The Surprising History of Halitosis

Last week on our blog, we got to the bottom of bad breath and taught you how to treat it. This week, we’re diving into the surprising history of halitosis and how a marketing campaign changed the way we see, er smell, bad breath.

We’ve Always Known our Breath Stinks

People have lived for millennia without the freshest of breath, and it has even been discovered that early people tried to fix this problem. In fact, it’s a topic the Smithsonian has written several articles on, detailing the different ways that ancient peoples tried to freshen up.
The Egyptians, for example, made an early form of a breath mint almost 3,000 years ago. They mixed up batches of boiled herbs and spices and blended them with honey to make sweets that could be chewed or sucked on. The Chinese are credited with creating the first toothbrush – made from boar bristles – in the 1400s. And while boar bristles may sound rough by today’s standards, it’s certainly an improvement on the Babylonians trying to brush their teeth with twigs 5,000 years ago!

Introducing the Antiseptic

The 1860s saw the beginning of antiseptic use. Surgeons like Dr. Joseph Lister began using antiseptics in their operatories and found that patient survival rates improved.
Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Robert Wood Johnson, founder of Johnson & Johnson, took notice and began to promote antiseptic as the new way of protecting patients.
Then, in 1879, Lawrence created a new antiseptic for use in surgeries and for cleaning wounds. He called it Listerine mouthwash, named in honor of Dr. Lister.
The Lambert Pharmaceutical Company bought the rights and formula to Listerine and began to market it for all sorts of ailments. By 1895, studies showed Listerine’s effectiveness for killing germs in the mouth, which made dentists and their patients take notice.

Creating a Market for Mouthwash

Let’s get something straight: Listerine did not invent bad breath, they just figured out a clever way to create a market for their product.
It was during the 1920s that bad breath became more than just a fact of life. And it was Gerald Lambert, the son of the owner of Lambert Pharmaceutical Company, who came across the term, “halitosis,” in an old medical journal. Halitosis is an old Latin word meaning, “bad breath.” But because of its scientific-sounding name, people started to pay attention. It was framed as a medical condition that required treatment, and of course, the prescription was Listerine mouthwash.

Halitosis Hysteria!

Enter Edna, a beautiful young woman with all of the charm and social graces that made her desirable, except for one fatal flaw – Edna suffered from halitosis. What made it worse was that she didn’t even know it! Not even her closest friends would tell her and so Poor Edna, despite all of her charms, was “always the bridesmaid and never the bride.”

This ad campaign created salacious, fast-tempo dramas for readers to identify with, creating a demand for the product to avoid the same social-shaming circumstances Poor Edna found herself in.
And it worked.
Listerine’s annual sales went from a little over $100,000 in 1921, to more than $4 million annually in 1927. By the late 1920s, Listerine was the country’s third-largest print advertiser. To put that into perspective with today’s money, that’s an increase from $1.3 million to $57.5 million.

A Modern Mouthwash

Today, Listerine is a Johnson & Johnson product, and part of the $6 billion oral hygiene industry.
And while the change of thought surrounding bad breath may have been provoked as a sales strategy, that doesn’t make it any less true that antiseptic mouthwash really is a good addition to your oral health care routine. And Listerine gets the job done with just thirty seconds of swishing, twice a day, it’s not that much added effort in exchange for a whole lot of benefit to keep your mouth healthy.

Dental Depot has not received endorsement for this article. It is meant for entertainment and educational purposes only. 

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