Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Smell Museum: Creosote and Lifebuoy Soap

Our cultural history is constantly evaporating. Familiar smells go extinct when scented products are discontinued, leaving it to memoirists and historians to preserve them the best they can on the printed page.

Dorothy Richmond of Tulare, California recently made a personal contribution to olfactory preservation. She belongs to the Down Memory Lane writers group, which meets Thursday mornings in the Senior Center. In an essay of hers published in the Tulare Advance-Register, she recalls some highly specific smells from her childhood in the nearby Central Valley farm town of Corcoran.

There were very distinct smells all around the Rogers compound. Onions and potatoes in the root cellar, leather and horse liniment in the tack room, chicken mash and burlap in the feed shed, and creosote and Lifebuoy soap in the bath house. These are the smells I associate with my childhood in Corcoran. The house was on the corner of Sherman and Van Dorsten, and was still there last time I drove by.
The house may be there but the smells are long gone.

Unilever’s Lifebuoy Soap was launched in the UK in 1894 and was successful worldwide as a brand with disinfectant and hygienic qualities. Just the thing for a dirty farm hand. It’s no longer distributed in the U.S. and no longer manufactured in the U.K. Even if you can scare up a bar of it in Southeast Asia, it won’t smell the same: 
Lifebuoy soap’s characteristic medicated, carbolic smell has been replaced with a more enjoyable and contemporary ‘health’ fragrance.
The reason Lifebuoy is paired with creosote in Ms. Richmond’s memory is that her father built the farm’s bathhouse from creosote-soaked railroad ties. The phenolic aroma common to the soap and ties proved to be quite memorable.

Lifebuoy earned a niche in the pop culture pantheon in 1933 when its advertisers coined the phrase “body odor.” The term “BO” immediately entered the American lexicon. Bill Bryson gives a brief, entertaining account of the episode in Made in America.

Scholar Kathleen M. Vandenberg expounds on the meaning of the 1947 Lifebuoy ad (shown above) in a somewhat less brief and less entertaining fashion. Here the crux of her analysis:
Obviously, and significantly, this advertisement functions by playing on consumers’ anxieties, for anxieties, twentieth-century advertisers had realized, were the “American consumer’s Achilles’ heel” (Bryson 239). An understanding of how appeals to anxiety function can be most clearly illuminated by a Burkean perspective, and specifically by a reading informed by Burke’s concept of identification. Identification is necessary insofar as there is division; looking at the ad from a Burkean perspective thus requires the critic to not only point out the ways in which it invites consumers to share its values, attitudes, and belief systems, but also to recognize the hierarchies established implicitly by the ad—hierarchies which make salient the differences which invite the identification in the first place. This critic must understand, as Kirk explains, that identification is not only the means by which separated individuals invite cooperation; it is the structure that orders rhetoric, the “hierarchical structure in which the entire process of rhetorical conflict is organized” (414). The exact nature and dynamic of this structuring will be discussed when this essay turns to a consideration of the ways in which a Burkean perspective invites further Girardian analysis.
A Burkean perspective on implicitly established hierarchies of rhetorical conflict? Puuuleeeze! Academic theorists never cease to amaze me. Dr. Vandenberg should hop a bus and get herself down to the Tulare Senior Center next Thursday for some pointers on expository writing.


Unknown said...

I’m fascinated by the smell of older buildings. I’m not talking about “bad” smells, in fact some of them I rather enjoy. Recently I was in an older building with marble floors and it had the more unique smell, I loved it. It very well could have been some kind of cleaning agent, but it didn’t smell like any cleaning agent I’d ever encountered. What causes a smell in older buildings? Is this typical? I’ve also been in other buildings that always have a smell to them, once again, not a bad smell but a smell distinctive to that building.

Avery Gilbert said...


Back in the day, the dregs of various perfume projects were poured into a drum and sold as "potpourri" scent for industrial floor wax. This might have been part of the mix.

There's a great passage in an F. Scott Fitzgerald story called "The Russet Witch" where he describes the ancient layers of smell in the stairway of an apartment building. Sort of an olfactory excavation. I think you might enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

I am a vintage perfume lover/collector and one of my favorite scents is the smell of leather, captured beautifully in Chanel's Cuir de Russie ("Russian Leather"), which has a hefty inclusion of birch tar in its formulation. Recently at an antique store, I found an old bar of Lifebuoy Soap, unused in the box. I smelled it and thought it was the most gorgeous leather scent I'd ever sniffed. From what I understand, its smell comes from phenol/carbolic acid. I was thinking I could buy some phenol crystals and add them to some perfumer's alcohol and create my own wearable leathery fragrance, like the amazing smell of the old Lifebuoy soap. But then I found out that phenol/carbolic acid is quite toxic and irritating. So I'm thinking what I might do is shred part of the bar of Lifebuoy soap with a cheese grater, then pour alcohol over it, letting the scent of the shredded soap infuse the alcohol for a month or so. Then I could pour off the alcohol and use it as a scent. I've done this with a couple other soaps I love, and it works great. I am just hoping that the carbolic acid won't be of a sufficient amount to harm me in any way. I mean, some parents used to stick Lifebuoy soap in their kids mouth for punishment (like in "A Chrismtas Story), so I think it should be fine. Anyway, just wanted to share how much I love the smell of the old Lifebuoy soap, so leathery and gorgeous. :-)

Anonymous said...

I agree and I try to find that scent from time to time. Also, the outdoorsy smell of Herbal Essense (green 70's version).