Then vs. Now: The History of Deodorant

Early ads had the daunting task of convincing consumers they stunk.

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Smells are cultural—especially bodily smells. Some smells that might be “normal” or even pleasant to you could be foul to someone in another country, or even from another century. If you time-traveled to Philadelphia in 1776, the smells and body odor would likely horrify you, yet the city dwellers there would be unfazed.

This means when the first deodorant hit the shelves at the end of the 19th century, it had to take a lot of clever marketing to convince people that they stunk—and that they needed deodorant in their pits.

Personal Hygiene Goes Commercial

For centuries, when families needed a personal hygiene product, they would often make it themselves, or repurpose other items. Families used newspaper pages for toilet paper, and made homemade soap with lye and animal fat. Learn more about the evolution of personal hygiene here.

Personal hygiene became a bit more crucial in the 19th century. A combination of industrialization and the discovery of germ theory paved the way for increased hygiene habits. Proctor & Gamble released its “White Soap” in 1878—one of the first commercial personal hygiene products.

A decade later, the first commercial deodorant hit the market: Mum deodorant in 1888. Mum deodorant was waxy and contained zinc oxide, an antibacterial substance to help fight odor-causing bacteria. Like many early deodorants, it had to be applied with the fingers, and it took a while to dry.

Marketing Deodorant in the Early 20th Century

Convincing people they stink and need to buy your product is no easy feat. Too aggressive, and you’ll ostracize the market. Too kind, and nobody will see the need to buy your product.

Early ads tapped into women’s fears at the time. Common themes in early deodorant ads were popularity, gossip, attractiveness to men, and shame.

Some of the more gentle approaches promised women that deodorant would help them feel “at her daintiest and best.” Other ads were a bit more aggressive, like one that displayed in large text: “Beautiful but dumb: She has never learned the first rule of lasting charm.”

Shaming women for chasing away potential husbands with their body odor was the most common tactic. For example, one ad for Mum deodorant shows a sad woman with two whispering men in the background. The text below warns: “Unpopularity often begins with the first hint of underarm odor. This is one fault that men can’t stand—one fault they can’t forgive.”

Antiperspirant Hits the Scene

Antiperspirant hit the scene in 1903. The first one was called Everdry, and it was a fluid solution made of aluminum chloride. Users applied it with a cotton ball.

Everdry did reduce sweating, but it was a rather harsh solution that led to extreme drying and irritation. Still, consumers loved it—not necessarily because it helped them avoid odor, but because it prevented sweat stains on their precious clothes. Sweat stains had long been a burden, and antiperspirant proved to be a good fix.

A study in 1916 warned about the harsh effects on the skin by aluminum chloride, but a less irritating product didn’t arrive until the 1930s: Arrid Cream. This product, and other cream-based antiperspirants, became all the rage by the 1940s.

The Evolution of Deodorant and Antiperspirants

Today, you can buy deodorants and antiperspirants in dozens of varieties, from a roll-on gel to an aerosol spray. Many of these options hit the market in the 1950s, partially thanks to the boom of plastic. This includes roll-ons, sticks, pumps, aerosols, and squeeze bottles.

Notably, the first roll-on antiperspirant was introduced in 1952. Its creator took inspiration from the technology behind the ballpoint pen, which László Bíró introduced in the 1930s.

Deodorant use spiked in the 1950s for two key reasons. For starters, these new applicators were convenient and less messy, since you no longer needed to wash your hands after applying.

But furthermore, advertising worked. In particular, many ads in the 1950s showed “nervous sweating,” which helped encourage year-round use of deodorant. (Previously, deodorants were only used during hot summers.)

Deodorant + Antiperspirant Today

Modern advertisements for deodorant have turned down some of the more blatant sexism, but they continue to play on paranoia. Print ads and commercials frequently show people worrying if their current deodorant is good enough, and wondering, “Is that smell coming from me?”

In fact, when it comes to body odor, you could make a compelling case that people’s greatest fear is not just being stinky—but being stinky and not realizing it.

Not surprisingly, today’s consumers apply deodorant and antiperspirant every day, and sometimes multiple times a day. Still, you have to wonder: Would future Americans think we smell funny?