By Cari Casteel
Cari Casteel is currently working on a manuscript on the social and cultural history of deodorant, based on her dissertation, “The Odor of Things: Deodorant, Gender, and Olfaction in the United States.”Beginning in the fall she will be joining the history department at the University at Buffalo as a Clinical Assistant Professor. You can find her on twitter @thedeodorantone.
“Remember that night in 1933, Ed Snootz came to the Club Dance with that cave-man aroma? … Just let a man forget himself for one evening and come to a party with a slight case of perspiration fumes and his name is Mr. Goat.” This selection from a 1939 advertisement for Mum—the first commercially available deodorant—reprimanded the fictional Snootz for his body odor.
Many early deodorant advertisements actively shamed consumers into purchasing their product. Men and women were told that if they did not wear a deodorant it would lead to other failures: in love, friendship, and business. In the case of “Mr. Goat” his faux pas was so egregious that women were talking about it 6 years later.
As I write this from the comfort of my airconditioned office, the outside temperature is 90°F. The moment I venture outside, my body will begin to perspire in order to regulate its temperature. One unpleasant side effect of this perspiration is underarm odor. No need to worry, however, because in the 21stcentury, we have a vast array of deodorants and antiperspirants created to banish body odor.
A commonly held refrain about deodorant use is that because of these scolding advertisements consumers were duped into buying a product to hide perspiration and the accompanying offensive odor. While this is not entirely untrue, it is not the whole story. Mum deodorant was not the first—or even the hundredth—attempt to tone down the “cave-man aroma” described by the ad. As long as people have existed, they have worried about their appearance and smell. While the custom of wearing a commercially produced deodorant is rather new—about 130 years—attempting to combat fetid odor is as old as mankind.
The Romans particularly worried about foul body odor and worked fastidiously to keep their bodies clean and smelling pleasant. Just as the Mum advertisement shamed Ed Snootz for his lack of deodorant use, Roman playwrights and poets rebuked and joked about malodorous men and women. This can be seen –and smelled—in an epigram by Catullus:
Rufus, you are being hurt by an ugly rumor which asserts
that beneath your armpits dwells a ferocious goat.
This the women fear, and no wonder; for it’s a right rank
beast that no pretty girl will go to bed with.
So either get rid of this painful affront to the nostrils
or cease to wonder why the ladies flee. (Carmina 69)
Rufus—much like his 20th-century counterpart Mr. Snootz—had failed to practice proper hygiene and as a result could not find a female companion. Throughout Roman texts, foul body odor was described as goaty (hircus) and connotatively undesirable. Roman citizens took pride in their appearance and viewed their perceived cleanliness as a mark of superiority over other civilizations.
In a scene from Plautus’ Pseudolus, two characters gossip about a newcomer from Greece.
Pseudolus: But this servant, who is come here from Carystus, does he smell of anything?
Charinus: Yes, of the goat under his armpits.
Pseudolous: It befits the fellow, then, to have a tunic with long sleeves (2.4.46-49)
Much in the same way that 20th-century deodorant advertisements sought to correct a behavior, Roman prose and poems—such as those by Catullas and Plautus—used satire to poke fun at foul odors, but also as a way to educate and encourage cleanliness. Ovid, in The Art of Love, cautioned readers against offensive underarm odor, writing “I warn you that no rude goat find its way beneath your arms” (3.193). Ovid continued by recommending removing underarm hair and using powders to keep the body free from odor.
The Romans had countless remedies for dealing with perspiration odor. For example, In Natural History,Plinyrecorded a number of solutions for dealing with goats under the armpits. One method for combating body odor was a combination of rue, aloe, and rose oil boiled together and then dabbed on the offending areas (20.51). Another—slightly more fitting—recipe was a concoction made from the ashes of goats’ horns mixed with oil of myrtle, and then rubbed all over the body (28.79). While these solutions might not have checked perspiration, the scented oils would have helped mask the goaty odor.
Most significantly, when it comes to halting foul odors in the 21stcentury, the Romans recorded some of the earliest instances of applying alumen—the main ingredient in many antiperspirants today—as a deodorizer. Roman recipes for alumen as a preparation for halting armpit odor range from, bathing in a mixture of two parts honey and one part alumen, to placing unadulterated alumen stones in the armpits until the odor disappeared (35:52).
For over 2000 years, foul body odor has been a topic of conversation, a location for shame, and a way to assert superiority. Whether in ancient Rome or the present-day United States, dealing with goaty armpits has been a priority for many men and women. If you wear an antiperspirant, next time you apply it, you can thank the Romans.