An advertizing from the 1940s
Old Spice Cologne has achieved rare status since 1938. It has become the "dad cologne" of America. How did this come about? We investigate.
Fragrance notes : nutmeg, orange, lemon, star anise, clary sage, aldehydes / carnation, jasmine, heliotrope, cinnamon, geranium, pimento or Jamaican pepper/ ambergris, benzoin, cedarwood, vanilla, musk, tonka bean, olibanum...
Albert Hauck The Man Behind Old Spice
Old Spice Cologne has become so enmeshed with visual representations of masculinity in American pop culture, that it is perhaps time to go back to the scent itself to try and figure out what it really smells like, setting aside manhood and burliness puns. When you take the olfactive approach and forget the lore and legends about masculinity surrounding the fragrance, you're invited to ask yourself what its creator, perfumer Albert Hauck had in mind when blending the scent for Shulton company in the 1930s.
First of all, Hauck imagined the perfume initially as a women's scent called Early American Old Spice for Women launched in 1937. The idea was to appeal to feminine noses and imaginings through the evocation of the colonial era and the allure of traded spices which found pride of place in spice cabinets of yesteryear. The scent wished to play upon a representation of traditional femininity going back to the 18th century, with images of a shy young woman holding flowers, sometimes protecting her face from the sun with a bonnet or a straw hat. Despite its advertized spices, it was not destined to come across as provocative, unlike, say, Opium by Yves Saint Laurent. Rather, to this reviewer, it is perceptible that the spices could be perceived as tonic, roborative ingredients, more in tune with a medicinal sensitivity; spices have this dual nature of being able to tease our tastebuds but also to be prophylactic.
A year later and for reasons unspecified, but which made the development team think men would be ready to adopt it, it was remarketed as a men's cologne in a white bottle bearing the stamp of the "ship Grand Turk" which reportedly and legendarily anchored in Salem in 1786. The colonial-period idea was retained, but a very quick change of minds made the scent be commercialized as masculine under the name Old Spice in capital letters and "early American," in smaller script.
Shulton company however did not abandon the feminine concept. Early American Old Spice for Women continued to be marketed into the 1960s.
Hauck took out the lily-of-the-valley and especially the rose, which were in the original feminine formula, leaving geranium with some jasmine and more obviously carnation in the men's version. He also added more woods in the men's cologne. But the duo was not advertized as a her-and-him set.
If we look at her-and-him scent duos today, they are entirely different fragrances. This was more along the lines of the dynamic of a creative process. It is more comparable to Habit Rouge being born from Shalimar, except much faster in pace - and much closer in kinship.
Old Spice Classic Cologne reversed the myth of Eden, taking a rib from the women's perfume to shape the men's scent, as a new line of thought was developed. It is possible however that a general source of inspiration was the old Caribbean recipe Bay Rum. Was it originally an attempt at making Bay Rum feminine, then reverting to type after a year?
I have Mamado West Indian Bay Rum Double Strength at hand, and it smells like there is a direct kinship.
Perhaps it was the ambergris which set the wheels in motion. Today, when you step away from the gender-focused advertising campaigns to reacquaint yourself with the scent, it becomes clear that ambergris is a central olfactive impression of the fragrance. The cologne is ambery at first; but it also offers that nuance of salted, dried fish with whiffs of burnt caramel that makes it a sea-seasoned fragrance; it is of course coherent with the maritime thematic of the men's cologne.
The ambergris is so pronounced in Old Spice that you realize Balmain Ambre Gris might have been inspired by this solinote aspect. The other main facets which strike the nose are the powdery carnation and a marked nuance of dark plum. Beyond that, a mix of spicy nuances plays out. It all resembles in a way the scent which might emanate from a pirate's treasure chest.
The Spice in Old Spice
"Wake Him Up to the Freshness of the Open Sea with Old Spice," (1972) "Supermarketing", vol. 27, p.65)
Old Spice has been advertized as fresh as a sea breeze but in actuality, it is an oriental fragrance. This means that it is interested in conveying sensations of warmth and depth. The ambergris, the vanilla - that you can also call a spice - the benzoin, the olibanum, the tonka bean are not refreshing, they are warming - and accessorily you could feel refreshed by splashing some on yourself because spices enliven it. But the interesting part is that Old Spice has never lost an old-school women's perfume quality, which makes it smell of aged amber and musty oakmoss, not unlike Mon Parfum Chéri by Annick Goutal. The note of freshness is more covert, thanks to the underlying braciness of geranium.
Hauck must have had a colonial spice cabinet in mind at some point. If you smell Old Spice more closely, there is a range of plausible cookery smells in it. It does smell a bit like Coca-Cola, or more precisely, like a baseball leather glove made to steep in Coca-Cola essence, right down to the cloyiness it can convey. Old Spice is slightly sweet and sticky. It is also dry and spicy and "difficult-smelling" with robust, harsh smells - even metallic ones surfacing in the blend. It makes me think for comparison of Santa Maria Novella Spanish Leather which has no room for "nice" in its repertoire, with no round angles almost - although Old Spice is not as austere.
The spicy bouquet is well present together with the Eugenol of the carnation flower note.
If you forget about the marketing of the cologne, it smells very much of a medicinal concoction meant to spruce you up when you need to feel a little invigorated, crossed with an old-fashioned perfume base lavish on its oakmoss. It has the scent of nostalgia or of a bygone era you might find in an old perfume bottle long abandoned on your mother's vanity table, still containing ancient dregs of a hard-to-place fragrance, except for you to think that it is of the past.
Is it how Albert Hauck conceived of "emotional marketing" in his day, thanks to an accord of leftover perfume, which translated as "the past"?
But it also smells of a warm all-spice baked cake and cooked black molasses. We are then reminded concretely of the American colonial inspiration and it must have been one of baking in Albert Hauck's mind, for where could it waft so much of spices in Early America, but in the kitchen and by the fireplace? It links up with the present since cinnnamon, clove, pimento, allspice remain identity markers of American cuisine.
You're on a roll now: Old Spice smells of clove-spiked cookies, dried fish, ginger ale, a kitchen knife blade which just cut lemons, brown sugar, pot-pourri, Cajun spices.
You're brought back to the reality of it being a cologne thanks to the bracing note of geranium and the sense of "rush" which courses through the perfume.
Da Dad Cologne
Before the "dad bod" and the "dad shoes", there was the dad cologne. Old Spice is its household name. Its image is so iconically sedate, it amps up its coolness factor. When you try to think of a competitor in this category, you can only come up with Tabac Original in Europe - Germany especially. There are no other universal dad colognes on this planet one can think of.
Old Spice has come to embody memories of so many people's fathers because it was so widely sold and worn up until the 1980s when Polo by Ralph Lauren took over as the iconic masculine scent, and before Procter and Gamble purchased it from Shulton in the 1990s. At that point, "dad" meant "out of fashion" As brand analyst Steve Jones writes,
"For years the famous clipper ship logo dominated men's grooming. The brand's popularity appeared to have long since sailed by the time the men's grroming market really took off in the 1980s. By that time, Old Spice was widely viewed as the cologne your dad would wear." in Brand Like A Rock Star: Lessons from Rock 'n' Roll to Make Your Business Rich and Famous by Steve Jones, 2011.
In 2020, the cologne is still available, but Old Spice toiletries have become the commercial heavy weights pitted against Axe. Online commenters complain about the lack of availability of Old Spice Cologne or Eau de Toilette in brick and mortar stores. It's now more easily available from the Internet, but not from the brand website, with its latest tag line, "Old Spice - Trusted Grooming Since Forever."
In spite of these developments, the myth lives on. Old Spice mythmaking was more the result of actual wearing of the cologne by dads than of advertizing campaigns, when you realize that ads laid a stronger emphasis on sexual banter than on fatherly figures in the course of the decades, except for father's day. It was cheap and affordable. It smelled good. You could not be mistaken for not being a man when you bought it, thanks to repeated reassurance from marketers.
A 1962 advertizing for Early American Old Spice for Women in Life Magazine
Perfumer Albert Hauck might have thought of his mother's perfume crossed with Bay Rum and a spice cabinet when compositing Early American Old Spice for Women. The Bay Rum connection serves as a familiar element to help us grasp the continuity in the history of Old Spice. Perfumers when they create - and especially if it's for the mass-market - are on the lookout for the familiar. It's a recipe for success, when not just uninspired copy.
American advertizers thought mainly of the twinkle in your father's eyes, but then you got to smell that familiar smell and then it became an olfactive symbol of settled family life and dad's morning ritual.