Deodorants History

Oh, I think the explanation might be you’ve been fooled by a simple olfactory misdirection, a little bit like ventriloquism of the nose. It’s an elementary trick in certain parts of the galaxy.
The Tenth Doctor, Doctor Who

Humans have loved good-smelling things since ancient times. We’ve used flowers and herbs, burned incense, applied oils and lotions to our skin, and more in our quest to smell good. Deodorants and antiperspirants are just the latest in those efforts. When did the deodorant industry actually get started, though? What was it that made it such a universal thing?

The Ancient Roots of the Industry

Technically, the deodorant industry dates back thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of years. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used perfumes in an attempt to cover up their body odor and smell more attractive. The Romans famously also combined perfume with rigorous bathing, of course. So, any peddler or merchant selling scented oils or perfume, heady herbs, and the like could actually be considered part of the deodorant industry. However, if you want to talk about commercial products that bear a resemblance to what we know today, we need to fast forward several millennia.

The Birth of an Industry

To be clear, there has always been an understanding that human body odor can become just a bit too much, and a quest to make ourselves smell just a bit better. Commercial products to deal with these issues did not debut until after the Industrial Revolution, though. The very first deodorant was named Mum (although the name of the inventor has been lost to time). Mum was patented in 1888, and debuted to limited acclaim. The first antiperspirant debuted just a few years later, in 1903, again to less than enthusiastic buyers. Another antiperspirant, Odorono, was born in 1910.

Why the chilly reception to these products? Really, it came down the fact that most people in “polite” society didn’t discuss perspiration or any other bodily function. It was considered unseemly. They also still practiced the time-tested method of dealing with body odor – washing thoroughly, and then spraying on perfume or cologne, or using some sort of scented oil.

The real boost to sales came from the advertising used to promote first Odorono, and then other products. Once sales had started for the antiperspirant, they flattened out. Surveys found that while most women know of the product, only about a third used it. The other two-thirds did not think that sweating was a problem.

James Young, working for the J. Walter Thompson Company, ultimately convinced those women that not only was sweating a problem, but that stopping sweating was medically desirable and would lead to better romantic lives. Interestingly, modern advertising isn’t so different – the wording might be different, but they’re still selling confidence, help for a pressing problem, and romance.

Other advancements were more technical in nature. For instance, the advent of the roll-on applicator helped, as did a non-acidic formulation for antiperspirant that didn’t irritate the skin quite so much.

The Industry Today

Today’s deodorant industry is worth $18 billion annually. That’s a huge jump from where it was not even 200 years ago, and massive growth for an industry that hasn’t been an industry for very long when all things are considered.