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Perspective: The Cents of Smell

Helpless husbands used to buy their wives perfume at the local drugstore. They’d better not try that today
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In 1961, the most popular car in the nation was a Chevrolet, French fries passed for ethnic cuisine, and a mere 4 percent of Americans vacationed in Europe. So imagine the plight of the typical, suburban, Darrin Stephens-type husband when it came to his wife’s birthday or his wedding anniversary: clueless.

Enter the clever marketing folks at Shulton. Founded in 1934, the New York-based fragrance company built a mighty empire around—with all due respect—cheap perfume. Shulton was the pharmacy brand. Its most famous concoction, Old Spice (which actually started out in 1937 as a woman’s fragrance), was but one in an olfactory stable of bargain scents with names like Heartbeat, Cie, and Tropical Night. That these $2 sprays were sickeningly sweet and strong enough to wilt nearby plants didn’t matter. Just read the ad, Romeo: “Give her these delightful fragrances!” And because most men—most Americans, period—knew or could afford no better, that’s exactly what happened.

“The ad appealed to both the wife and the husband—neither of whom had the money to spend on a bottle of Chanel,” observes Marian Bendeth, global fragrance expert and the owner of consultancy Sixth Scents in Toronto. “So this ad said, ‘Come on down to your local drugstore. We’ve got something for you.’” Not just one thing, either, but a whole gift set. Happy birthday!

In case you haven’t looked lately, pharmacy brands are still around (most of them masquerading under celebrity names like Circus Fantasy by Britney Spears). But even working-class Americans today are far more likely to wander into Sephora and drop $70 or more on a 1.6 ounce eau de toilette. Why is that? Just look over to the far right.

While this ad for Opium is from 2011, the fragrance itself dates back to 1977. It was also at the forefront of a revolution that changed the fragrance industry forever: the invasion of the fashion designers. Starting with Paco Rabanne in 1973, clothing designers woke up to a curious psychology in the female shopper. “They can’t afford the bag, and they can’t afford the boots—but they can afford the fragrance,” Bendeth says. “They think, so long as I smell like I’m loaded it doesn’t matter that I’m not dressed well.” Pricing their products a step below the premium imports from Guerlain and Chanel but considerably above the likes of Shulton’s offerings, the fashion brands became the progenitors of the fragrance industry we know today. And Opium by Yves Saint Laurent is, at age 34, still going strong, having been among the first scents to teach American women to ask for something a cut above what was selling in the aisles of Walgreens.