"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. Traditional barbershops, manned by old men in white coats, are becoming a thing of the past.

    Here in Europe they are a hype. Young men with lots of tattoos in white coats open stores in all major cities (except the biggest ones, which already are past the barbershop hype), preferably with vintage fifties and sixties interiors and of course the entire Pineaud line.

    1. Very nice to hear, Martijn! You guys are back to the future, relative to the USA, that is.

  2. I enjoyed this piece very much, in part because I imagined that, in keeping with your earlier remarks about 2018, it is the start of a longer discussion… And that’s a good thing, because one of the trickiest premises to resolve here is getting people to think about history they may not know personally. The violated intimacy felt in the archetypical scene of a boy bawling his eyes out before, during or after his first barber’s haircut, the experience of easing back in the odd mix of medicinal and mechanical environment with its creaking metal and leather chair, buzz of electric clippers and combs dripping in blue Barbicide, the cliché first screaming sting of aftershave… These aspects of a powerfully memorable ritual are still cultural tropes, but not everyone has them firsthand anymore; nonetheless, as you point out, they still impact what gets designed and how our noses develop.

    And I am grateful for further fleshing out of regional specifics, if only because North American arguably have fetishized the connection between hygiene, strength and virtue more than, say, Southern Europeans, so it’s interesting to say that a barbershop fragrance may be the minty and astringent Aqua Velva, but also note that the saffron in Prada Amber for Men likely echoes the relatively savoury sensuality of (I presume) a Spanish barbershop.

    I’ve been wearing Habit Rouge of and on through some very long work days this winter, because it will survive a ten or fourteen-hour day, and the far drydown has become, far and away, my favourite part of the composition. Essentially, it’s just a beautiful bar of soap: a little spicy, a little leathery, with a cool musk layering itself discreetly over whatever hangdog-ness I am carrying around with me if I am still in a suit at ten PM. It has, to my mind, a kind of barbershop aura, because it sets up a reliable throughline from the morning shave when I first tried to put myself together, until closing time, when I am trying to take stock of what’s left; in between is the body and all its foibles.

    The fact that a look at the history of barbershop fragrances entails taking us back to the body might be the best thing in this age of general disembodiment!

    P.S. I suppose you’ve noticed the announcement of an oriental-ized Sauvage Parfum?

    1. In response to your comments above and below:

      I have seen Fragrantica's piece on the EDP of Sauvage. I imagine the usual underdeveloped heads are exploding right now at the very implication of there being ANOTHER Sauvage.

      This leads to a thought I had about the fragrance world's obsession with concentrations. The wetshavers that I observe are generally (not entirely, but generally) ok with aftershave concentrations, with their 2-5% oil to alcohol ratios, and when they want to get exotic they treat colognes the way basenoters treat EDPs. Clubman Special Reserve? THAT's a perfume!!!

      I'm not entirely sure I get the need to "flank" megahits with higher octane updates. Bleu de Chanel EDP smells very nice, but the charm of the EDT's borderline cologne qualities is naturally lost. A beautiful woman once told me that she liked the EDT more than most of what I wear simply because it smells so gentle and affectingly masculine, her words were, and I'm paraphrasing, "It's not nearly as strong as the other stuff, and I like that about it." When I mentioned that it's just 21st century Aqua Velva, she was momentarily intrigued - people rarely make the connection until you get into the oddly herbal essence pervading Bleu's structure, not unlike AV.

      I'm somewhat aware of the bearded barber phenomenon. In one of the smallest towns in Connecticut a bearded, tattooed dude opened a weird semi-retro shop that appears to be stocked with a fair amount of "product." I'm not sure I'm sold on it, though. While it's nice to see younger guys injecting their own spin on the classic barbershop theme, I have the experience of frequenting a holdover from the old-school, a man in his 80s who had wrought iron chairs and a can of Barbacide from 1948. This guy only cut male hair, offered full straight razor shaves, and prided himself on once being barber to Gregory Peck (in his later years). He wasn't interested in piling on the aftershaves, but he had one or two of them, probably decanted. His main go-to was talc. He loved talc. Clubman talc. Between him and the hipsters, there is just no comparison.

  3. A quick rejoinder to Martijn's comment, above... Yes, barbershops in our big city too... First a sort of retro-hipster artisinal-indie affair with dudes with tattoos and urban lumberjack beards, and now a few opening up in malls. The indie place stocks their own line of products, plus Musgo Real and Proraso creams and soaps, and offers straight-razor shaves by appointment; that said, it still feels more like a boutique than a drop-in barbershop. We still have some old ones left over from the 1960's or 70's, generally run by old Greek or Italian guys and haunted by a cast of regulars... But the whole ritual of boys being introduced to barbershops at a young age, of barbershops being multi-generational affairs in which men hang out and shoot the breeze, yeah, that seems like a bit of a lost continent now.

  4. I still go to the same barber in my neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago. In fact, he's been there since 1975! While his place is a little more on the "Gran Tarino" side, it does exude a classic feel. He gets the same customers over and over again, only has male customers, always wears a barber's coat and uses nothing but Pinaud products. The day he finally retires, tears will be streaming down my cheeks. And one more thing, he loves wearing Caesars Man cologne (the Drakkar Noir clone.)

  5. Knowing that you, like me, are a fan of Caron Pour un Homme, I wonder if you saw this piece, detailing quite possibly the most luxurious barbershop experience one could hope for? Sounds kind of pilgrimage worthy... https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2011/06/caron-pour-un-homme-at-martial-vivot

    1. You know what John, that piece rings a bell! I think it's an old one from 2011(?) and I went to great lengths to find pretty much every public nod to this fragrance on the internet - this is a great idea by this barber, although charging almost $100 for it (back then, it's probably significantly more now) seems excessive. Then again, NY City, you pay NY prices. When I think of barbershop masterpieces, it's hard not to think of PuH and Third Man. Thanks for the link!

  6. Mr Ross,
    I was speaking to my uncle in Baton Rouge who collects antique pharmacy & barbershop items. He says he's seen Osage Rub bottles dating from as early as 1860. Wowsers, eh?

    The husband was gifted a bottle of Paco Rabanne pour Homme for Xmas by a client- how did I forget this 70's classic? Clean, green, masculine, woodsy, classic, timeless...perfect for him!

    1. I'm beginning to wonder if the name "Osage Rub" was a generic term for Osage Orange scented balm used to repel insects in the old days. It may have been appropriated in the 20th century by barbers and evolved into the product we know and use today. Then again, I could be totally wrong about that, but apparently people thought the fruit was effective for that.

  7. Building on what Martijn said, "retro" barbershop salons are becoming popular here too. I've seen a few of them in Chicago. I've never gone to any since they tend to be more expensive than neighboring salons which would give me just as good a trim, and I could just go to a......wait for it.....actual barbershop if I want that experience, instead of a place that's trimming a homeless-looking hipsters beard for 50 bucks.
    Im now wondering what these places smell like, though. It'd be pretty cool if they were using some old barbershop products

    1. Millennial hipsters have a way of ruining everything. My generation (specifically the earliest batch born on or after 1981) are the least offensive of the group, but we still manage to fuck up good things without being aware of how poorly we've done. I rather cynically see these retro barbers as prime examples of this. First, the stupid beard fad - this has been going on for four years now, and it's pretty awful. Nobody looks better with a full beard. Every time I see a guy with one I want to just shame him by handing him a Gillette travel tech and a can of Barbasol. Only my clutch of 30-somethings could think that these beards are OK. Every prior generation (with the exception of the 1960s hippies) wanted a regular shave.

      But the retro barber thing, with all its beards and tattoos and string lights, really seems to be the antithesis of what barbers were about. My barber was clean shaven, had one military tattoo (from Korea), and the last thing he was into was flashy coolness. His shop was dark, his products were limited to the obvious necessities, and like I said earlier, he had pedigree, with photos of himself cutting Gregory Peck's hair all over the back wall. I think he charged $15 for a haircut and $20 for a shave. Actually he started at $10 for a haircut, and because I was too young for facial hair I never got a shave from him. Eventually he pushed his price up a notch, but he was always absurdly cheap.

      I get that it's hard to find the wrought iron chairs and the vintage products, the label-less ceramic jars of aftershave, and the photos of yourself cutting a celebrity's hair. These things can't be duplicated. But why sully its name with an attempt to be the very thing you can't be? These guys should just name themselves "Mod-Cutters" and admit that angling in on the female-dominated beauty salon business model is what they're all about. Never mind trying to be old-school.

    2. These guys are at least *trying* in Cleveland..



      I'll need a cut soon so I'm probably going to hit the first one. I'll let you know how it goes. My grandfather was a barber and I love the tradition as well. I'm always looking for scents that take me back in time to those days.

    3. Thanks, please do, I'm curious to know how it goes!

  8. Varon Dandy by Parera has quite the European Barbershop smell, you can find them in huge glass bottles. Classic fougere that last a good amount of time considering it's cologne strength.


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