Why I smell like it's 1903

Intern Caitlin Kearney follows a 111-year-old deodorant recipe. For history!

Over the summer, I've been doing research for a new hands-on exhibition coming to the museum next year. Object Project is about everyday things that changed everything. It will invite visitors to take a closer look—and perhaps smell—at some things we take for granted. Routine today, deodorant was once a very big deal, so I decided to give a DIY recipe from a 1903 health and beauty advice column a spin in the middle of the hottest season in Washington, D.C.

DIY deodorant ingredients
DIY deodorant ingredients

Perfumes have existed for centuries, with Mesopotamians using incense and Egyptians being the first to record actually wearing scent on their bodies. They combined herbs, spices, and flowers in wax cones worn on their heads, which released aromas as they melted. However, perfumes serve to mask odors rather than improve them. This became a key differentiator—and advertising tactic—in the emergence of modern deodorant.

Americans were largely unbothered by the smell of perspiration when they lived in rural areas and worked outdoors, as they did for much of the country's early history. But in the early 1900s, cities were thriving, and people flocked to them. This meant that more men and women worked in offices, factories, and department stores than ever before—in rather close quarters with their colleagues. City dwellers quickly became aware of their own body odor, not to mention that of their coworkers!

Office workers, Met Life office postcard, 1910. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company postcard, published 1911. Via Wikimedia commons.
Office workers, Met Life office postcard, 1910. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company postcard, published 1911. Via Wikimedia commons.

Diane Wendt, associate curator in the Division of Medicine and Sciences, says that there was a social pressure to address personal hygiene more rigorously. "Advertising played a big role in convincing people that they needed products in order to be clean, healthy, and hygienic, from BO—body odor—to bad breath—halitosis—to a woman's need to douche regularly… with Lysol!"

Amolin The Personal Deodorant Powder, ca. 1943
Amolin The Personal Deodorant Powder, ca. 1943

With these new expectations, American women especially started thinking about a daily beauty routine that included deodorant. Some already wore rubber dress shields in their underarms to prevent sweat stains on their clothing, but this didn't combat odor directly. While druggists would compound products like soaps and tooth powders for sale in their stores, many people still made their own medicinal and household products, says Wendt. One woman wrote to Mrs. Henry Symes' column "How to be Healthy and Beautiful" in the Los Angeles Sunday Times, requesting a recipe for making deodorant "in the form of a paste." Mrs. Symes published her response on September 13, 1903, and I've attempted to follow her instructions as closely as possible.

 

Kleinert'S Olympia Dress Shields. IMAGE ID: 817250
Kleinert's Olympia Dress Shields. New York Public Library catalog ID: b17566889. IMAGE ID: 817250.

Here are her suggested ingredients, along with a few substitutions I made:

  • Phenic acid. Also known as carbolic acid, this ingredient posed the greatest issue. Chemical burns are a possible side effect, and let's just say I'm not that dedicated to historical accuracy. Instead, I used lemon juice, which is often found in natural beauty regimens and still aids in killing bacteria.
  • Alcohol. I used standard rubbing alcohol.
  • Cornstarch. I conveniently already had some in the kitchen for use in cooking and baking.
  • Powdered orris. Now, this ingredient was a little trickier. Orris is the ground-up root of an iris plant, and it's used primarily for scent in things like perfumes and potpourri. It was harder to track down in stores, so I ordered it from an online apothecary.
  • Essence of violet. This is also included for scent, and I used essence of lavender instead because I already had some at home.
  • Glycerin. Vegetable glycerin was fairly easy to locate at an organic foods store.

As you can see, this recipe only calls for six ingredients, and several of them are common household items. It took me about 15 minutes to make the deodorant, including measuring (which involved doing conversions, since the original recipe was in grams), and stirring everything together. The unexpected color of the powdered orris turned the entire mixture brown. In fact, my deodorant had both the color and consistency of peanut butter.

Deodorant in process
Deodorant in process
The final product
The final product

However, it smelled really fresh and fragrant, and it didn't cause any skin irritation (like chemical burns) when applied to my arm. I'm not sure I'm prepared to wear it as my daily deodorant, but I was pretty impressed with how resourceful Mrs. Symes was in 1903.

Pears’ White Precipitate Fuller’s Earth: An Absorbent and Deodorant Powder, ca. 1910-1917
Pears' White Precipitate Fuller's Earth: An Absorbent and Deodorant Powder, ca. 1910-1917
Riker’s Deodor, ca. 1920s
Riker’s Deodor, ca. 1920s

With increased advertising and the growth of large chain drugstores capable of mass distribution, deodorant became a more common daily item. It was also an affordable convenience, at around 25 cents a jar in the early 1900s. The first roll-on deodorant stick didn't appear until the 1950s, followed by the first aerosol 10 years later. Now we have a plethora of deodorant brands and fragrances to choose from, at drugstores on every corner. Or, you could relive the early 1900s and try making your own—just be sure to warn your coworkers first!

Caitlin Kearney is an Object Project summer 2014 intern. She attends the Museum Studies program at The George Washington University.