If you want to understand the uniquely American obsession with cleanliness, including the use of deodorants, you have to start with the United States military. More specifically, you have to start with a pivotal point in military history that not only changed America, but in the long run, also changed how Americans viewed sanitation.
In 1861, the Sanitary Commission was sanctioned by the War Department to improve the health and medical situation of soldiers in the field. The committee to create the commission was formed by the acting surgeon-general during the Civil War to advise the medical bureau on ways to do this.
As stated, the commission served, among other purposes, “. . . to inquire into the subjects of diet, clothing, cooks, camping grounds, in fact everything connected with the prevention of disease among volunteer soldiers not accustomed to the rigid regulations of the regular troops . . .”
Interestingly, one of the commission’s findings was that simple soap and water could significantly reduce battlefield mortality. Although soap had been manufactured as early as the 15th century in Europe, the connection between health and cleanliness wasn’t established. In fact, at the start of the war, a simple wound could be as deadly as a more serious wound simply because of infection.
By the end of the war, the idea had caught on, and being clean was seen as something uniquely American and very patriotic. Everybody was washing; it was the right thing to do.
Around the same time, industrially manufactured bar soaps became available and advertising campaigns promoted the popular awareness of the link between cleanliness and health. In fact, the soap business was the first to employ large-scale advertising campaigns.
That’s because all of those first soaps were essentially the same. So it was up to advertisers to convince people they not only needed to wash but they had to provide specific reasons to use their particular brand of soap. So, many of the techniques you think of in advertising today, testimonials, slogans and splashy campaigns, all started with soap.
By the early part of the 20th century, the changing U.S. economy helped the industry. People were working closely together in factories and offices. Advertising promoted the idea of “smells not offending.” Years later the idea of “good smells attracting” caught on.
While the use of soap is still popular, if not necessary, today there's the ongoing debate over whether all that washing is healthy or not. But soap remains a houshold item in America, and that place has been pretty well secured. And the clean phenomenon all began with a government commission that, while initially criticized, actually worked in favor of the health of Americans.
— Frank Graff
Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!