This article is Part Two of The History and Herstory of body odour – For Part One, click here.
Did you know that Mum produced the first modern and commercial deodorant in the world? Of course we’re not referring to our Mum, or even to your Mum, but in fact to a specific deodorising cream that landed on store shelves back in 1888.
This deodorant, the first of its kind, was part of a growing movement of cleanliness. It had been 300 years since French King Louis XIV was proclaiming proudly to having washed just twice in his life (at birth and upon marriage). Thankfully by the late 19th century, things were starting to change.
Developments in hygiene science were paving the way for a more educated and sanitised society. Showers were installed in homes, toothpastes were sold alongside toothbrushes, and Mum set out to combat the smell in our armpits. The pity was, no one really seemed to care about the latter.
Mum was a zinc-based deodorant cream sold in a jar and owes its namesake to the phrase mum’s the word. The first antiperspirant, Everdry, quickly followed in 1903 but neither product was commercially successful.
This was largely due to a lack of awareness, as well as a belief that personal items such as these were unhealthy and unnecessary.
“This was still very much a Victorian society,” explains Juliann Sivulka, a 20th-century historian of American advertising at Waseda Univesity in Tokyo, Japan. “Nobody talked about perspiration, or any other bodily functions in public.”
With body odour issues handled privately, the stigma of BO was never given an opportunity to develop into the social faux pas we connect with it today. Body odour just wasn’t a concern.
Until it was made a concern.
In 1910, a high school student from Cincinnati named Edna Murphy started a company called Odorono (Odor? Oh No!). As a surgeon, Edna’s father had developed a special antiperspirant liquid to keep his hands dry while working. It proved to work extremely well, but his business-savvy daughter saw an opportunity that extended beyond the operating table. Unfortunately the world just wasn’t quite ready for it.
It took several years of unproductive promoting before luck struck at the Atlantic City Exposition in 1912. It had been an unusually hot summer, and as sweat started to permeate the clothes of attendees, interest in Odorono began to grow.
Word spread and customers started trickling in from around the nation; like any small business, we can imagine how thrilling this must have been for Edna. Keen for more successes, she then took her new-found earnings and invested them in the area of the business that needed it the most – marketing.
Reaching out to New York advertising agency J. Walter Thompson (JWT), Edna was paired with a new inexperienced employee who was young by name and by nature. This might sound ill-fated, but James Young was extremely intelligent and would go on to become Vice President at JWT, the First Chairman of The Advertising Council and one of the most famous advertising copywriters of the 20th century.
James’ first tactic was to combat the idea that blocking your body’s natural perspiration was unhealthy. He began releasing advertisements that positioned excessive perspiration as an embarrassing medical ailment. Odorono, which had been formulated by a professional doctor, was the perfect remedy. This new stretching-of-the-truth worked well, but it wasn’t the gangbuster catalyst he had been hoping for; maybe awareness was the issue?
A door to door survey conducted by the advertising agency revealed that “every woman knew of Odorono and about one-third used the product. But two thirds felt they had no need for it,” Sivulka told the Smithsonian Magazine.
A break through! Awareness wasn’t the issue, necessity was! But how was James going to convince people that they needed Odorono?
Tapping into the still-present, Victorian-era sentiment of discretion, James presented sweating as a social faux pas that fuelled gossip behind your back. The campaign, which launched in a 1919 issue of Ladies Home Journal, featured a poster that looked more akin to a public service announcement than a paid-for advertisement. An image of an imminently intimate moment between a man and woman was headlined by the title “Within the Curve of a Woman’s arm. A frank discussion of a subject too often avoided.”
The ‘discussion’ attached to the image proclaimed that women could never be sure if they smelt offensively, because no one would dare mention it to their face. What they could be sure of though, was that their friends would be discussing it behind their back. The smell might even cause men to be unfaithful – who could blame a man for straying from his smelly wife?
The following year, Odorono’s sales rose 112%.
The success of Odorono’s scare campaign did not go unnoticed by its competitors and so the communication standards continued to drop. By 1939 Odorono had ditched subtly in favour of direct lines such as “Beautiful but dumb. She has never learned the first rule of long lasting charm.”
Overtly sexist messaging in the guise of marketing strategy became commonplace across many other sectors too. Some of APHA.LAB’s ‘favourites’ include…
We could go on for days…
By the 1930s the female market had been well and truly plundered. Looking for new growth opportunities, it became apparent that the alternate sex had been drastically overlooked.
The main issue with this emerging group was that smelling good was still a decidedly female thing. Male body odour was linked to hard work and manliness, so how were they going to convince men that they needed deodorant? By linking employment to masculinity during the worst depression the world has ever seen; real men have jobs.
Sales tactics remained relatively unchanged through the rest of the century, but thankfully it feels like those days are behind us. We’re sure that you too are aware of the shift towards progressive and empathetic messages in our modern time.
While there’s still a long way to go, organisations are being held accountable by consumers who frequently demand retribution in the form of education and advocacy – memories of Belvedere’s horrible rape culture ad come to mind.
Throughout this little history lesson, we have seen a lot of different remedies for body odour. While it would be lovely to live in a world where BO wasn’t an imposition, the reality is that the way we smell has been a concern of humans since the first day we were able to write about it.
APHA.LAB would love to start our day Ancient-Egypt-style, with a warm bath of essential oils, but we recognise that this is probably a little impractical for a daily activity.
In lieu of this, shampoos, soaps, perfumes and deodorants have become an integral part of many daily routines. In busy lives, these are often rushed through without much thought, but this needn’t be the case. The choices you make surrounding these items can have a significant impact on your day and APHA.LAB is working hard to be a positive influence.
Watch this space. Because as the history and herstory continues, we’ll be writing a few pages of our own – and we can’t wait to show them to you.