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(Courtesy of the author)

How Advertisers Convinced Americans They Smelled Bad

A schoolgirl and a former traveling Bible salesman helped turn deodorants and antiperspirants from niche toiletries into an $18 billion industry

Lucky for Edna Murphey, people attending an exposition in Atlantic City during the summer of 1912 got hot and sweaty.

For two years, the high school student from Cincinnati had been trying unsuccessfully to promote an antiperspirant that her father, a surgeon, had invented to keep his hands sweat-free in the operating room.

Murphey had tried her dad’s liquid antiperspirant in her armpits, discovered that it thwarted wetness and smell, named the antiperspirant Odorono (Odor? Oh No!) and decided to start a company.

But business didn’t go well—initially—for this young entrepreneur. Borrowing $150 from her grandfather, she rented an office workshop but then had to move the operation to her parents’ basement because her team of door-to-door saleswomen didn’t pull in enough revenue. Murphey approached drugstore retailers who either refused to stock the product or who returned the bottles of Odorono back, unsold.

In the 1910s deodorants and antiperspirants were relatively new inventions. The first deodorant, which kills odor-producing bacteria, was called Mum and had been trademarked in 1888, while the first antiperspirant, which thwarts both sweat-production and bacterial growth, was called Everdry and launched in 1903.

But many people—if they had even heard of the anti-sweat toiletries—thought they were unnecessary, unhealthy or both.

“This was still very much a Victorian society,” explains Juliann Silvulka, a 20th-century historian of American advertising at Waseda Univesity in Tokyo, Japan. “Nobody talked about perspiration, or any other bodily functions in public.”

Instead, most people’s solution to body odor was to wash regularly and then to overwhelm any emerging stink with perfume. Those concerned about sweat percolating through clothing wore dress shields, cotton or rubber pads placed in armpit areas which protected fabric from the floods of perspiration on a hot day.

Yet 100 years later, the deodorant and antiperspirant industry is worth $18 billion. The transformation from niche invention to a blockbuster product was in part kick-started by Murphey, whose nascent business was nearly a failure.

According to Odorono company files at Duke University, Edna Murphey’s Odorono booth at the 1912 Atlantic City exposition initially appeared to be another bust for the product.

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