When people think of real “Eau de Cologne”, they typically think about the well-branded 4711 brand located in the city’s Glockengasse. But in fact, Johan Maria Farina was the first one to manufacture the product in the German city close at the river Rhine. Both companies are still having their flagship stores in the city. I visited both of their museum tours and stores and add the history of “Eau de Cologne” to the article – a really fascinating story and two interesting places to visit.
The History of “Eau de Cologne”
The history of “Eau de Cologne” or “Kölnisch Wasser”, how you call it in German nowadays, starts in the early 18th century with the family of Johann Maria Farina. The Farinas had immigrated from Italy and opened a store for several products in the city. Johan Maria Farina came to Cologne a bit later than his family, but had the recipe for the Aqua mirabilis or Eau admirable with him. There is a lot of legends around it, none of them really proven. In these days, you had significantly lower standards of hygiene, so that you tried to gild body odors by perfumes. Most of the scents used were quite strong and heavy ones. The Farinas used volatile oil and mixed them in spirit of wine, which was innovative in the German market these days. This allowed them to move away from the heavy musk and sandalwood ingredients and use bergamot, orange or lime. The company is still located at the original position, across Jülichsplatz.
The Story behind 4711
Wikipedia states that Wilhelm Mühlen, who started producing Aqua Mirabilis in Cologne as well, might have even received the recipe from the Farina family. It is not sure, though. He definitely started selling this product in the late 18th century. His company was based in the Cologne Glockengasse 24 to 28. However, due to the French occupation, the way house numbers were re-assigned, lead to the number 4711. Mühlen even bought in a Farina family member to sell his product as Franz Maria Farina, Glockengasse 4711, Cöln (Cöln = Cologne). However, this lead to a decades-long lawsuit, which has finally been won by the Farina family in 1881. The Farina company is still owned by the original family nowadays. 4711 is produced by a company based in Stolberg near Aachen. It is one of the key brands representing the city of Cologne today.
The two locations are very centrally located not too far apart:
The battle for Eau de Cologne and plagiarism of it was even themed in the Plagiarius Museum in Solingen I visited in early 2019.
Visiting the 4711 Fragrance House
Parts of the 4711 historic exhibits are open to public in the 4711 house at the Cologne Glockengasse and do not require a tour ticket. For example, you can see the huge tapestry which shows a French soldier assigning the legendary house number 4711. On a gallery, there are different flacons, medals and a historic machine, which disposed one portion of 4711 Eau de Cologne for a small coin.
The 4711 tour costs 7 EUR for adults. However, it is just offered once a week, at 1p.m. on Saturdays. It is German only. Due to some Dutch visitors, the guide did some information in their language. I am sure English is possible if pre-booked as well. You start listening to the glockenspiel on top of the house from outside and then go to the exhibition room. The museum is in fact just one room with a bar-alike area, some pictures on the wall and glass cabinets. The pictures show the substances mixed to receive 4711 and historic worldwide advertisement. The guide, who introduced herself as a Cologne city tourist guide, introduces you to the story of the company and the different exhibits. Finally, you could test some of the ingredients. Unfortunately, the paper stripes already told you the scent, so that you could not guess the origin.
My View of the 4711 Tour
Just visiting one room felt a bit odd to me. Apart from that, I struggled with the fact that the guide was obviously very keen on giving a very positive view on the company. This included giving a very one sided view of historic facts. For example, she stated that anyone in Cologne was allowed to sell products named Farina. However, Mühlen actively hired a person with that family name in the past to do so. Furthermore, she several time suggested that the 4711 house nowadays is at its historic place, which is wrong. It moved slightly after World War II.
The 4711 Store
4711 is an expert company in marketing – and so is the posh 4711 store. First of all, there are numerous sizes and spray flacons for their key product. There are also quite some variants of 4711 with added scents like additional fruit flavors. You may buy the aromas as shower gels and gift sets. You may also find yourself at the cashier buying a t-shirt or a towel with the world famous logo.
Visiting the Fragrance Museum at Farina
The tours in the Duftmuseum im Farina Haus are extremely popular. Depending on the time of day, they may start every 30 minutes. You can book them in several languages. Some languages allow a historic tour, which means that the guide is dressed up in historic clothing and acts like a Farina family member. I visited the historic German tour, which is 9 EUR for adults. The “ordinary” tour is just 5 EUR. I would highly recommend to pre-book the tour on the Farina website. Changing the language there will change the language of the tour you are booking.
The Tour at Farina
The topics are – not too surprisingly – very similar to the 4711 tour. The history of the company, history of the products, ingredients (and smell testings). The historic Farina tour just offers much more background. You gather on a gallery on the top floor with some exhibits and then do the key parts of the museum on basement level.Different areas tell you different stories about the original Eau de Cologne. It was interesting to hear, for example, Napoleon asked to design his boots in a way that they additionally fit a bottle of the liquid. The final room allows you to smell different ingredients. Here, the guide allows you to smell on the bottles directly and you can try to guess the ingredient.
Unfortunately, taking pictures during the tour on basement level is not allowed, but the museum / company provided me with press pictures:
Apart from the key product Eau de Cologne, Farina’s main fragrance is male one Russisch Leder (literally: Russian Leather). Furthermore, Farina offers perfumes which fit to your zodiacal sign, what I felt to be quite interesting. You cannot buy merchandise products like t-shirts or towels at Farina, but of course some literature and minor souvenirs.
My View on the Tours & Shops
Both tours have a certain touch to advertise their products, of course. In both cases, you get some one-sides view of the history of Eau de Cologne. Finally, I felt that Farina is offering a much better and leveled tour. The tour more entertaining as well. I feel that visiting different stages is just more diverting – apart from that, I loved the costume thing. Apart from that, Farina felt to give more more truthful picture.
4711 is definitely superior in marketing. The showroom is just posh and more impressive. Farina concentrates much more on its key product. It is interesting to see that contrast in concept. If you visit Cologne, I highly recommend to go for the Farina tour and shop there first. You may have a look into the Glockengasse store thereafter. I would not recommend the tour there. There is a reason that the tour is just once a week – sometimes, the masses are just doing right.
Of course, I do not recommend any fragrance in here – whether you like 4711 or Farina 1709 – that selection is fully up to you!