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PJ Online | Christmas 2003 (The story of civet)

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The Pharmaceutical Journal
Vol 271 No 7280 p859-861
20/27 December 2003

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PDF 290K

Christmas miscellany summary

The story of civet

In this article, William Jackson relates what the civet cat is renowned for

Mr Jackson is a retired pharmacist, a past president of the British Society of the History of Pharmacy and a member of the International Academy for the History of Pharmacy

Civet is a musk-like substance, of about the same consistency as butter, produced by the two perineal glands of civet cats. The glands form a deep pouch in the abdomen, divided into two sacs, in which the secretion is stored. There are several species of civet cat, but the two main ones are the African and Indian cat. Approximately three feet long, they are nocturnal animals with spotted bodies and ringed tails.

Copper engraving of a civet cat from Pomet’s “A compleat history of druggs’, translated into English, with additions from Lemery and Tournefort, London, 1712

Civet varies in colour (from cream to yellow to dark brown) becoming darker and stiffer in texture as it ages, especially when exposed to air. Pure civet has a strong and disagreeable odour, but this becomes attractive when diluted and, throughout its history, its main use has been in perfumery. In order to retain their fragrance most perfumes require a “fixative” and civet is an excellent, though expensive one.

Civet in the 17th century

At a time when the bubonic plague was feared by all and, as Thomas Lodge observed in 1603, was believed to result from “corrupted aire and evil vapours”, perfumes were thought to offer some protection against the disease. One way to avoid “contaminated aire” was to carry a sweet-smelling pomander and frequently inhale the perfume from it. Plague doctors wore masks with beaks that were filled with spices to purify the air they breathed.

In an age when polypharmaceutical preparations were common, pomanders frequently contained many ingredients. One recipe for “a pomander of excellent sent and savour good against pestilent aires ” which Lodge gave instructed the maker to “take pure and sweete Ladanum1, Beniamin, Storax Calamite2 of the Trocisques of Gallia Moscata,3 of Cloves, Mace, Spikenard, the wood of Aloes, the three Saunders,4 the rootes of Orace [orris], of eache halfe and ounce, let all these be beaten to a fine powder and searsed [sieved], and then incorporate the whole with liquide Storax, adding thereunto of Muske and Amber, of each a dramme, of Civet two drammes, make a paste hereof with the insection of Gum Tragacents in Rose water”.

Pierre Pomet, chief druggist to Louis XIV of France received a civet cat from a friend as a gift in 1688 and kept it for a year. He collected the secretions from the perineal glands on alternate days and after a few months had obtained about an ounce and a half. He showed this to a number of people but, although it was well scented, they were not impressed by it because of its colour, so he decided to discontinue the practice. It sounds as though Pomet was rather piqued by their attitude because he remarked that his civet was “as good at least as that which is brought from Holland”. However, civet from Holland was white because the Dutch, who were well known as traders in this commodity, fed their cats on milk and egg whites.

Pomet described the actual process of collecting civet as being “not without some Trouble and Hazard, because it put the creature to some Pain or Apprehension of it”. The Dutch were said to keep their cats in narrow cages so that they could not turn round and bite the person extracting the civet. Pomet refuted the theories that civet was the dung or sweat of the animal, or that it was necessary to beat the cat before it would produce any of the secretion.

It appeared that adulteration of the product was not uncommon and the Dutch attached small printed certificates guaranteeing the origin and purity to their pots of civet. Adulterated civet became mouldy, rank and disagreeable on keeping, and was sometimes coloured red and sold as “Guinea Civet”.

Pomet believed civet to be of little use medicinally, being used mainly by confectioners and perfumers to scent other ingredients, though it had to be used with discretion, as too much would make the smell disagreeable instead of pleasant.

However in the seventeenth century, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, John Hall, used a plaster of Caranna,5 in the middle of which was placed musk and civet in “cotton-wooll”, to treat Fulca Swift of Warwick Castle for hysteria, by applying it to her navel.

In 1678 William Salmon wrote, in the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (the New London Dispensatory), that civet was a “concreted Juice or Humor in a bladder between the Cods [testicles]” and was used to combat vertigo and apoplexy when anointed on the nostrils, temples and crown. If applied to the navel or used in a pessary it helped “Fits of the Mother [uterus], Belly-ach and Cholick”. Dissolved in oil of amber, it cured pain and deafness, and the smell was a remedy for epilepsy. If put in wine, it stupefied and intoxicated the drinker. The gall of a bull, liquid storax and honey were used as adulterants. Because of its high price Salmon included a formula for artificial civet or “Zibethum Artificiale” in the section on ointments. Made from oil of nutmegs, clarified honey, civet, powders of pyre-thrum, black pepper, cubebs and musk, it contained less than 2 per cent of genuine civet. Of this, he said: “It strengthens the Head, Brain, Heart and Spirits wonderfully, being taken inwardly and anointed outwardly.”

Also in the 17th century, a French doctor, Nicolas Lemery, believed that civet was useful for all diseases of the head, brain and womb, and could be used to perfume cordial waters and powders for these conditions when mixed with musk and ambergris. A sponge impregnated with civet could be used as a pessary to treat hysterical fits and vapours and, if put into the ears with a little cotton, civet would help to relieve hardness of hearing. A tincture made from civet, musk and ambergris in spirit of wine anointed on the glans penis just before intercourse was said to cause impregnation and cure barrenness. Finally, civet was good for “colick” in infants if applied to the navel. Lemery gave a number of names for the substance, “Zibethum, Zibetha, Civeta, Zepetium or, in English, Civet”. He observed that merchants bred tame civet cats, feeding them on bran, rice-milk, hard-boiled eggs, bread and flesh, and that a large, gentle cat was worth between four and eight pounds sterling — a considerable sum. Civet was much to be preferred to musk because its scent was finer, but it was frequently adulterated with ox gall, storax and honey. He confirmed that the Dutch exported it in pots, complete with certificates of purity, but said that the best quality came from England.

It is interesting that Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) before he became the author of classics such as ‘Robinson Crusoe’, ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’, and ‘Moll Flanders’, was employed in a number of different ways, one of which was breeding civet cats. The commercial importance of civet in the 17th century is indicated by the fact that it was possible to earn one’s living in this way.

Civet in perfumery

Civet was used in the heavy perfumes of the 16th century that were necessary to mask the smell of unwashed bodies, to perfume such items as gloves in the 17th and 18th centuries and elaborate Victorian valentine cards. A 16th century formula for perfuming leather was to take a quarter of an ounce each of civet, amber and musk and one ounce of orange flowers. These were ground together and mixed with half an ounce of “Oyl of Beanes” or one ounce of sweet almonds.

A horn in which civet was imported from Abyssinia

As a fixative, civet ensured that perfumes kept their fragrance and, I believe, it is still used for this purpose today. We have seen that adulteration was not uncommon because of its price, and in the 19th century the secretion produced by pole-cats (known as “pole-cat civet”) was sold as genuine civet in spite of its dark colour. In the early 20th century it was imported from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). It was extracted using a small horn spoon or spatula and packed in bullocks’ horns, each of which could hold a quantity varying from 25 to 60 ounces. The tip of each horn was cut off and the resulting hole plugged with hard wax. The wide end of the horn was grooved on the outside and covered with a piece of leather, tied in place with grass fibre, the grooves ensuring that this held the leather cap firmly in place. The belief that an angry animal produced more civet persisted into the 20th century, and cats were tied by their legs to the bars of the cage and teased and irritated in the hope of increasing the yield. Most of these horns were sent to Aden (Yemen) before being shipped to London, Marseilles and New York.

It is now known that the characteristic odour of civet is produced mainly by the presence of skatole (3-methylindole) and a ketone named zibethone and, so far, it has not been found possible to produce a synthetic fixative as efficient as genuine civet.

Signs, trade cards and advertisements

Advertisement for Bayley and Co, 1891

It is hard for us to appreciate, nowadays, just how important trade signs were in helping a largely illiterate public to find the business premises that they were seeking. Practically the only surviving examples are the signs hanging outside some hotels and public houses, but some of us will remember the red and white spirally striped barbers’ poles, the colours representing blood and bandages — a reminder of the times when barbers would bleed customers for therapeutic purposes and perform minor surgery. Nearly all these and similar signs have now disappeared though there are still a few large models of mortars and pestles outside pharmacies, mainly in Scotland or the border towns. The mortar and pestle, however, has not always been a sign of an apothecary or chemist and druggist. In 1740 it was a sign used by William Sellers who was a brazier in Little Tower Street, London.

In the 17th century many shops were identified by boards suspended from iron brackets or mounted on a post in front of the shop. As time passed, they became so large and elaborate that they obstructed much of the light and air in London’s narrow streets. Additionally, little was done to maintain them and the supporting ironwork deteriorated until many signs were a danger to the public. For example, in 1718 one large sign in Bride Lane fell and killed four people, but it was not until 1762 that a proclamation was issued ordering their removal, a process that led to the numbering of buildings for identification.

Shop signs, or a simplified version of them, were often used on trade cards. These were not like the small business cards of today, but handbills ranging from small octavo to quarto or even folio size. Trade cards gave the name of the shopkeeper, the situation of the shop, and the goods or services supplied. Trade cards were, in fact, advertisements. Billheads (letterheads) also sometimes depicted the shop sign. Following this tradition these signs were sometimes used on later advertisements.

It was not uncommon for related tradesmen to adopt similar signs and the one that found greatest favour with perfumers was the civet cat. In 1705 D. D. D. Dighton, who later became “sworn perfumer” to King George I, carried on his business at the “City of Seville”, in Fleet Street, and displayed an elaborate sign depicting a civet cat above a panoramic view of Seville. James Smyth and Nephews in Bond Street (1766), Walter Turnbull at 41, Cornhill (1780) and Philip Dixon of 1 Norris Street (1790) all used the sign of the civet cat. In addition, Stephen Brearcliffe, who is listed as a chemist and druggist, used the attractive civet cat and three herrings near Cloth Fair in West Smithfield, in about 1760.

In the 19th century, earthenware pots were used as retail containers for substances such as cold cream, toothpaste and ointments. These carried underglaze prints often showing the name of the product and the name and address of the manufacturer or retailer. Some of them had pictorial designs, and among these was one for Bayley & Co’s Cold Cream with the address 17 Cockspur Street, London, and a drawing of a civet cat. This was introduced in 1887, and used until March 1896. When the company moved to 94 St Martin’s Lane, a lid with the new address and the words “The old civet cat” printed underneath the picture of the animal was used. In 1891 Bayleys published a printed advertisement that included a picture of a civet cat.

Civet today

The flesh of civet cats is considered to be a culinary delicacy in Southern China, and large numbers of the cats are reared in captivity. It is believed that it was in this area that severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was first diagnosed in humans in 2002.

Microbiologists at the University of Hong Kong screened a large number of animals and found that some masked palm civets carried a coronavirus that could cause SARS. They thought that although it was unlikely that properly cooked civet flesh could infect people, the virus could have been transferred to people who raised, killed and cooked civet cats.

Conversely, scientists from the China Agricultural University said that they had screened 732 animals of 65 different species but were unable to find any evidence that civet cats were a source of the SARS virus. Nevertheless, they did identify three new coronaviruses in civet cats as well as in hares and some other animals, and believed that these were capable of mutation.

Clearly a great deal more research needs to be carried out before a definite link between the SARS virus and the consumption of civets can be established or disproved. A ban on trading in civet cats and other wild animals was introduced in China, but this has been lifted and a number of restaurants have since obtained permits to serve wildlife products, including civet cats.

In The Pharmaceutical Journal (23 August 2003, (PDF 100K)), “Onlooker” observed that it was considered unlikely that civet cats played a crucial role in the life cycle of the SARS virus, and that those carrying the virus more probably contracted it in the food markets of China, where animals of different species were kept together in close confinement, or that they had become infected in the wild. He concluded: “Only serious international collaboration can effectively guard the world against a menacing coronavirus in years to come.”

Finally, I should like to add a note to reassure any gastronomes who wish to enjoy recipes such as “civet of hare”. Here, the word is used for dishes moistened with red wine, garnished with little onions, lardons6 and mushrooms, and cooked before being combined with the blood of the animal. In these dishes the word “civet” is derived from the French word “cive”, a green onion, formerly used in their preparation.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT The author wishes to thank Briony Hudson and Peter Homan of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Museum for their help.


1. Ladanum or labdanum was a resin obtained from the Cistus creticus tree. The tree was lashed with leather straps and the exudate that adhered to the leather was then scraped off for use.
2.Storax calamite is the dry sort of storax not the liquid.
3. Lozenges of gallia moscata were made from aloes, amber, and musk with mucilage.
4.The three saunders or sanders were yellow, white and red Sandalwood.
5.Caranna was a tree resin imported from South America.
6.Lardons are diced bacon that has been blanched and fried.


• Phararmacopoeia Londinensis or the New London Dispensatory, William Salmon, 1678.
• A Compleat History of Druggs, Pierre Pomet with additions from Lemery and Tournefort, Done into English in 1712.
• A New Medical Dictionary, G. Motherby, 1775.
• The Edinburgh New Dispensatory, [Charles Webster and Ralph Irving] 1786.
• Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia or a Treatise on Pharmacology, Samuel, F. Gray, 1836.
• The Treasury of Natural History, Samuel Maunder, revised by E. W. H. Holdsworth, 1878.
• A Treatise of the Plague, Thomas Lodge, 1603, Facsimile reprint 1880.
• Larousse Gastronomique, Prosper Montagné and Dr. Gottschalk, 1961.
• The Antiques of Perfume, Leslie G. Matthews, 1973.
• The Romantic Story of Scent, John Trueman, 1975.
• The Skilful Physician, (originally published in 1656) Edited by C. Balaban, J. Erlen, and R. Siderits, 1997.
• The Price Guide to Black and White Pot-Lids, Ronald Dale, 1977.
• Signboards of Old London Shops, Sir Ambrose Heal, 1988.
• Private Lives, Mark Bryant, 1996.

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