Birth of the deodorant industry

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In Smithsonian, Sarah Everts traces the deodorant business to Edna Murphey, a high school student from Cincinnati who around 1910 took an antiperspirant her surgeon father invented, meant for his sweaty hands in the operating room, and dabbed it in her armpits. Murphey dubbed the product Odorono and took it to market, but sales were slow. Then she connected with an ad copy writer who successfully made Americans, particularly women, worry that they might stink. From Smithsonian:

Young decided to present perspiration as a social faux pas that nobody would directly tell you was responsible for your unpopularity, but which they were happy to gossip behind your back about.

His advertisement in a 1919 edition of the Ladies Home Journal didn’t beat around the bush. “Within the Curve of a Woman’s arm. A frank discussion of a subject too often avoided,” announced the headline above an image of an imminently romantic situation between a man and a woman.

Reading more like a lyrical public service announcement than an advert, Young continued:

A woman’s arm! Poets have sung of it, great artists have painted its beauty. It should be the daintiest, sweetest thing in the world. And yet, unfortunately, it’s isn’t always.

"How Advertisers Convinced Americans They Smelled Bad"


  1. “How Advertisers Convinced Americans They Smelled Bad”

    Have you smelled an American lately? They can still smell pretty bad.

    1. Google “why do ____” for pretty much any nationality, ethnicity, race and you’ll see  an autocomplete suggestion for “smell”. Apparently the world is not only full of smelly people, but those who think they’re the exception.

      1. Everyone smells, but people smell differently depending on a number of factors, such as what food you eat. In Taiwan, people told me that they could smell a white person in a crowd, because the milk products they consume make their sweat smell sour.

    1.  Showers are also a big help.  Most of the stick is about old souring sweat and not about the perspiration of the last few minutes.

      1. so what? shower every few minutes before you start to smell? I know if I forget my deodorant I smell like fine aged Wisconsin Cheddar by the end of a workday ( And I don’t work in a Wisconsin cheddar factory), it ain’t because I don’t shower either as I do so twice most days. 

        It may be true that people used to put up with body odor, and those may have been better, simpler times, but they must have stank like crazy.

        1.  Maybe I am a freak, but I have found that without a layer of petro chemicals on my pits My sweat takes a few days to sour.

          A little cologne can actually keep me smelling good even when really sweaty and even  if I haven’t had a shower in more than a day or two.

    2. There are a few people who smell like rancid bacon grease or rotten eggs when they sweat, but most people just smell sweaty.  I don’t find it offensive.

      1. I just had a sudden flash of Antonous sniffing dirty laundry and flipping-out like the woman nicknamed “Lassie” from the (utterly puerile) movie Porky’s.

    1. Because bad breath was also a figment of some ad copywriters imagination? …or because the development of chemistry had, until that point, not been sufficient to come up with counters to these minor personal-hygiene issues? 

      …but I suppose it’s easier to think that the hygiene-industrial-complex formulated some elaborate, many-layered, conspiracy to hoodwink consumers to buy products that they don’t need, rather than dealing the the reality that, bro… you stink.

      1. The ‘bad’ part is subjective. Although it’s clear that some parts of some people have been considered malodorous as far back as oral history can take us, it’s probable that EVERYTHING EXCEPT MINT SMELLS BAD is a recent meme.

  2. Try washing your pits with Hibiclens.  Won’t smell for days.  Pretty amazing.  Kills the odor causing bacteria.

    1.  I think a lack of healthy bacteria is why so many people have to use this junk in the first place.  people kill the bacteria off with a mix of chemicals and then the sweat just spoils on them.  I haven’t used anything but soap for about 20 years.  I get compliments on how I smell.

  3. Without deodorants the expression “Opinions are like armpits: everybody’s got a couple, and some of them stink” would have to be changed to “Opinions are like armpits: everybody’s got a couple, and all of them stink.”

    Admittedly I know some people who already believe the latter applies to all opinions but their own. They don’t think their pits stink either.

      1. Well, If you look at the history of native Americans and European colonist signing treaties, yo will see that many were signed under oak trees or some such outdoor place. and pictures ussually have folks standing a few feet apart.

        People strongly identify the smell of people like them vs the smell of other sorts of people.

        I believe the old adage is, “A fox can’t smell its own hole”

      2.  I was told once that the slightly-awkward arm positions of women in classical portraits was due to the concealment of apples in the underarms of their shirts, so as to neutralize odors.

        Although thinking upon it again just now, I cannot recall encountering a corroborating source.  Anyone..?

  4. She ripped her

    glittering gown

    Couldn’t face another

    show, no

    Her deodorant had let

    her down

    She should have used


  5. I wonder if people did not believe that they were stinky, or if a certain amount of stink was inevitable barring an invention like this and people just tried to minimize it as best they could.

    Also, I wonder before the profusion of different ethnic foods whether people in particular locations tended to have more similar smells. If everyone ate a head of garlic a day, garlic coming through your pores might not be as striking as it might be now.

    1. I’ve wondered this myself, although clearly the invention of perfume predates the invention of deodorant by, well, millenia as far as I can tell. I guess people have almost always known they were stinky and the ones who could afford to do so have tried various methods to cover it up since they didn’t know how to prevent it in the first place.

      The 18th century as a great period for covering up comes to mind. See Jonathan Swift’s The Lady’s Dressing Room, which is just one example of how Swift was fascinated by how disgusting our bodies are, and how much effort we put into covering up that fact.

  6. I fess up: without deodorant, I do get stinky after a few sweaty hours.  I’ve had a girlfriend or two who claimed to enjoy the smell, but I don’t like it myself.  I’m not too proud to admit that for the last year or so, I’ve been using “Va-Va-Vanilla” scented Secret (yup, the “Strong Enough For A Man…” stuff), and I don’t care how many millennia of evolution I’m swimming against, I like smelling like a cupcake all the livelong day.

    1. I, too, will happily admit that my pits smell bad without deodorant. Yes, I wash them with soap. Yes, I exercise and eat pretty healthy food, for the most part. Nevertheless, my pits stink sometimes. Not all the time. But often enough that deodorant seems like a good decision. 

      I have no idea whether other people can smell it or not. But I can smell it. And that’s enough. 

      Unlike Donald, though, I prefer the unscented deodorant. (Though, sometimes, I wear my husband’s “Active sport” scent.) 

      1. I really wonder if there is some reason that some women prefer “men’s” scented deodorant and men the “women’s” scent.

        I like the mild ones, like clean, fresh, spring.  My wife has a tendency to go for the more male oriented ones. 

        Nothing like cuddling up to your spouse and having her smell more manly than you.

    2. I used to use women’s stuff, it seemed higher quality, the scents are better, and they don’t come off on your clothes (the selling point of many women’s varieties). The relatively new men’s Old Spice Fresh Collection ones are great though and I’d highly recommend trying those. I would be tempted to try an equivalent female variety though if they had different scents (I like some variety).

      Regarding part of @boingboing-7160c7db52df96e5fe196a6c9ce73f83:disqus ‘s comment though, after a few controversial articles on BB regarding usage of soap I decided to try going soap-free; I didn’t like not using shampoo on the hair and I use soap on my face and, uh, certain private areas but nowhere else on my body – including my armpits. 

      I believe this has reduced my general amount of smelliness (which I don’t think was particularly high to begin with) and fresh out of the shower my pits don’t smell. After a few hours (assuming I haven’t just been sitting at the computer) they do, though, without deodorant. I don’t think soap makes much of a difference either way in this particular regard.

  7. I find it kind of interesting that there is a large idea that if you don’t use deodorant, you will stink so bad everyone in the next county will notice. When I was nursing in a locked unit, we didn’t use deodorant for the patients. Folks didn’t get ripe until that last couple days before their bi weekly bath, unless they were sick or whatnot. (We’d argue them another bath in those cases. ) 

    For a normal person, without any of the unusual sweat smell problems medically, you won’t really stink unless you are seriously working hard, are sick, and it’s been awhile. Fresh laundry, and a shower really do take care of a lot of that. I don’t go around sticking my face in folks armpits to check, and unless it’s hit dead tauntaun level, I’d never notice. 

  8. I think surely people must have stunk back then, but you got used to it. Farmers get used to animal stink, for instance. Locals nearby stunk like you stunk because they ate similar food. Foreigners stunk more because you weren’t used to the smell.

    To some degree, this is still true, today. Go to a foreign country and see how people think you smell differently. Those of us from developed countries may be horrified at the stink of people from under-developed countries. And those from under-developed countries may think our artificial scent is unnatural and too strong.

  9. Do I really have to point out that a Deodorant and an Antiperspirant are not the same thing?  Deodorants have been around since ancient Egypt. What do you think essential oils were used for? In fact all through ancient times right up until the 19th century people did what they could to cover up or avoid bad smells. They did this because they believed bad smells caused disease. The theory was called Miasma and was eventually disproved by the discovery of bacteria.  Antiperspirants blocked the sweat glans and made the skin unable to secrete sebum. Sebum is the bodies natural lubricant that bacteria love to feed on, it is this bacteria that causes underarms to smell.  So again boingboing publishes an inaccurate headline. It should have read Birth of the Antiperspirant industry.

  10. As the wikipedia article for deodorant points out, the stink is not the sweat itself but the byproducts of bacteria fermenting the sweat.  So I’ve just gone for wiping some hand sanitizer into my armpits every few days during hot weather to thin out the bacterial herd.  Seems to work great for eliminating stink, and there are no problems with it staining clothes.

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