Avon Mad Men - A Masculine Fragrance History : Part 2, Halcyon Days


02nd April, 2019

This is the second part of Derek Mohr’s history of Avon’s men’s fragrances. Part one can be found here.

The American public had a greater desire for luxury goods than ever by the 1960's, and stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Sak's Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Barney's, Neiman Marcus and more were dotting the landscape of major cities, while slightly lower-level but larger-scale stores like Filene's, Marshall Field's, The Bon Marché, Hutzler's, Nordstrom, Hecht's, and the like served up slightly more-accessible luxury to the upper-middle classes. But what if you were part of the wider swath of blue collar families that thought Macy's or JC Penny's was a rare treat and spent most of your non-grocery cash at places like Sears or Montgomery Ward? Where would a family like that get their regular dose of luxury goodies so deserved to the middle-Americans fighting for that American Dream? Well, if a trip to a local pharmacy like Revco or Rite Aid wasn't the ideal solution, direct sales luxury brand Avon was the answer, and for millions of Americans during this time, it was the first choice.

Women by and large had been the largest consumers of luxury goods at this point in American history, with US men being comparatively barbaric compared to the sophistication of their European peers. Unless you were an executive or self-made businessman in those days, the idea of sartorial wear, let alone the "dress casual" hybrid was lost on you. Guys went straight from their work overalls or uniforms right into jeans and t-shirts, smoker's jacket, or even bathrobe and slippers. We were an uncomplicated bunch for better or worse, and didn't give much more thought to smelling good beyond what our choice of soap, deodorant, and after shave gave us (and they usually matched because we were oh-so brand loyal then), so the idea of a fragrance wardrobe, or even a solitary signature scent seemed unnecessary for most. Avon understood this, and mostly kept their men's offerings sparse and practical up until the beginning of the decade, because something finally started to change.


Avon for Men

The single Avon for Men line served adequately and faithfully for well over a decade by the time major changes occurred. Men in the households Avon was traded were happy with it, and the after shaves proved 10 to 1 more popular than the singular cologne entry. Still, with products from Shulton, MEM, Fabergé, Leeming, Swank, Revlon, and Dana gaining traction in men's circles, Avon saw an opportunity to use their huge and growing installed market to get a piece of that pie. They did this by ditching the concept of Avon for Men as it's own separate fragrance line (à la Chanel's Pour Monsieur or Caron's Pour Un Homme), and made it a sub-brand for an entire catalog of separate lines to be sold. The first such attempt at this was 1963's Tribute for Men, a well-studied aromatic chypre exercise that could impressively go toe-to-toe with something like Monsieur de Givenchy (1959) or Moustache by Rochas (1949).


Avon Tribute
Tribute was arguably too classy for it's intended market, since American men were about as familiar with chypres as they were bidets at that time, but Avon's overzealous marketing and kitschy packaging assured that it drew the eye, coming initially in a bottle shaped like a Spartan warrior's head, before being placed in a more conventional frieze-adorned cylindrical bottle, and sold alongside soap, aftershave, shaving cream, and talc. Older flankers to the original Avon for Men were preserved for now, but eventually that first line would survive only in after shave form, with the "Spicy" variant seeing a relaunch by itself as its own line with soap, talc, and shave cream.

Avon didn't just sit on their laurels with Tribute however, and unlike it's peers, continued to roll out new lines year over year, some of them after shaves, some colognes, and some both, until their variety of men's fragrance products dwarfed the competition much like their feminine lines had for years.

The 1960's were halcyon days for Avon masculines. They were treading new territory, or at least new territory for them with every release, and although there was a lot of referencing other products from other perfume houses, there was also a lot of exploration and innovation too, leading to both good and cringe-worthy results.


Avon Leather
A good example of cringe might be the very fact that the men's fragrances all came in goofy themed bottles, from the boot of Avon Leather (1966) to neon pink hippie extravaganza of Bravo (1969). Other embarrassing ideas include a cologne named after the sword in the stone (Excalibur from 1969), and a 3-piece masculine cologne set themed after raw building materials (the "Wood", "Steel", and "Glass" colognes from 1969's Structured for Men). Then there was Avon launching a grooming and fragrance line for teenagers (Avon Blue Blazer from 1964), that had a fake school crest and was claimed to be attuned to what younger men like but actually smelled like a clone of Caswell-Massey Jockey Club, a fragrance from the 1800's, which was anything but what young people wanted, if there was even that young men's market at all in the US during this time.

Avon had its successes too, lots of them. The outstanding Avon Island Lime (1965), Windjammer (1968), and of course Wild Country (1967). That last one proved to be the biggest achievement Avon would ever have in the men's fragrance market, as it wasn't just a damned good fougère in it's own right, but a cultural icon that brandished for the first time in scent the American country-western themes that guys all over (even in Europe) like romanticizing. Nobody had thought of theming a masculine fragrance this way, and in a so far unrepeated stroke of genius, Avon actually set a precedent that the fragrance world would try to follow, even in designer realms. I mean, without Wild Country, would we ever have gotten Chaps Ralph Lauren (1979) or Coty's equally-iconic Stetson line (1981)? Probably not.


Clockwise from top-left: Excalibur, Windjammer, Blue Blazer, The Structured Trio (Wood, Glass and Steel), Island Lime and Bravo

Avon also began a practice in the 60's that would eventually become a stain on it's reputation, and that was the marketing of fragrances in novelty gift decanters. Avon didn't limit this practice to men's fragrance but men received the bulk of them as the idea believed by Avon at the time was that men from the middle-income bracket they served likely wouldn't go out and buy their own fragrance, nor would likely use it if given to them in plain bottles like what much of women's perfume used at the time. However, if a cologne and aftershave set was cleverly disguised as a pair of binoculars or if a singular bottle was shaped like a trophy, pistol, liberty bell, presidential bust, knife, wagon, fish, mailbox, golf caddy, or even a scale model of a sports car, the guy could be subtly coerced into wanting it for a show piece and maybe using its contents later. I barely even touched upon the variety of decanters here, that's how many there were.


A random selection of novelty Avon bottles. And yes, that's a bottle of Wild Country housed in a Duracell battery styled bottle on the bottom right...

Whether this tactic worked or not is uncertain, but the women who primarily bought and sold Avon in this period ordered droves and droves of these tacky gift decanters, flooding the aftermarket with them in later years after they sat neglected by the men who may have liked the smell of the stuff inside, but found opening their bottle of Old Spice easier than fiddling with the spare tire on a glass model of a Packard automobile just to put on some cologne. Potential new customers to the brand would be confused by all this illusion of choice, passing up chess pieces filled with Wild Country for square English Leather bottles with caps they could unscrew without breaking or spilling. Likewise, in subsequent decades, collectors would never grow to appreciate the actual style and quality of Avon's masculine lines because they just couldn't get past all the novelty decanter kitsch.

Seriously, there are longtime collectors that even now, don't realize Avon cologne and aftershave from this period came in normal and practical bottle designs, or at least more normal by comparison. The novelty decanters of the period were just really bad ideas that looked super good on paper, but when executed (and then doubled-down on in the 70's), really started to hurt Avon's still-developing reputation with a growing male audience. Overall, the company would continue to grow hand-over-foot because of 80 some odd years of success with women by that point, but if it wasn't for outrageous successes like Tribute, Avon Leather, and particularly Wild Country (which has never ended production after 50+ years), Avon might not even still be making fragrance for men, all because of how obnoxious these decanters were.

Nowadays folks over at Etsy go nuts for these things (empty or full), just like Beanie Babies or Barbie dolls, but when is the last time you ever said to yourself that you wanted your signature fragrance to come from the knicknack adorning your mantle or coffee table? Probably never. The 60's might have given birth to some of Avon's best classic masculines, and it's most popular, influential male composition (Wild Country), but it wasn't Avon's most successful decade; that honor goes to the 1970's, but that had more to do with explosion in interest than their offerings, and Avon just being in the right place at the right time to scratch an itch for cash-strapped guying wanting to strut their stuff at the Disco or Rollerderby.

Part three will be coming soon…

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About the author: Derek Mohr

As well as a huge interest in vintage Avon, Derek enjoys reviewing fragrances and regularly posts on the Basenotes Forums as Zealot Crusader.

Website: https://varanisridari.tumblr.com

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    Comments

      • Shemelimelle | 2nd April 2019 15:47

        Good morning Derek! How nice it is to see your face for the first time. Your presence here is vital.

        Still very much looking forward to your review of Avon Breathless.

      • Zizzy | 2nd April 2019 17:08

        Those bottles! They look fantastic!

      • hednic | 2nd April 2019 17:14

        Very interesting read.

      • LiveJazz | 2nd April 2019 18:17

        Very interesting take on Avon in the '60s - I had never thought of the decanters as such counterproductive sales crutches, though it makes perfect sense.

        They seem fun and whimsical looking back now as collectors, but when your products are competing favorably on quality to quality with the best of Europe, they probably contributed the wrong kind of brand recognition.

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 2nd April 2019 19:33

        I'll see about getting some at some point! I don't actually have that one!

        Yeah, and having opened a great many of these, I'd say they're designed more for show than use. The standard bottles seem to be harder to find full, telling me they got used up!

      • Redneck Perfumisto | 3rd April 2019 03:15

        So tell me - what fragrance would most likely get me that flintlock pistol design? :wink:

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 3rd April 2019 03:39

        I have a backup bottle of Everest in that design. Deep Woods and Clint also came that way. Basically all the mid-70's colognes

      • LiveJazz | 3rd April 2019 03:51

        This reminds me to get my hands on some Everest...really likes that one in the pass.

      • Redneck Perfumisto | 3rd April 2019 04:19

        Wow. These prices fit my lifestyle, too. I could theoretically go back to wanton purchases with used Avon. For the price of a 6" oxide drill bit.....

      • masonjarjar | 3rd April 2019 12:36

        I actually like the kitschy bottles and enjoy displaying them, but I admit that I pretty much always decant the contents into other empty aftershave bottles for ease of use.

        Some of them are easy to use if you know the tricks, but many are just a pain to use if you want to use both hands to apply..

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 3rd April 2019 19:51

        I bought the regular bottles (sometimes empty) to refill with the decanters.

      • Diddy | 4th April 2019 14:38

        Another good read, Derek! Thanks for all the effort that has gone into this!

      • calitrav | 4th April 2019 21:12

        Good article Derek, these are interesting and educational!

        Btw, there's an extra "ing" after "guy" in the final sentence.

      • Kitty2Shoes | 5th April 2019 02:24

        Fantastic article again! I think what shied me away from even trying Avon fragrances was their MLM association and having grown up a military brat our military community was saturated to the max with stay at home spouses selling something to each other and my parents forbid it in our household after losing friends due to pushy pitches. But due to your reviews and articles I have taken another gander at what Avon offers for the perfumes only. I noticed Ilias Ermenidis, who did Haiku Reflection for Avon also did Le Vestiaire des Parfums : Cuir for YSL and two for Calvin Klein.

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 5th April 2019 08:11

        Avon didn't start using outside noses until the 80's when they began to offload some work from their in-house chemists, but all their really vintage stuff back from that was composed by uncredited anons working in their in-house labs. Most of their stuff is still manufactured by them locally in the market where it is sold, and since it is sold direct, skirts IFRA (but not EU regulations, so don't expect oakmoss in Euro Avon).

      • Shemelimelle | 6th April 2019 15:30

        I cannot wait to read more about the companyís change of noses, and what these changes entailed when I was growing up. Iím hoping something will jump out at me from my largely faded memory of flipping through Avon catalogs. Another thing, I am curious about the bottle-makers as much as the fragrances! I donít remember seeing any boot bottle! (I like that one best!) I am looking forward to reading Part 3.

      • Zealot Crusader (article author) | 7th April 2019 06:52

        Avon didn't really use outdide noses or even credited noses until the 80's!

      • newshuze | 8th April 2019 15:43

        I'd be willing to bet that if i looked for it, I could find a good sized bottle of wild country still at my parents house.

      • PianoDan | 15th April 2019 22:48

        What a great read! Thank you!

      • Ad Astra | 16th April 2019 21:07

        Loving part 2! Keep 'em coming!

        Luckily, I have the Spartan-head full of "Tribute" ... that one is halfway cool.George Washington is dignified, though he's got a head full of Tai Winds (for some reason. Wild Country, I could understand!)

        Some, like the ugly school bus, the hammer/anvil or the classic cars I don't know: I just wanted the Deep Woods, Tai Winds, Oland or Blend Seven ... going to move these bottles along when contents are gone!

      • Vintage Baron | 19th April 2019 07:20

        Really great articles , I love collecting Avon fragrances , personally I like the tacky decanters!!!