For centuries, the smell of rancid human sweat was a part of everyday life. Wherever there were people, there was body odor.
A typical American in the 1800s might take just one bath a week, and the whole family would use the same water. Men working 14 hours in fields or factories and women who spent their days in a hot kitchen might only wash by splashing themselves with water from a basin. A warm bath was a luxury for the wealthy.
In those days, the air of American cities was thick with smells, including fumes from countless cooking fires, rendering plants, foundries, breweries, horse manure, and sewage. Body odor from the man next to you in a street car wouldn’t have seemed noteworthy.
Personal hygiene has radically changed since then. Today, Americans buy more deodorant than any other country. We annually spend $6 billion on materials to stop body odor. Most of us take a shower every day while the global norm is five times a week.
What made us so compulsive about being clean?
Before the world learned about germ theory in the 1890s, people assumed that airborne diseases — which was considered pretty much anything but smallpox — carried obnoxious smells. This theory was supported by a British social reformer Edwin Chadwick, who declared, “All smell is disease.”
This theory of diseased odors, or “miasmas,” gained adherents at the turn of the 20th century as America grew crowded. Between 1880 and 1920, our population doubled. The increase was most notable in the cities where the smell from inadequate sewer systems led people to believe sewer gas was carrying the fatal illnesses.
In urban areas, men and women were working in crowded offices and making their way through packed trolley cars and overflowing sidewalks. In such close quarters, they could barely escape the perspiration, bad breath, and other body odors of others.
People who had inhaled strangers’ bad smells all their lives now worried they were exposing themselves to dangerous contagions. They became less tolerant of body odors, particularly when those came from foreigners and immigrants.
Cleaning Up Society
The Progressive movement was, in part, a reaction to the unsanitary conditions of modern life. Reformers pushed public health laws to make cities safer and healthier to live in.
Gradually, progressive laws cleared the streets of filth and decay. They helped bring clean water and modern sewage systems into homes. Now, as smoke and fumes cleared from the atmosphere, people would have realized that lingering smells were coming from each other.
With the new focus on cleanliness, Americans became more conscious of their own odors. Some tried to remain inoffensive between baths by dousing themselves with perfume. Later, talcum powder became popular.
In 1888, the first deodorant, a cream called MUM, was patented. The first antiperspirant, called Everdry, was introduced in 1903. It used aluminum chloride to block pores; unfortunately, it was acidic enough to cause stinging, as well as dissolve clothing fabric.
Mentioning The Unmentionable
In 1912, the antiperspirant Odorono came on the market. Its advertising agency conducted a door-to-door survey of women and found that all women had heard of Odorono, but only a third used it. The rest said they had no need of it.
The agency met this objection with a controversial ad campaign.
It described how a woman could have offensive body odor but be unaware of it. Even her best friends wouldn’t tell her, though they’d gossip about it behind her back. No woman could be certain she was odor free without an antiperspirant.
When the ad appeared in Ladies Home Journal, 200 women were so offended by the mention of a lady’s un-perfumed scent that they cancelled their subscriptions. The ad writer was told by a colleague he had “insulted every woman in America,” and was shunned by women in his social circle.
But the seed of doubt had been planted. Odorono’s sales rose 112 percent, according to Smithsonian magazine.
Advertisers focused solely on women in the 1920s because the smell of stale sweat was still considered “manly.” But in the late 1930s, men began buying deodorant when a new ad campaign provoked their insecurities. The ads suggested that their rank, “manly” smell was putting their jobs at risk. Finicky employers could easily replace them with workers without body odor.
Soap for Success
In the 1920s, soap sales began to fall. Cosmetics, once the mark of “loose women,” had become socially acceptable. Every year, American women bought a pound of face powder, and there were over 1500 face creams on the market.
The Association of American Soap and Glycerin Producers responded by launching a public information campaign, which it called the Cleanliness Institute. Its goals were to promote greater hygiene and to sell more soap. A million-dollar campaign urged Americans to take more baths, use more soap, wash more thoroughly, change their clothes more often, and teach their children habits of hygiene.
“We will hammer into them that bathing is permissible during the winter months, that soap is nothing to be feared,” said Institute Director Roscoe Edlund, “and that, if they wish to get ahead, they must wash behind their ears,” according to Stronger Than Dirt.
Through ads, pamphlets, and radio broadcasts, the Institute presented soap as an essential part of American success. It helped you achieve a better job and better social position, make a better first impression, attain attractiveness, popularity, and peer acceptance, and raise more successful children. Clean people appeared more confident, efficient, congenial, and attractive.
According to an Institute ad in Ladies Home Journal, “Clean habits, clean homes, clean linen have a value socially and commercially… How many successful men and women were not constantly careful of personal appearance and personal cleanliness?”
The Institute also produced advertisements offering educational materials for schools that stressed the importance of soap and water.
Bathrooms, American Style
There is one more reason Americans are so intolerant of body odor: We have an abundance of bathrooms.
Much of our housing, particularly the suburban housing developments of the later 1940s and on, was built with modern water and sewage systems. A bathtub was no longer a luxury.
Unlike Europeans whose homes were built before modern plumbing, most Americans haven’t had to share bathrooms with their neighbors. We have the extravagance of almost unlimited time and hot water. It’s no surprise that we emerge from our morning bathroom prepping smelling more like a magazine scent sample than our actual selves.
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