercial scale. Soon every fashionable lady was buying ‘Mulhens Miracle Water from Cologne.’ advertised for medicinal purposes only, and as Mulhens house was directly opposite the coaching station, this meant that many visitors and businessmen were able to stop and buy a souvenir bottle of ‘Aqua Mirabilis’ to take home to their wives or sweethearts.
By 1798, Mulhens had established an extremely successful business, but matters were soon to change when the French troops marched into Cologne and occupied the city. Most of Napoleon’s Army could not speak a word of German and this presented a huge problem for the French Billeting Officer. How could these men find their way around the little winding streets of a strange city? After much discussion with the Emperor Napoleon, the Billeting Officer decided that he would dispense with the names of the streets and number each house in consecutive order throughout the town. They began at number one, and when they arrived at the door of Herr Wilhelm Mulhens house in the Glockengasse, or Bell Lane, they had reached the number 4711. As they chalked the number on the house, little did they know how famous that number was to become.
Mulhens liked the number and decided to market his product under the trade name of 4711, adding a bell to the scroll to indicate Bell Lane. Even the invading soldiers liked the product in its distinctive blue and gold labelled bottle and bought souvenirs to send home.
When it came to the attention of Napoleon that Mulhens had a successful business, he was anxious to obtain the secret formula, so under his ‘Imperial Decree on the Description and Sale of Secret Medicines,’ he stated that all medicinal preparations for internal use must declare their ingredients on the label. Mulhens, being as crafty as Napoleon, found a loophole, and immediately advertised and sold his 4711 as ‘toilet water,’ and for external use only, therefore exempting him from the rules laid down by Napoleon and allowing him to retain its secret formula.
What was written on that ancient parchment remains a secret to this day, although it is known that 4711 contains a unique combination of essential oils extracted from citrus fruits, rosemary and lavender. The scent is not for everyone’s taste – especially for people under the age of 65, although, some say, scores of young violin pupils might disagree. The oils are imported from Southern France and Italy and allowed to mellow in casks, like any good vintage wine, before being blended into a formula.
During World War II Germany’s Nazi Navy (Kriegsmarine) issued large quantities of 4711 perfume to the submariners of the U-boat fleet. There were limited opportunities for bathing, and the scent was used to try and improve the odour abroad the vessel. Obviously the crew members used it sparingly so that they could take it home as presents for their mothers, wives and girlfriends.
In 1994 the Mulhens family sold the business to the hair care company Wella, and in 2003 it was acquired by Proctor and Gamble who in 2006 sold the rights and the famous Glockengasse building to Maurer and Wirtz, a subsidiary of the Dalli Group. Sadly the original Glockengasse building fell victim to urban regeneration and no longer exists, which is a shame because when I visited people could be seen gathering outside the Glockengasse just before the hour. At the stroke of every hour, as you look towards the top window of the building, you were treated to a carousel of Napoleonic figures, riding on horseback, to the renderings of La Marseillaise – The French National Anthem composed in 1792 by Rouget de Lisle, an Army Officer. The Anthem was played as a thank-you to the invading French who unknowingly named one of the most famous products in the world.
The secret formula is now outdated it is still produced in Cologne and ‘finished’ locally. In the UK the fragrance is supplied by Germany, and the extra touches, possibly alcohol and water, plus the filling and packaging are done in the UK.
To celebrate 222 years, a special artist numbered edition was produced, available in 800ml bottles and signed by pair of artists Koralie and SupaKitch. Exclusively they went on sale on October 8, 2014 at the official store in Cologne and priced at 247.11 Euros per bottle.