Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Perfume Museum’s Hall of Olfactory Technology

In What the Nose Knows I described how our olfactory past is constantly evaporating, taking with it molecule by molecule our cultural heritage. The case is particularly acute for perfumes:

Brands don’t live forever. Commercial death occurs when the last bottle comes off the production line, and psychosensory rigor mortis sets in with the last spray from the last bottle. An extinct fragrance can trigger no memories for anyone. To preserve memory we must preserve the juice itself. How will we know what we’re missing when it’s not there to smell?
This inspired me to discuss Andy Warhol’s idea of a Perfume Museum, a concept with some merit but that poorly executed could prove to be a testosterone-draining experience for most men. To compensate I suggested the museum include a hormone-stabilizing Hall of Olfactory Technology, featuring the first atomizer—invented in 1859 for purposes other than perfume application—and how it inspired Wilhelm Maybach’s design of the carburetor and led to Robert Millikan’s Nobel Prize for Physics in 1923.

Now, thanks to Perfumaniac, the nom de web of a New Orleans-based blogger who writes at Yesterday’s Perfume, I’ve got another potential exhibit for the Hall of O.T.

Perfumaniac’s specialty is reviewing vintage scents from the deep past. Today she posted about an old-fashioned perfume vending machine that’s for sale on eBay. It’s a table-top model that offered four name-brand scents in “bottlettes”—crack-open reed tubes filled with a couple of drops of juice. You insert a quarter, rotate the dispenser to your scent of choice, and pull a lever to release the sample. Think of it as a scaled-up version of those toothpick dispensers you find in diners. (The device is truly meant for the table top: it has napkin holders on either side . . .)

Intrigued by Perfumaniac’s discovery I did a little research of my own and found this to be one in a long line of coin-operated perfume dispensers. Most of them actually spray the customer with scent. The most famous was probably the Perfumatic device: put in a dime, place your neck by the nozzle, and “press plunger firmly all the way in” (which coincidently happens to be our motto here at First Nerve.)

The Perfumatic was typically mounted on a restroom wall; it came in two- and four-column models. The company, based in Canada, had over four hundred units installed in the United States by 1952. The local distributor was Jo-Lo Perfumatic, based in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Further back we find the One Cent Bull Perfume Dispenser by the Continental Novelty Co. of Buffalo, New York. You insert your penny, pull down on the bull’s horns, and get a squirt of scent from his mouth. 

This device—“Whiffs of Fragrance”—allows you to “Perfume Your Handkerchief” after selecting one of the four bottles, inserting a coin, and pulling down on the lever.

The technology has come a long way in some respects (remember the Robo-Spritzer?) but the basic idea remains the same.


Olfacta said...

Dr G have you ever been to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, in Los Angeles? Very odd and worth a trip.

I remember seeing those perfume dispensers here and there.

Della Chuang said...

Interesting article. Thank you for sharing the images of these perfume dispensers. I would like to design one in the future:))

Nathan Branch said...

Oh, Della! That would be . . . I can't even think of a word that conveys the bouncing up and down excitement I feel when thinking of a newly designed machine like one of the above.

Avery: "press plunger firmly all the way in" as your new motto -- I like it! Is it an upgrade to the BurrOmeter technology? :)

Avery Gilbert said...


Thanks for pointing me to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Their web site is quite bizarre--next time in LA I'm so there.

P.S. My favorite $3 ticket in San Francisco is the Camera Obscura next to the Cliff House. Something hypnotically soothing about watching the entire outside world rotate slowly in a shallow bowl.

Avery Gilbert said...

Della Chuang:

Perfumatics are retro classics of design--they're the Cadillac tailfins of perfume technology. Check out this photo.

I vote with Nathan Branch: you should definitely do something along these lines!