Vintage Fragrance Ads – A Social, Cultural, Historical & Olfactory Prism

One of the threads that made me the happiest and of which I am extremely proud is my examination at vintage fragrance ads over the course of eighty years, from the Victorian era to the mid-20th century. The changes are a revealing insight into the history, society, culture, values, art, and hits of each era.

Early on, in the Victorian era, the ads were focused on chemist-based products. (I’m obsessed with one that says “Orange blossom cures all female diseases” and want it on a t-shirt). Later, they give way both artistically and scent wise in the Belle Epoque and Art Deco eras, continuing to change further with the decades that followed.

Vintage ad for Coty’s L’Origan, arguably the template for L’Heure Bleue

Some vintage ads are clearly inspired by the cultural hits of the time, whether it’s the Beatles or Spartacus and Ben-Hur.

Vintage fragrance ad that was clearly influenced by the big “Blood and Sand” movie blockbusters of the era, like Ben-Hur and Spartacus

Others reveal a curious interest that I had never known: an American interest in Japan and Japanese-named fragrances, circa 1895 to 1910. Or the fact that America had a magazine devoted to scent and essential oils as early as 1907 or thereabouts.

vintage American Perfumer ad

There’s also an interesting shift in the types of fragrances that dominated every era from single-note violets or lavender colognes to richer, more complex fragrances in the ambery, floral, and leather genres.

So many of the ads are beautiful, like the ones drawn by the legendary Alphonso Mucha, as well as being historical prisms into the art aesthetic of the time. I would love to have many of them framed.

Vintage ad by Alphonso Mucha for Houbigant

Vintage ad for couturier Lucien Lelong who was once bigger than Chanel and an important figure in fragrance history.

Belle Epoque ad.

What really fascinates me, however, is how drastically different American vintage ads were for men’s colognes and, occasionally, even women’s fragrances. There are the major differences in societal values represented by American vintage ads for men’s fragrances versus the European vintage ads for the same audience: fitness, youth, strength, and family versus classist high society elitism, evening glamour, and sophistication.

Similarly, the focus, visuals, aesthetic, and stories that the American vintage ads tell us are nothing like the vintage European fragrance ads that many of us have seen for brands or fragrances like Bandit, Miss Dior, Chanel, Caron, Guerlain, Coty, and the like.

Going back to the symbolism of Martha Washington, the first FLOTUS, and early Americana nostalgia to sell a fragrance.

Vintage American ad implying that fragrance will give you youth and health

Vintage American ad emphasizing strength as an important value or attribute.

Meanwhile, in Europe, men’s cologne marketing had quite a different focus:

Vintage men’s fragrance ad

Not all European ads emphasized high society and glamour. One vintage ad for a British cologne from Gosnell’s supposedly reflects “the British race” and “British superiority.” Unfortunately, when I add it here, WordPress only shows a blank square, so you’ll have to read it in Tweet 10 of the thread.

Moving on, we’ve all heard of “Florida Man” in pop culture, but did you know there was a “Florida Water” fragrance early in the 20th century. Someone on Twitter told me that it is popular with Wiccan groups and still used today in their rituals. The things one learns from perfumery and ads!

Vintage ad for Florida Water

You can find all of these in my long Twitter thread and many, many more, accompanied by analysis on what many of the ads reveal and the changing nature of fragrance marketing. If you have a Twitter account, don’t hesitate to comment on which ads appeal to you or what you find interesting from a historical perspective. And, of course, I’d love to hear your thoughts here, too.



4 thoughts on “Vintage Fragrance Ads – A Social, Cultural, Historical & Olfactory Prism

    • It was such a wonderful escape from politics and the news snd into beauty and history that it was a joy to do. For others to enjoy it, too, makes me really happy. Thank you.

  1. I love the Art Nouveau posters and art. Did you participate in the Sniffapalooza zoom events on vintage perfume advertising? There were 2 such sessions I believe. I missed them, but I’m sure they were very interesting.

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