No Offense: How Americans Became Intolerant of Body Odor

One hundred years ago, soap and deodorant manufacturers started convincing people that body odor was making you undesirable, threatening your social status, and even jeopardizing your job.

Detail of an advertisement for Lifebuoy Soap from the May 18, 1935, issue of the Post

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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.

Man in a bathtub, 1876 (Library of Congress)

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?

Killer Smells

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.

The inside of an Ybor City cigar factory, circa 1920 (Wikimedia Commons)


Rush hour on the Brooklyn Bridge, 1904 (Library of Congress)

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.

A Mennen Toilet Powder advertisement from the August 25, 1900, issue of the Post

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.

Odorono ad (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Advertisement appearing in the May 18, 1935, issue of the Post for Lifebuoy soap

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.

An ad from the October 1, 1931, issue of Child Life magazine, promoting the hygiene curriculum from the Institute.

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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  1. When I worked full-time, I took a shower a day, and sometimes two. I loved to cleanse my oily skin with Dial orange soap.

    I have worn anti-perspirants copiously since elementary school. It took a few tries to get it right. I had to learn which anti-perspirants irritated my freshly shaven underarms, and which smelled good to me. Most importantly, I had to learn which held in the sweat so that I never had odors.

    Ban Roll-On stung my arms, Secret spray did not mask odors, and Secret left a pasty feeling. Lady Speed Stick was just right. I wore the unscented version for years until it disappeared from the shelves.

    I tried Men’s Speed Stick unscented, and it was just as good. However, I had just purchased a new vehicle with black velour seats, and the Men’s Speed Stick shed fine powder all over the driver’s seat. I remember getting out of the car each evening after work, and gently wiping the seat of powder.

    Eventually, the Men’s Speed Stick unscented disappeared from the shelves. I had to shop around for something new.

    It turns out that Sure solid comes in unscented and is a great anti-perspirant. I can wear it for days and not break a sweat.

    Now that I am at home a lot, I shower every 2 or 3 days. I never get dirty at my computer desk. I just sometimes feel mildly sticky after wrapping up in my covers at night.

    A good wash is always refreshing.

  2. As I don’t work in coal mines, in a steel mill, in fields growing and harvesting, actually don’t work at all anymore, mostly home, the need for showers has declined to such an extent, that it is rare I take more than two a week, often not even that. I am a writer and sitting at a desk typing, going to market, watching tele is not the stuff of strenuous, exhaustive activity. The sweat glands snooze through most of this.
    On the other hand, showers are good even without soap, if all you’re looking to do is wake up more fully, feel refreshed. But excess washing isn’t very good for your skin as it robs it of oils that lubricate it. It also robs the skin of beneficial bacteria. My bacteria, I think, are very happily left to their business, and only when they become overly enthusiastic do I accede to the dreaded ‘S’ word.

  3. People talk about the good old days, but the good old days were smelly. People had bad dental care, hardly bathed, and supposedly had terrible hygiene. They wash their face, underarms, crouch by pouring water into a bowl, seldom took a full bathes, no deodorant, no toilet paper, washed their hair a few times a month, women wore huge dresses and hover over the bowl (the toilet or whatever) to relieve themselves. Clothing was washed by hand and probably not very clean.

    Today a dirty bum gets on the bus and smells everyone gives them space and no one want to brush against them. That is probably common at the time. A germaphobes’ nightmare. The good old days are not always that great, or romantic it is our euphoric recall, nostalgia, or rosy retrospection that we tend to focus on instead of the present.

  4. As a nurse I know how important hand washing is to prevent the spread of germs. Certain bacteria and germs can cause infection and disease. However, recent commercials on TV are advertising deodorant (like LUME) for your entire body. That concerns me because some odors can help alert a person to a health problem that may need to be treated medically: Not just covered up with a scent. Many years ago, I noticed a musty odor while toweling off after a shower. I thought it was from the sink drain at first. Turns out it was a fungal infection in my umbilicus (belly-button). Could have been more serious if I had just covered it with deodorant. Soap and water is marvelous for your health. Use it!!

  5. Vicki is correct about the public school plumbing for cold water. I know that for a fact as I attending one in rural TN with only cold water. Excellent article. Thanks for sticking well to the point and not leaning into a political opinion.

  6. Great article, Jeff. I appreciate the ads and links. Mike made some excellent points about sanitizing/sterilizing being taken to the extreme, going far beyond body odor. Many of today’s commerical products (soaps, deodorants and shampoos) have unhealthy chemicals in them that are best avoided.

    There are all-natural soaps, shampoos and deodorants you can buy at local stores specializing in organic foods and products. Also online, of course. They may be somewhat more expensive, but being healthier is worth it. They also won’t dry out your skin. After drying off from a bath or shower is a good time to apply natural skin moisturizers. I like the ones in the spray bottle. You can get them in lite scents, or unscented.

    Vicki made good points about schools (still) providing only cold water; no warm to this day. This is also true in restaurants, and any number of business/office buildings, including recently built ones. Soap (in the dispensers) is often out. The paper towel dispensers, often ‘sensory’ now, don’t work right. Many times I put my wet hands underneath one, and nothing. It’s especially frustrating when I can see the dispenser is full!

    Not surprising. I just spent $60 on gas, and wanted to check the tire pressure. The machine was broken or ‘out of order’. So sadly symbolic of out nation otherwise today. Anyway, the good news from this article is we have plenty of choices to feel and be clean and fresh. As with anything else, we shouldn’t under or overdo it.

  7. Oh, our poor microbiomes! Were, are we so susceptible to the ad man? Alarming on a number of levels. But no more than TikTok or today’s influencers, if you are on social media. I gave it up years ago when it started being like a part-time job.

  8. And like so many ideas with good intentions, it has been take to the extreme. Now, if you’re not completely sanitizing, even nearly sterilizing, your skin you’re considered unclean. Along with the odor, people are destroying the helpful bacteria that provide a first-line defense against pathogens.

    Of course, it’s the ‘science’ that provides the tools for the ad campaigns. There are so many different hand gels and lotions available that many places now require the use simply for entry into a business or agency. Hand ‘sanitizers’ are pervasive and more often than not can be found in industrial sized containers next to innumerable doorways and countertops.

    The ‘scientists’ and doctors with more conflicts of interest than can be counted on both hands are pushing the scenario that ‘it’s important for your health’.

    Indoctrination camps (that used to be considered schools) are failing at their original purpose – education of the public, and are part of the marketing.

  9. Well we do know at least that the washing of hands is beneficial for good health. So well done from that angle.

  10. What an interesting article on body odor. History does have many lessons for us to learn from. We know about the USA’s concern over body odor but what I wonder are foreign countries perceptions of body odor?

  11. Regarding the section about a rural Tennessee school and handwashing. The 1935 ad points out that many other schools do not provide soap. And “others do not provide warm water”. The author of the current article might be surprised to find that 21st century public schools have not changed much! Many primary schools have restrooms right off the classrooms but they are plumbed for ONLY cold water. Soap is a luxury but when there is only icy cold water, those youngsters don’t want to to use soap since it is so hard to rinse. As for washing for as long as it takes to sing “happy birthday” forget it. The same situation happens at colleges and universities where one of the survival tools for entering freshmen is learning which buildings (or which restrooms in which building) have hot water.
    I know it sounds incredible but do your own investigation!


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