Avon Mad Men - A Masculine Fragrance History : Part 1, The Early Years


12th March, 2019

Avon as a formerly door-to-door sales perfumer, was the direct-to-you cosmetics company for the average jane or joe. They don't get a lot of love because of their ubiquity, sometimes unoriginal style and price point, but there is a lot more history, creativity and innovation than you would imagine. Part one of a series looking at the history of Avon products for men. 

Most folks who collect fragrance have a basic understanding of what Avon is, and although the company has made it their stock and trade to focus on women, they do have a very rich and often unsung history of masculine scent craft as well.

The cold hard truth of it is that America of the 19th century wasn’t like Europe during it’s Victorian ages and La Belle Epoch, as most American guys not rich enough to commission their own bespoke scents from apothecaries like Caswell-Massey or afford the fancy imported toilet waters sold there often did with no scent at all. In fact, American men in much of the country’s breadbasket had a much more brusque and rugged sense of masculinity that precluded the use of fragrance altogether, outside maybe something to take the sting away after a shave. Thus it was mainly the Bay Rum and assorted “Clubman” products of the newly-established NYC branch of Ed Pinaud that supplied American guys with their toiletries until the twentieth century brought commercial aftershaves, so the earliest incarnation of Avon saw fit to mostly ignore men.


Persis Foster Eames Albee, the first "Avon lady"
The California Perfume Company was that earliest of forms for the direct selling fragrance and cosmetic giant, born of a door-to-door bookseller’s perfuming hobby. One Dave H McConnell would make basic single note perfumes he gave to his most loyal bookselling patrons, and they would reorder books just to get more of it, causing him to switch gears and sell his perfume instead. Early on he realized women were the main consumers of fragrance in America, so he not only put them to work making it but also made them the face of the company, with one Persis Foster Eames Albee (or PFE Albee) being the first sales representative and trainer of the future selling force of the company. Her low-pressure personal calls established the woman-to-woman selling culture that made the California Perfume Company so successful, serving a working middle-class niche now mostly dominated by drugstore brands sold from big box retailers and online.

The singular male offering from the original California Perfume Company was an iteration of the aforementioned Bay Rum created by founder Dave H McConnell himself, and it entered the inventory of the company for the 1890 sales year. Avon itself first appeared as a sub-brand of CPC in 1929, but eventually became the name of the entire company in 1939, 2 years after McConnell’s death. The Bay Rum was joined by a lilac vegetal clone sometime around that period, until WWII stopped all production as Avon assisted making pesticides and other chemicals for the US armed forces. After WWII, business resumed as normal, and the cobbled-together grooming kits for men, which consisted of these two generic scents, shampoo, talc, and shaving cream were replaced with the first proper male product line called “Avon for Men” in 1949.


Avon for Men

Avon for Men wasn’t as much a company subdivision as a product in and of itself, much like the later Arden for Men line by Elizabeth Arden. Avon were the first kids on the block in the American consumer cosmetics industry to have a dedicated men’s line, as Shulton turned it’s “Early American Old Spice” into a masculine product only later on out of happenstance of it’s popularity among men rather than the women it was marketed for, while other stragglers like MEM’s English Leather (1949) and Dana’s Canoe (1936) were just products imported and relaunched in the US after their original European release (with English Leather in particular originally being called Russian Leather by perfumer Javier Serra when MEM was still an Austrian company).


Contemporary Cologne Competitors: That Man, Revlon; Arden Men Sandalwood; Hai Karate; English Leather; Brut and Old Spice

Being the first to market with an exclusive male fragrance in the US didn’t really mean so much for Avon, as the interest to support it was barely there, since American men were still reluctant to wear stand-alone fragrance even by 1949, with scented after shaves, talcs and hair tonics proving more popular. Avon sold the after shave variant of its original Avon for Men scent 10 to 1 over the cologne, making the latter quite rare these days, and almost impossible to search for (you try googling “original Avon for Men cologne” and see what you get). The cologne eventually was discontinued but the after shave lotion carried on for years, being renamed “Avon Original” sometime in the 1950’s after a few flankers started appearing, namely ’Vigorate in 1957 and “Avon for Men Spicy” in 1960.


Spicy

Avon Original was a simple blend of lemon, lavender, geranium, heliotrope, musk, amber, and oakmoss, nothing fancy and easily out-classed by the later Arden for Men Sandalwood (1957) and Revlon “That Man” (1958) product lines which modeled themselves after proper French chypres or fougères in the barbershop style. I personally love it’s simple elegance and the far more-populous after shave variant had a nice camphor “buzz” that helped perk up the senses and alleviate razor burn. ’Vigorate was an interesting sea salt variant with more focus on woods otherwise, coming across powdery and tart, while “Spicy” sat somewhere between Shulton’s Old Spice (1937) and Tabac by Maurer & Wirtz (1959). All of them were fleeting to the nose as they were not meant to be all-day wear, outside of the short-lived Avon original cologne.

Avon would see the men’s fragrance segment begin precipitous growth by the 1960’s, undoubtedly because of the Baby Boomer outgrowth and the thirst Americans had for luxury in the postwar period. American guys were finally coming around to the idea of smelling good, which their European neighbors had been trying to push on them since before the turn of the 20th century, with many of the fougère-style scents that were in vogue decades before over there finally seeing an explosion of popularity in the US. Products like Brut (1963) and Hai Karate (1967) would take the cake in drugstores, with Avon setting their sights on that market at home while peers like Arden and Lauder went upmarket.

 

Part Two coming soon

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About the author: Derek Mohr

Derek has a huge interest in vintage Avon and regularly posts on the Basenotes Forums as Zealot Crusader.

Website: https://varanisridari.tumblr.com

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    Comments

      • Shemelimelle | 13th March 2019 00:37

        Fascinating article, Derek. History always interests me, even though historical facts and figures don’t stick. Knowing me, I would have gone for the Violet (1886) soliflore from the Little Dot Perfume Set!!!!!!!! Cute.😊 I can’t wait for you to write a review on Avon’s Breathless (1987), and refresh my memory on what it was like being a “Satan worshipper”.😬👍🏼

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 13th March 2019 01:02

        I haven't left the 70's with the feminines (yet), but I'll get to it eventually! Avon's catalog is FRICKIN' HYOOG.

      • Kitty2Shoes | 13th March 2019 01:08

        Sadly I only recall Avon scents from my young young childhood. It's been...sheesh...35 years since I've smelled an Avon perfume.

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 13th March 2019 01:10

        It's a good thing there's enough to last lifetime floating about haha

      • epapsiou | 13th March 2019 02:26

        About time man.

        Hoping to see many more of this

      • Cook.bot | 13th March 2019 03:37

        To the surprise of absolutely no one.

      • Cook.bot | 13th March 2019 04:53

        If you're trying to say you're greater than my hard drive, I knew that already.

      • Cook.bot | 13th March 2019 05:17

        Aha. Then this is eyebrows with a goatee: [SIZE=6]♥

        {Maybe we should stop derailing your own thread.)

      • HouseOfPhlegethon | 13th March 2019 10:38

        Well, done Z! I actually read this yesterday. Didn't want to be the first to comment.

      • LatinNote | 13th March 2019 13:59

        Great job ZC! You got a great gift for writing (*in my Captain Obvious voice*).

        Kudos!

      • LiveJazz | 13th March 2019 16:05

        Woohoo, so glad you're writing a series on Avon! ZC, you have singlehandedly elevated early Avon perfume history from almost complete internet absence to the front page of a leading perfume site - and it's exactly the kind of content that should be here! Unique, interesting, legitimately educational re: this hobby.

      • Cook.bot | 13th March 2019 17:41

        I know! It's like he had a mission.

        Or maybe we're all just players in a very, very long-range wager he made with somebody years ago.

        Oh, he's a wily devil, that ZC.

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 13th March 2019 18:27

        I don't bite unless you're made out of cheeseburger. XD

        I used to love Kudos bars! I'm sad they discontinued them!

        I'm hero Gotham City deserves, but not the one it needs right now, or something like that.

        It's not like I'm wagering any fiddles of gold against your soul.

      • The Colognnoisseur | 14th March 2019 10:17

        ZC:

        Interesting read. Looking forward to the others on this topic.

        Regards,

        TC

      • Diddy | 14th March 2019 14:55

        Great article, ZC! Of course, some of us had this exposure to Avon history due to daily interactions with you. But this is very nice summary of some of those conversations. I completely enjoyed it. I also want to thank you very much for opening my eyes to some great fragrances from the brand! Thank you.

        Keep up the great work!

      • purecaramel | 15th March 2019 04:20

        Fireworks this!! 500th Superb, Most Excellent Review! Keep Rocketing!

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 15th March 2019 04:21

        These don't count as reviews so I gotta write one more later

        (Ignore if read after I've written it).

      • furrypine | 17th March 2019 16:26

        Fantastic start, I love these deep dives into fragrance history. Seven parts in total? Well, don't be the George R.R. Martin of Basenotes and string us along for months/years before we get the next one in this epic saga :) :)

      • Redneck Perfumisto | 18th March 2019 01:12

        Perfectly said!

        Perfume history

        Abhors fragrant vacuüm

        Then fills it sweetly.

        Great stuff!!! :beer:

      • Cook.bot | 18th March 2019 01:56

        One of these days I'll be sitting in my rocking chair, whittling on a stick, and saying to someone "Yassir, I recall when I was the first person on ZC's Basenotes 'Friends' list....."

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 18th March 2019 04:26

        Unlike George, I've already written the ending. Grant just has to post them.

        Where's your bottle of Avon Haiku?

        Not quitting my day job. For as fun as this all is, I'm not getting paid to talk about perfume. XD

      • Diamondflame | 18th March 2019 09:51

        At least not yet. You should though, especially from Avon, LOL.

        Any plans for your own YouTube channel? Y’know you could get someone to design that Scented Devil outfit, Cosplay-style. :)

      • pluran | 18th March 2019 10:41

        Great stuff. And thanks for the Godzilla reviews !

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 18th March 2019 22:01

        Good suits of that nature run in the thousands. Can't cut into my perfume money!! I'm ill-equipped for a YouTube channel atm. (Gaming/media center PC in living room, no mics, aging Sony Vaio laptop in bedroom). Again, more "investment capital" to take away from buying smelly goods.

        If Godzilla ever gets his own perfume, I'll review it. :)

      • Miasma27 | 19th March 2019 01:58

        Wow I never knew they made stuff for men I grew up in the 80's/90's was born in 79-so my mother definitely had Avon all over the place literally selling it at one point I believe. Interesting article thank you. Now if you could just get me back to the late 80's I would appreciate it..

      • jujy54 | 19th March 2019 03:44

        Great read. I'm old enough to remember many of these fragrances, and of course I bought my dad English Leather on his birthday!

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 19th March 2019 18:02

        80's Avon was really unremarkable in the men's scent category, or had a lot of weird stuff.

        Thanks!

      • imagesandwords | 25th March 2019 11:46

        I wish they had delved into the fragrances the main characters wore on the show. We know Drapers wardrobe was mostly Brooks Brothers and I saw him wearing a Jaeger LeCoultre watch, but what fragrance did he and Roger wear? It would have to be date specific, as Geurlain Vetiver was released in 1961 and Aramis 1965. Would love to hear anyones thoughts that is familiar with the show.

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 26th March 2019 00:24

        The "Avon Mad Men" is more in reference to the guys who wore Avon back in the day, than the actual show "Mad Men", and is the title of the article about Avon masculine perfume history, unrelated to the show.

        tl;dr it's just a play on words. The article isn't about the show.