2/8/20

Old Spice Cologne (Shulton, 1970 - 1973 Vintage)



In the world of "non-luxury perfumes," few have a reputation as gargantuan as 1970s Old Spice. Last year I was fortunate enough to find a bottle of early seventies Old Spice cologne for a great price, and bought it. I wanted a vintage cologne for the bottle more than the scent. As much as I appreciate vintage, I hate the Proctor & Gamble bottles (cheap, crappy plastic) more than I love the vintage scent.

I don't even hate the fact that P&G uses plastic. The change in container material isn't a big deal. What pisses me off is the piss poor logo they print on the new stuff. That dumb "patch" with its microscopic ship is an eyesore. I can't understand what the design department at P&G is thinking with that thing. I've ranted about this before, and won't go on about it here, but just wanted to briefly touch on it again. The vintage Shulton milk glass bottles are pretty much the same size, shape, and color as their successors, but are superior in sporting beautiful scarlet script and the iconic grey-blue graphic of the Grand Turk, and at a size I can actually see.

The scent's reputation precedes it, although this is not obvious to casual observers. You have to be a fraghead to understand the extent of cultural murmurings about seventies Old Spice. The decade is known for a plethora of loud and super musky (super "fly") compositions, and the idea is that Old Spice entered a more full-bodied era in the Nixon years, likely following the zeitgeist. The problem in 2020 is that the fragrance is now nearly fifty years old. Orientals are known for having good staying power, and a good formula can likely survive twenty or thirty years with minimal changes. But pushing a half century is, put simply, pushing it.

The fragrance has survived, but only barely. It's wearable, and it still smells good, but its dynamism is nonexistent, and its balance long gone. Instead of the fizzy pop of orange skin, orange flower, ambergris, aldehydes, clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg familiar to me in my now long-gone 1980s vintage (which was only twenty-five years old when last I wore it), the seventies juice emits a super-smooth burst of aldehydes, which last a mere ten seconds or so, followed by an intense bourbon vanilla, very deep and musky, almost as if I've dribbled vanilla extract on my arm, which quickly dries to a powdery skin musk, made extra dusky by hints of cinnamon and clove.

Where the vintage excels is in its depth. Proctor & Gamble managed to make their reformulation shimmery and pert, especially in freezing cold winter conditions, but it rarely gives an impression of durability. Shulton's formula achieves an odd trick; once applied, the wearer is treated to something that seems to radiate five or six inches from skin, without actually smelling like much up close. Although it pretends to disappear ten minutes after application, I often get a whiff of powdery vanilla five or six hours after application, and in a way that seems to drift through the air. This kinetic effect is remarkable for being both softly tenacious and engaging. It's essentially a rich vanilla base that doesn't smell cheap because it doesn't smell like a cologne.

How the chemists for Shulton developed this kind of oriental base is beyond me. I suspect there's real vanilla extract in there. But the powder, talc-like and quintessentially barbershop in nature, lends this simple note an abstract quality that I haven't encountered in recent fragrances. When I wear it, I feel like I'm emitting a vanilla essence from my sweat. The vague dusting of spice lends it animalism, but its sweet song is crystal clear, unembellished by chemical harmonies, a direct example of masculinity as melody. I wish the spices had held up more, and can't detect the ambergris that I know Shulton used, but I like it. It's really good stuff.

I also bought a bottle of 1970s vintage aftershave, but I got rid of the juice. It was probably fine, and I was probably just imagining danger, but something about using fifty year-old aftershave didn't appeal to me, and there was a touch of rancidity in the oils that sealed its fate. I refilled the bottle with current aftershave, and that works fine. The aftershave bottle dates between 1973 and 1980. I imagine it's from the late seventies, judging by the condition of the bottle.

If you enjoy Old Spice as much as I do, getting a vintage bottle is still a viable option, especially if you just want the bottle. But if looks don't bother you, the new stuff is still very good and worthy of use. Just don't make me look at that shitty packaging. I would give my left leg to take control of the package design department at P&G so I could dial the clock back to a more comfortable and less cost-efficient date! But with that said, I'd probably struggle to keep my job.


10 comments:

  1. I have the cologne too! Mine must be a newer bottle: not a clipper ship, but what looks like an old-style racing sailboat (based on a cursory search, it's from the early 90's). It's from a small bottle that was probably part of a set. Curiously, it is intensely strong and long-lived with a butter-rum-like richness in the base and a ton of clove. I don't wear it often because it is a little overbearing. Anyway, I approve of the new spice in old bottles idea. They are great looking bottles, but also pleasure to pick up and handle in a steam-filled post-shower shaving situation... I always liked the way that the bottles felt heavy and cool to the touch of warm hands, while the juice inside seemed to be both warm (cinnamon, vanilla and cloves) and cool (cloves again!). Great stuff.

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    1. The 1990s vintage was famously inconsistent. Some years are supposedly fine while others are considered weak and fleeting. Glad to hear you got a good bottle. The later 90s was definitely a fallow period for OS.

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  2. Who knows? Your decision of dialing back to a less cost-efficient package design is actually more relevant than ever since companies are supposed to make ecological efforts these days.
    It's also known that people are prepared to pay a premium for quality goods, so instead of going for the lowest common denominator, they should up the standards or refrain from cheapening products that have already proven themselves over extended periods of time.
    Bring back the best version with quality materials not only in content but also packaging - to the best of my knowledge THAT is what companies are supposed to do. Else you set yourself up to be no better than the gazillions of Chinese manufacturers that flood the economy and our landfills with cheaply made throw away crap that is devoid of any quality.




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    1. My thing is P&G obviously considers the original too boring to hold its own, with how many “foxtrot” and “bear arms” flankers they’ve been pushing for the last 15 years. So if they lack confidence in the product they ought to exaggerate its prowess by putting it a cut above everything else and repackaging it in glass. Get rid of the crap graphics, bring back the big boat and script. Just pretend OS classic is the “luxe” flagship brand of aftershave, charge $5 more than everything else in the line, and make less of it if you’re worried about your margins. Why did they have to crap it all up?

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    2. Brilliant essay. I've recently been experiencing those same thoughts and feelings. Now to edit my 100 plus bottle collection(!) Do you think Caron Pour un Homme and Grey Flannel might be keepers?

      Your vision for Old Spice warms the cockles of my heart. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Of course, from a real world, dollars-and-cents perspective, your idea could be a marketing disaster exceeding "New Coke." On the other hand, a soft launch or even a limited-edition might be feasible. I've often thought Pinaud might have success doing something similar. In the meantime, cobbling together a vintage bottle with currently available Old Spice appears to be a sane solution.

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    3. John Caron Pour in Homme and Grey Flannel are both crap fragrances and you would do well to just bin both of them in favor of stuff like Versace Eros and Dylan Blue.

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    4. If you're binning your Caron Pour un Homme, let me know and I'll send along my address ;) I've just been revisiting this stuff after a long spell of mostly wearing other things, and I still think it's a wonder.

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    5. John consider us both lovers of crap fragrances ;)

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  3. Hmmmm...just had a look at the Indian version of Old Spice here in Nepal. It features what looks like a racing yacht and the Old Spice is written in the original cursive script. I just looked up the US packaging online - that shield shape with stitching on the new logo and the hipster-retro trendy fonts used look like a 13 year old designed it on PicMonkey. It is a shame whomever is doing the marketing for Old Spice can't see the retro vibe the original classic logo had. I guess they are trying to overcome the "dad" or working class connotation that they feel is too boring for today's youngsters?
    Just picked up a bottle of "Brut Oceans" for my sons, smells just like the old blue bar of Coast deodorant soap! I don't think it is available in the US but goes for about $6 for 100mls, stays shower fresh, and close to the skin for about 6 hours. I too wonder how these American men's fragrances stay so well behaved in their sillage while maintaining so much character.

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    1. There’s no way to deal with that old-school connotation other than full-on embracing it. The fragrance is by definition “old.” So there has to be someone at P&G who looks at the logo and just gets real with it. They can keep the plastic, they can keep the formula, they can still do the red stopper instead of the grey. But for the love of god, they must change the logo back to its pre-90’s design.

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