This Week’s Story: Smells Like Grandma (Spirit)

(If you prefer, you can listen to this as a podcast! Smells Like Grandma, episode 1 – 5.)

A few weeks ago I spent the weekend washing out old perfume bottles. Well, technically, washing vintage & retro figural eau de cologne bottles – because perfume rarely comes in such bottles. Which is why most of us refer to such bottles as “fragrance bottles,” but collectors consider the category to be “perfume bottles,” a subset of vanity collectibles, or “collectible bottles”, a subset of “decorative collectibles.” But I digress.

I was washing old fragrance bottles. The majority of these were Avon bottles – primarily the figurative types. And perhaps it was the strong smells from the near 100 different bottled grandma scents, but I started giggling.

At the risk of further digression, I feel the need to address a few other things before I completely offend a great number of Avon ladies & Avon fans.

I’ve been an Avon Lady – not once, but twice, including after having reached one of the highest points in the beauty products game by working for Estee Lauder. So I’m not knocking Avon.

Not only is Avon the oldest beauty company in the United States, with a long history of economically empowering women, but Avon has for decades been the #1 fragrance-cosmetic company in the US with high rankings worldwide. Not so much #1 recently (which is a longer story about marketing and changing markets – and corporate buy-outs), but Avon still ranks in the top 10-15 worldwide every year. This means lots more people than grandmas are wearing Avon. But the nickname still holds – as we shall see.

In any case, there’s a whole lot of Avon bottles circulating. And being collected.

While most collector pros will focus on the obvious things (condition, condition, condition – the importance of boxes, true limited runs, fan favorites, etc.), in this podcast we like to talk about objects in context. In this case, the objects are vintage & reto Avon bottles, and the context of “grandma scents” is also a nostalgic nod to scents of the past.

According to science, smell and memory are linked. Dr. Alan Hirsch, founder of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, says, “The quickest way to affect somebody’s moods or behavior, quicker than with any other sensory modality, is with smell.” So collecting perfume bottles, Avon or not, is closely linked to memory.

Vintage scents may link you to your grandma, yes. Maybe it’s a scent she wore. My grandma wore Avon’s Charisma for special occasions, so it’s part of Christmas for me. But vintage perfume scents may remind you of your grandma, or grandmas in general, at least in part, because most fragrances tend to go bad & get that funky old smell after 3-5 years – and who doesn’t have a grandma who has old fragrance bottles getting dusty on her dresser? (Hence all the washing I’ve been doing!)

Or the scents may link you to your own past – a special occasion, your first big girl perfume, your first kiss – your own teen spirit, if you will. Meaning you might now be the “grandma” part of “grandma scent.”

But another part of the context of collectible Avon bottles is the heading-toward-us-like-a-bullet-train holiday season.

As I found in my sink, there is a ton of evidence of the gift-giving of Avon. Perhaps none as obvious as the array of men’s fragrance decanters.

There are a ton of cars, which may seem gifty enough for the generic men in your life. I mean, I guess glass cars look cool… I tend to like the kitschy stuff, including white poodle Avon decanters, so who am I to judge?

But there’s more. Including a plethora of men’s footwear options…

So.

Many.

Boots.

As a woman who used to sell men’s shoes, let me tell you there is nothing – & I mean nothing – like the odor of a teenaged boy’s feet. You learn in the shoe business to inhale deeply before you even begin to bend toward the feet – slowly exhaling as you go, so that you will not need to inhale again before you have exited the danger zone. You also learn to smile with commiseration with any mothers about – because they know what you are going through and are suffering in mortified silence as well.

So anyway, the notion of selling any fragrance in footwear form is, well, it just doesn’t smell right. Yet Avon has more variations of boot cologne bottles than seems possible.

Not that Avon figural bottles are necessarily shaped like scents. For example, the car decanters don’t smell like car exhaust or those cardboard trees. The 12-inch tall grandfather clock Avon bottle doesn’t smell like… clock. Nor does the spool of thread with thimble cap portend of a specific olfactory delight. In fact, most of Avon’s figural decanters seem perplexing to those of us who understand the marketing of fragrance… But still, men’s boots do suggest unpleasant scents. So I wrinkle my nose.

Perhaps my favorite – and by favorite, I mean most giggle-worthy – Avon men’s figural fragrance bottle is the weather vane – cupola combo.

In case you aren’t familiar with a cupola, it’s a small structure on the top of a building. They were used as lookouts, or to hold a bell or clock. Today, these small clocktowers typically provide ventilation or are purely decorative, perhaps holding up a weather vane. Just like this Avon bottle of aftershave. A decorative barn-red cupola topped with a black horse weather vane. “Thanks for thinking of me, grandma!”

Oddly enough, the weather vane – cupola combo container holds Deep Woods or Wild Country aftershave. And neither of those cologne names – i.e. the scent fantasy of a rugged outdoorsman who can’t be tamed – sounds like it belongs to a dude who wants to be domesticated by a farmhouse decor style.

This bottle does, however, lend itself to a gift-seeking grandma or & aunty who doesn’t know what to get a gent over the age of say 12.

Clearly, Avon has banked a lot of bucks from grandmas… But I think most folks would prefer the traditional $5 in a greeting card.

Feel free to share this with a grandma.

This Week's Story Avon Podcast Fargo Fair Oaks Antiques
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