4711

                   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?

 

soldier marking number

soldier marking number

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’.

         

4711 poster

4711 poster

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.

 

4711Glockengasse

4711Glockengasse

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.

 4711-Logo

 

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.

 

carosel

carosel

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.

 

carosel

carosel

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.

original 1885 bottle

original 1885 bottle

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.

 

celebrating 222 years

celebrating 222 years

 

About Wendy Hughes

Wendy turned to writing, in 1989, when ill-health and poor vision forced her into early medical retirement. Since then she has published 26 nonfiction books, and over 2000 articles. Her work has appeared in magazines as diverse as The Lady, Funeral Service Journal, On the Road, 3rd Stone, Celtic Connections, Best of British, and Guiding magazine. She has a column in an America/Welsh newspaper for ex-pats on old traditions and customs in Wales. Her books include many on her native Wales, Anglesey Past and Present, The Story of Brecknock, Brecon, a pictorial History of the Town, Carmarthen, a History and Celebration and Tales of Old Glamorgan, and a book on Walton on Thames in the Images of England series, a company history and two books on the charity Hope Romania. She has also co-authored two story/activity books for children. Her latest books are: Haunted Worthing published in October 2010, a new colour edition of The Story of Pembrokeshire published in March 2011, and Shipwrecks of Sussex in June 2011 and Not a Guide to Worthing in 2014. She is working on a book entitled A-Z of Curious Sussex which will be published in 2016 Wendy also works with clients to bring their work up to publishable standard and is currently working on an autobiography with a lady that was married to a very famous 1940’s travel writer. Wendy has spent many years campaigning and writing on behalf of people affected by Stickler Syndrome, a progressive genetic connective tissue disorder from which she herself suffers. She founded the Stickler Syndrome Support Group and raises awareness of the condition amongst the medical profession, and produces the group’s literature, and has written the only book on the condition, Stickler The Elusive Syndrome, and has also contributed to a DVD on the condition, Stickler syndrome: Learning the Facts. She has also writing three novels, Sanctimonious Sin, a three generation saga set in Wales at the turn of the century, Power That Heal set in the Neolithic period entitled Powers that Heal, and a semi biographical book entitled New Beginnings which deals with two generations coping with blindness and a genetic condition. She has also had a handful of short stories published, and in her spare time is working on several at the moment. She also gives talks on a variety of subjects including Writing and Placing Articles, Writing Local History, Writing as Therapy, Writing your first novel, etc, and runs workshops on the craft of writing – both fiction and non-fiction. She is a member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, and a member of the Society of Authors.