Outdated Beauty Advice: Embalm Your Armpits

by Bonnie Downing

Bonnie Downing collects vintage beauty guides so you don’t have to.

So I hear some of you are into natural deodorants? How lovely. And, in an effort to be more “green,” or perhaps more French, some of you have decided to forgo deodorant altogether, and keep bathing to a minimum? Brilliant.

It just might remain a mystery to you why you get left out of everything nice. If your best friend wouldn’t tell you, I would. And supposing we worked or studied together, I’d start by asking you to tell me if I ever smelt even slightly stale or unpleasant, because I know that it’s possible to get a little careless, or perhaps to use an anti-perspirant-deodorant that isn’t effective for some reason (maybe it’s time to change to a new one). I would talk in exaggerated terms about my absolute horror at the mere thought that I might smell of perspiration. And I would be putting on this act for your sake hoping that you would get the message.
— Mary Young, The Best of Yourself (1970)

It might help with your general self-improvement if you consider that everything I ever tell you I fear or loathe (say, six things per day) is actually valuable criticism. Directed at you. Maybe every single thing that anyone says to you is part of an elaborate plot to encourage you to realize your shortcomings. For those of you who don’t pick up on such subtlety, I’ll be blunt:

There is no odor more immediately and more resentfully noticed than that of dried perspiration. The poet has coined the phrase “honest sweat.” But there is no such thing as ‘honest sweat’ in feminine beauty’s bright lexicon of charm. Perspiration, especially at evening affairs, dances, etc., steals away that natural freshness and fragrance of aura which should surround woman.
— Florence Courtenay, Physical Beauty: How to Develop and Preserve It (1922)

You smell like a liar. A big, fat liar.

Stout girls are the ones most apt to perspire in all parts of the body. It is useless to try to treat this condition without at the same time paying attention to the general state of obesity, and using measures to overcome the disturbances of nutrition which give rise to corpulence.
— Emma Elizabeth Walker, Beauty Through Hygiene: Common Sense Ways to Health for Girls (1904)

If you want to get that fat off, you’ll have to sweat some more. And when you do, you’re going to smell terrible.

Fat flows from our body on the streams of perspiration. The latest word in the matter of obesity cures is that fat being composed chiefly of water must be squeezed as a sponge is to rid it of the liquid with which it is saturated.
— Lina Cavalieri, My Secrets of Beauty (1914)

So you understand that you must address this. I have some charming natural deodorant recipes for you below, but for those of you who don’t want to fuck around, I suggest you harness the chemistry that prevents corpses from decomposing. Dead people rarely sweat:

The following lotion may be used three times a week, or less often for checking excessive underarm perspiration after the parts have been bathed with salt water and dried: Mix one-half ounce formaldehyde with one pint water and apply to armpits.
— Lois Leeds, Beauty and Health (1927)

Works for dreamy hair, too! You know what else doesn’t sweat? Your handbag. Maybe because of whatever was used to tan that leather. Again from Emma Walker:

Excessive sweating of the feet has been noted to be hereditary in many cases. A good lotion for excessive perspiration is: Tannic acid, 8 grains, bay rum, 4 fluid ounces.

Not up for a trip to the morgue or tannery? Want to stay dainty using stuff easily found way, way under the sink? Gotcha:

A gill of liquid ammonia in a pail of water makes an invigorating solution, whose delightful effects can only be compared to a plunge in the surf. Weak persons will find this a luxury and a tonic beyond compare. It cleanses the skin, and stimulates it wonderfully. After such a bath the flesh feels firm and cool like marble. More than this, the ammonia purines the body from all odor of perspiration. Those in whom the secretion is unpleasant will find relief by using a spoonful of the tincture in a basin of water, and washing the armpits well with it every morning.
— Mrs. S.D. Powers, The Ugly Girl Papers or Hints for the Toilet (1874)

But I get it. You want to feel all bohemian, and smell like an herb garden planted by Alice Waters:

When for any reason the perspiration is odorous in spite of the bath, this sprinkled upon the offending portions of the body destroys the unpleasant condition:
Subnitrate of bismuth, 1 ounce; pulverized boric acid, y2 ounce; pulverized alum, y2 ounce; oil of eucalyptus, 10 drops; oil of rose geranium, 5 drops; oil of lemon, 5 drops.”
— Lina Cavalieri, My Secrets of Beauty (1914)

Please note, the ingredient that makes that concoction work is not the essential oils but chemicals like alum, close to what you can now buy in groovy, sparkly crystal form. Of course, alum is sort of short for aluminum. Since you insist, here is a simple, all-natural DIY deodorant, made with ingredients I’m sure you have on hand, and introduced by the implication that you smell, not just physically, but morally:

Slight disorders of the system make themselves known by the sickly odor of the perspiration, quite sensible to others, though the person most interested is the last to become conscious of it. The least care, even in cold weather, for those who would make their physical as sure as their moral purity, is to bathe with hot water and soap twice a week from head to foot.

An excellent preparation for bathing is Bacheville’s Eau des Odalisques. The French recommend it highly for frictions, lotions, and baths. It is made in quantity for free use after this recipe: Two pints of alcohol, one of rose-water, half a drachm of Mexican cochineal, four ounces of soluble cream of tartar, five drachms of liquid balsam of Pern, five drachms of dry balsam of the same; vanilla, one drachm; pellitory root, one and a half ounces; storax, one and a half ounces; galanga, one ounce; root of galanga, one and a half ounces; dried orange peel, two drachms; cinnamon, essence of mint, root of Bohemian angelica, and dill seed, each one drachm. Infuse eight days, and filter.
— Mrs. S.D. Powers, The Ugly Girl Papers or Hints for the Toilet (1874)

I’m exhausted. At this point, the wretched faux baby powder reek of drugstore deodorants doesn’t seem so bad.

Nobody but nobody is excused from using deodorant. And this means boys. They’re often the worst offenders, for there’s a rumor going the rounds that deodorant is ‘sissy stuff.’ Let’s squelch it now by pointing out that perspiration isn’t appealing whichever your sex. No one can afford to run the risk of offending.
Each of us has his or her own body chemistry, so a deodorant that’s effective for one may not do a thing for another. Experiment until you find one that works, then stick with it.
MEMO TO BOYS: If you still feel deodorant is strictly for the girls, use one that’s clearly labeled “for men.” There are several on the market.
MEMO TO GIRLS: Dress shields save clothes, and solve the problem of how to hide those damp circles that ring underarms. Don’t hide them. Prevent them. Pin-in shields are your best bet. They’re easy to remove & launder, an important point because they need dunking almost daily.”
— Joan O’Sullivan, 100 Ways to Popularity (1963)

Sinister beauty expert Bonnie Downing collected tips like these in her first book, Peculiar Beauty: Three Centuries of Charmingly Absurd Advice. Now she’s writing a book about animals and needs a new agent. You can find her at peculiarbeauty.com and in Brooklyn.

Previously: You’ll Be Thinner When You Get There.