Keeping Mum – The Mysterious History Of The Modern Deodorant

The history of many cosmetics and toiletries is filled with mysterious happenings, bizarre ingredients and a degree of ambiguity not commonly seen with modern ranges of organic deodorants with transparent ingredient lists.

One of the strangest of these, however, is the mystery surrounding the first ever modern deodorant product, Mum, which despite its importance to the history of cosmetics was invented by an inventor that to this day has never been identified, even by the company that owns the brand itself.

In 1888, this unknown inventor based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, invented a cream wax which contained the active ingredient zinc oxide. Zinc oxide is an antibacterial and antiseptic compound that is commonly used in sunscreens, calamine lotions, toothpaste and mouthwashes, amongst many other applications.

The waxy concoction was applied with the fingers and worked to reduce and remove body odours. The product was potentially a hit, so the unknown inventor started to sell it under the name Mum, allegedly an invention of the inventor’s nurse.

As the name of the inventor is still unknown to this day, its story has sometimes been conflated with that of Edna Murphey, creator of the similar product Odorono and the woman who made people embarrassed to sweat.

She was based in Cincinnati so it is unclear how the two became conflated, but her story is a fascinating part of the overall history of deodorants.

In the late 1940s, the now Bristol-Myers-owned Mum was still innovating, with employee Helen Barnett Diserens, inspired by the ballpoint pen, developing the underarm applicator that made it more hygienic and increased sales once released in 1952 under the name Ban Roll-On.

The first deodorant sold as an aerosol spray was Right Guard in 1960, developed by shaving company Gillette. These became particularly successful over the next few decades, although with shifting ingredients due to concerns over some of the early ingredients used.

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