1/7/18

"Barbershop Fragrance" As A Traditional Concept: Defining The Phrase


Not Really Cheap, Not Really Cheerful.

I want to thank reader and fellow blogger Bibi Maizon for providing this link as a historical anecdote about Osage Rub. It reveals a brief but enlightening historical blurb on the product, which I tried and failed to uncover myself. I'm glad Bibi did this; the information solidified my theory regarding "survivor products" like Osage Rub.

This stuff is more of a survivor than I thought. According to the site, a man named Merton E. Waite registered "Osage Rub" as a trademark hair tonic as far back as 1903, and he had been selling it since 1901! That makes it 117 years old. You can still buy a bottle for $4 at barber supply stores (which is how I found mine), sold in cheap plastic, but in the 1900s it was packaged handsomely in glass, its label framed in gold flake, its manufacturer, the Bonheur Company, proudly broadcasting itself in bold typeface under the slogan: "Makes the Old Head feel like New." A eucalyptus plant is appropriately illustrated next to the name, and there is no doubt that the bottle's contents were meant to be mass produced.

What communities like Fragrantica and basenotes fail to emphasize is the importance of the early twentieth century barbershop in Western culture. This was the world from which current megahits like Dior Homme and Bleu de Chanel are cast. In the 1900s, the average gentleman wasn't interested in perfuming his body, but he was interested in being clean, and perhaps (if he was wealthy) in scenting the handkerchief in his breast pocket. The "being clean" part is central to understanding the upbringing of the masculine fragrance industry. It wasn't Paul Parquet who reached the guys. It was Merton E. Waite, and his competitors. By landing hair tonics and grooming lotions on barbers' shelves, these pioneers of archetypical modern masculinity shaped the behaviors of the luxury brands that followed.

Perfume was certainly interesting in those early days, but it wasn't as connected to the mainstream. Osage Rub, however, was very connected. Its ads stated that "All barbers get ten cents per application," evidence that this product, and its congeners, was instrumental to the proliferation and growth of its own incentivized, free market-driven industry. Civil War Lilac Waters and Old World European colognes informed New World perfumers in their pursuit of synthetics, and without delving too deeply into the cultural weave of capitalists like Waite and perfumers like Parquet, I'll get right to the endgame: the synthetics of perfumery supplanted the naturals of barbershop tonics, thus making these tonics the original gendered perfumes.

Looking beyond Osage Rub, the question remains, what is a barbershop fragrance? Every genre has connective tissue which conjoins its examplars. I have deduced, from a careful perusal of William Andrews' interesting 1904 book, At The Sign Of The Barber's Pole: Studies In Hirsute History, that barbershop fragrances are derived from sweetness and powder. The sweetness stems from 18th century floral waters, while the powder references hair powder, commonly used from ancient times to the late 18th century. Hair powder was made of various materials, but most commonly of flour. Eventually shortages in flour spelled the end of its use for anything other than cooking and baking, but the scent of perfumed powder persisted as a barbershop staple, leading to the amiable powdery aftershave fragrances of today.

When I look at the majority of my aftershaves, which includes classics like Tabac, Old Spice, Skin Bracer, Aqua Velva, Clubman, Brut, and Canoe, I find that they are all incredibly similar. They're all sweet, herbal, spicy, fresh, and very powdery. My collection also includes the Lustray line (pictured above), and each one checks these boxes as well. When exploring fine fragrances from designer brands, I encounter a variety of perfumes entirely unrelated to barbershop scents, but every so often an oriental or fougere that typifies the genre comes along, like Lagerfeld Classic, Drakkar Noir, Rive Gauche Pour Homme, Bleu de Chanel, and more recently, Dior Sauvage. What sets these examples apart is their nod to barbershop traditions, i.e., clean powder. It is this tradition that defines masculinity in perfumery.

Are their outliers to the theme? Perhaps. One can argue convincingly that Azzaro's Chrome Legend, an aldehydic tea floral with a massive green apple note, is a 21st century mutation of the archetypical barbershop. Its aldehydes and floral notes are excessively dry, like an olfactory crystallization of brightness; its fruity quality is strangely diffuse and nearly ambery, not unlike coumarin, and its notes interact in a simple way. Compare CL to Old Spice, and on its face the fragrance couldn't be more different, but consider the general qualities it shares with the classic oriental (aldehydes, dry florals, sweet powder), and odd similarities are found.

I find that when reviewers express confusion about the phrase "barbershop scent," they say things like, "This doesn't smell like any barbershop I've been to." This is a fundamental misinterpretation of the phrase. To say that Drakkar Noir smells like a barbershop scent isn't to imply that Drakkar Noir is used by barbers. Drakkar Noir employs notes and accords that resemble products used for shaving: its lavender and dry-herbal qualities are similar to the scents of common shaving soaps. The phrase extrapolates from a variety of shaving and haircutting products that have been traditionally used, ranging from talcum powders to shaving creams, to even Barbacide and other disinfecting astringents. Barbershop fragrances are typically subjective, based on the barber's region of practice.

Why is this true? Barbershops smell quite different depending on what part of the world you live in. I consider Z-14 a barbershop scent, but not a conventional American barbershop scent. I think of it as an Italian barbershop scent, not unlike the majority of classic masculine colognes from midcentury Italy, stuff like Silvestre by Victor and Pino Silvestre, and even Spanish oldies like Agua Lavanda and Agua Brava. Z-14 capitalizes on dry mosses, zesty citrus, and rich herbal tones, which were all mainstream Meditteranean themes. American barbers are more staid, relying on talcum powder and subtle floral tones. Pinaud Clubman is the American reference, and Clubman and Z-14 couldn't be more different.

Once you become familiar with the themes, you begin to smell the similarities between the different regions. Sure, Clubman and Z-14 are different, but when you parse their respective territories you find they inhabit a well defined space. Canoe, Brut, and Tabac are all pretty clearly in Clubman's ballpark; Silvestre, Pino Silvestre, and the cypress-heavy earlier versions of Z-14 are in their own league. All resemble aftershaves and hair tonics from their respective regions. If you investigate designer fragrances, you find that Dior Homme's lipstick iris has powdery American aftershave qualities, Bleu de Chanel smells like Aqua Velva with a huge budget, and Sauvage is a citrusy leather, a direct descendent of stuff like English Leather Lime (or even just the original English Leather).

At the end of the day, the best approach to the barbershop genre is to consider your associations, and see what fits. Maybe Skin Bracer doesn't really make sense in the context of your personal experience at a barbershop, but Clubman's powdery talc scent might ring some serious bells. Traditional barbershops, manned by old men in white coats, are becoming a thing of the past. Fortunately, the tonics and lotions they used are still with us, and this year I will be exploring a few of them for you, a pursuit I will enjoy immensely.



1/1/18

Osage Rub: Classic Coolness



I really wish I knew how old Osage Rub is. I haven't been able to find a history of the stuff. Judging from vintage bottles and advertisements, it seems to date back to at least the 1940s, when it was apparently used as a medicinal hair tonic. It definitely harkens back to a time when straight razor shaving necessitated the use of something infallibly soothing afterward. Men weren't concerned with smelling good in the forties. They were concerned with feeling good. The Depression was over, and the insanities of the War made life's little luxuries all the more important. Some genius barber realized that Osage Rub made even bad shaves feel nice, and ran with it.

Consider this: Osage Rub has existed for decades not to be an alluring fragrance, not to impress people as a trendy styling accessory, and not to compete with other hair tonics. Osage Rub has existed for decades to refresh and "invigorate," and has thus become a wetshaving icon. I've used my fair share of mentholated aftershaves, but I have never experienced anything like Osage Rub. This stuff is more than just cold - it is downright freezing. It's just a guess, but I'd say there's somewhere around 20% menthol in the formula.

Upon first slapping it on there's a brisk alcohol bite, coupled with a natural eucalyptus note, which makes sense because there's real eucalyptus leaf oil in the ingredients. Fragrance-wise, Osage Rub is a simple one note eucalyptus scent. Personally I'd be happier with a mint scent (I dislike eucalyptus), but what follows makes its smell inconsequential. Out of nowhere comes a blast of frigidity so otherworldly in its coldness that any fear of redness after a shave is instantly eradicated. You could trim your whiskers with hedge clippers and it wouldn't matter; Osage Rub's medicinal properties are super concentrated and unerringly effective. This is a functional product. Razor burn? Problem solved.

It isn't just about skin irritation, though. Hot summer day? Splash a palmful on your face and rub it through your hair. The icy tingle is weirdly calming and satisfying. Just need to wake up after a rough night? Splash it like water and you'll be running rings around your boss. The chill is so intense that it actually makes my eyes water, it's that cold. Speaking of colds, the eucalyptus vapors hang around long enough to clear your sinuses. Osage Rub has survived the years because it makes men feel physically well, either after a shave or just at the end of a long day. It is the best mentholated aftershave lotion in existence - nothing else comes close, not even Barbasol Brisk. And I suppose men don't mind smelling like eucalyptus because eucalyptus has been soothing men for thousands of years. Men evolved embracing its mystical properties. It is classic coolness incarnate.