As Father’s Day approaches, a vintage Old Spice bottle sheds new light on my departed dad
Old Spice, the de facto scent profile of American dadness, turns 80 this year, which makes it, well, old. This doesn’t come as too much of a surprise because the men’s grooming brand, with its memorable nautical-themed advertising campaigns, buoy-shaped fragrance bottles and assorted soaps-on-a-rope (shapes over the years have included a compass rose and a scrimshaw-decorated whale tooth), always seemed to register at least a generation older than its target demographic.
And for the first four decades (we’ll get to the second four decades in a bit), it was pretty smooth sailing for the ship-emblazoned bottles of aftershave, cologne and shaving soap. To key into the colonial/nautical brand aesthetic, the earliest packaging featured a sailing vessel called the Grand Turk, with other ships joining the fleet starting in the 1940s. Shulton, the company that launched the brand as a women’s fragrance in 1937 before tweaking it and renaming it Old Spice for Men the following year, would eventually be absorbed by American Cyanamid in 1970, which, in turn, would say anchors aweigh in 1990, the year it sold the brand to consumer-goods behemoth Procter & Gamble.
This chain of ownership and which colonial-era sailing ship appears on what bottle won’t matter much to the casual consumer of Old Spice products. But, for eBay bargain hunters, hard-core collectors and the occasional inheritor of a vintage, buoy-shaped, bone-white cologne bottle, they’re crucial clues.
It’s in this last category that I find myself, having taken possession of my father’s Old Spice cologne bottle after he passed away in 2014. My mother and I decided I should be custodian of this tangible olfactory memory partly because I had become a second-generation Old Spice customer on his account (stick deodorants, mostly), and partly because, as we were cleaning out the bathroom medicine cabinet of his belongings, she gave the bottle a good shake and found it to be at least half full. (On a side note, who really needs to stockpile that much dental floss?)
The bottle has occupied a place of honor in my own medicine cabinet ever since I brought it home some 3 ½ years ago. It sits next to an Old Spice shaving mug of the same milky white glass, a vintage double-edge Gillette safety razor and a badger-hair shaving brush. The other three items had also been my Dad’s but were gifts I had given him over the years; their back stories were anything but mysterious. I just sort of saw the cologne bottle there every morning out of the corner of my eye, a daily reminder of him, what my mom calls “a tug at the heart strings,” not unlike the wallet-sized photo of him my brother tucked into the sun visor of his pickup truck. In full disclosure, I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time thinking that much about the bottle.
That is until Old Spice released an 80th anniversary limited-edition capsule collection a few weeks back. For most of the last four decades (I told you we’d get here, didn’t I?), the brand has all but put the crusty colonial mariner vibe in dry dock as it tried to reclaim market dominance in the era of brands such as Axe body spray. The ships of yore have morphed into sleek yachts. Products like body wash bear names such as Wolfthorn (described as “the sort of sophisticated wolf who wears a suit that has a suave, sweet orange scent”), and the sea captain in TV spots has ceded command to the likes of smooth-talking, towel-clad Isaiah Mustafa, who helped the brand’s 2010 “Smell like a man, man” campaign go viral.
That’s why the retro look of the capsule, available only during 2018 and selling exclusively through Walmart, was so surprising. As homage to the brand’s early packaging, the trio of products has ivory white as the predominant color, and a stylized version of the Grand Turk sails front and center. And the original, distinctively shaped bottle even gets a cameo as a buoy. It bobs in the sea surrounded by sharks (on the deodorant), is held aloft in the tentacles of a kraken (on the antiperspirant) and splashes down with a pair of parachutes (on the body wash). Clearly I wasn’t the only one for whom the buoy bottle resonated.
This prompted me to take a longer look at the memento in my medicine cabinet. Moving the cologne bottle to my desk, I fired up my computer and headed down the rabbit hole where I ended up learning a whole lot about vintage Old Spice bottles — and my father.
According to a Procter & Gamble archivist who pored over old catalogs and Old Spice advertisements on my behalf, the bottle before me could have been made as early as 1951 (when Old Spice became available in Toronto, which appears on the bottle back next to “Clifton, N.J.”) but not after 1970, the year Shulton became a subsidiary of American Cyanamid. Information gleaned from the exhaustively thorough website Old Spice Collectibles, which isn’t affiliated with the brand or P&G, helped me narrow that window to somewhere between 1956 and 1967 based on the bottle design and stopper style. At 51 to 62 years old, this wasn’t so much a bottle as a time capsule of my Dad’s entire grooming life.
To put this in perspective, at its oldest, this bottle of cologne would have come into Douglas Allan Tschorn’s life when he was just 21 years old. At its youngest, he would have come into its possession barely two years after I was born and the same year my baby sister — the youngest of his four children — came into this world. He may well have used some of its citrus/vanilla/carnation-scented contents the day he graduated from college in 1958 or when he married my mom in 1962. And, now that I know the timeline, I can’t help but imagine — hope, really — that he splashed a few drops onto his smiling face that day in 1965 when my parents brought my mewling, wide-eyed, 5-pound, newborn self home from the maternity ward of Rhode Island’s Woonsocket Hospital.
This Father’s Day will be the fourth since my shopkeeper dad shuffled off to the great country store in the sky. Somehow, though, as the third Sunday in June rolls around this year, I find the memories of my father have somehow grown even stronger, buoyed by a vintage — and still half-full — bottle of Old Spice cologne.
For more musings on all things fashion and style, follow me at @ARTschorn.