Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Perfumatic: Coin-Operated Perfume Dispenser

According to Susan Berberet, Assistant Curator of Collections at the Oklahooma History Center, the prevalent in the 50s and 60s coin-operated perfume spraying machine (the Perfumatic) found in ladies' rooms of posh hotels and restaurants was emitting such classics as Chanel No.5 and My Sin by Lanvin (Can you hear my jaw hitting the floor in amazement at the mention of the latter?).
Or as the recollection of those who have actually used some of them goes, perhaps copies of those two popular scents. It doesn't really matter for our purposes here. The machine used a thin dime coin and for just that price sprayed you with a healthy dose of perfume, in order to freshen up or just in case you neglected that height of grooming before going out. Sounds like a great idea, didn't it?
Older generations fondly remember the ritual in the States while these pastel machines, alongside others with actual vials attached existed for scenting your handkerchief; useful when those were the cotton & linen variety and not the disposable kind.

The even more impressive info is that actually this goes far, far back; much further than imagined: "The first group to demand such on the spot purchases were the Greeks. The first mention of a coin-operated dispenser was in 215 B.C., by a mathematician and engineer named Heron (or Hero) of Alexandria [The one who also invented ύδραυλις/hydraulis, the precursor of the Organ]. His machine would accept a coin and then dispense a set amount of “holy water” in the Egyptian temples!" But Susan Berbet goes on to explain that it would only resurface in the Industrial Revolution age, when the technology to make this cheap and functional finally emerged.

But the idea isn't only an antiquated one. There are modern, aluminum-shiny examples with "perfume" and "cologne" in them to be sold still!
Perfumaniac, a New Orleans-based blogger blogging at Yesterday’s Perfume first published a photo of a perfume vending machine which sold perfume "nips" (small plastic "packets" like samples for perfume applying), in which she mentioned how such 20s popularities as Soir de Paris (Evening in Paris) by Bourjois or Arpege by Lanvin (again) were sold at the literal drop of a coin. Then Dr.Avery Gilbert took it over on his own blog, where he discussed about the idea of an olfactory museum. Can I just say I think there's good money to be made if this idea is ever materialised.

And to revert to the initial point of interest which made an impression on me, it does make you wonder which would fragrances would be chosen for today's market to be put in the ladies' room, if such a thing existed still. What do you think?

Read Berberet's article on this link ("Found in Collections" blog, Oklahoma History Center)

Thanks to Sillage for bringing this to my attention


  1. Sadly, I think the selection in such a dispenser today would not excite the perfumista in me. What I would love, though, would be a dispenser in ladies rooms that offered up a selection of hand soap and lotion in several nice, simple scents--Kiss My Face-type scents. I'd pay 75 cents to avoid the nasty industrial soap they usually have in lavatories. Why has no one thought of that?

  2. I've been to a few old-school restaurants where the bathrooms had attendants with trays full of perfume and cologne bottles, but I love the idea of the vending machine... If the Japanese can put whisky and schoolgirls' undies in vending machines, surely they can come up with a modern twist on these!

  3. I think it's a fascinating idea. What it reminded me of was in the novel Brave New World, in the bathrooms, they have something like this, but it's not coin dispensed (I don't think they had money at all). They would just select a scent category, like 'vetiver' or 'chypre' and press the button, I believe.
    They also had these sort of automatic room fragrancer things, which would run through different fragrances.

    This is a bit off track, but the prevalence of fragrance in Brave New World is quite startling, actually.

  4. Anonymous14:55

    Dear E,

    I used to see these quite often in bathrooms at roadside truck stops or malls; this would be about ten years ago. They would usually advertise scents like "If you love CK's Obsession, you will love Hysteria", or something along those lines. Since the smell of public bathrooms in general usually makes me want to leave in great haste, I never paused long enough to consider trying any of these out. That and the suspicion that something more sinister than perfume would actually be dispensed.

    I think a tasteful version of this in one of those supremely elegant washrooms in luxury hotels might not be out of place, however. And I love the idea of a dipsenser of luxury handsoaps as an alternative to the paint stripper on offer gratis.

    Don't perfume companies make twee little purse-size bottles of their finest scents so that we are never at a loss when needing to freshen up?


  5. wow we have nothing like this in the UK- just sometimes full bottles to use in very nice hotels and bars- sounds fun- I would love a vintage machine!

  6. Anonymous17:07

    Once a few years ago, I was in a an old diner in Washington state, and they had the perfume dispenser that you have in the lower right hand picture and I was able to spritz with White Shoulders, unfortunately I don't remember where the restaurant is now.

  7. M,

    you have a good idea there! I have seen something similar: not exactly a vending machine, but a soap selection device: there were three shades of liquid soap to choose from in a restaurant in the Far East. I didn't use any of them though because I usually carry my own "leaf soap" packets (these are incredibly cute) for travelling. Do you suppose they would be typical Japanese-style scents?

  8. N,

    this is one of my favourite scenes in some films you know; I always try to catch which fumes they're having the attendants offer and whether they're historically consistent with the times, LOL!
    And amazing, I just told Bittergrace how in the Far East (Indonesia) there was a machine with different kinds of liquid soap in different colours and scents. Not a vending type though. You've got an excellent point, if anyone can do it, the Japanese can!

  9. Prox,

    I do recall that Huxley's novel was full of interesting olfactory ideas (and other, more philosophical ideas), however I admit I don't recall the bathroom selection thing at all. But if you say so, it must be thus!
    I don't suppose you recall the chapter so I can releaf it and find it easily, do you?

  10. N,

    another one who recalls these! Fascinating!

    Yes, the soap idea is a good one. I have seen it implemented, although didn't actually use it (see comment to Bittergrace above). Any preference as to soap smell?

  11. K,

    some bottle is the standard in nice hotels here too. But it's very rare that people not wear fragrance where I am, especially when going out. I smell the sillage of people very often. We're a pro-perfume country on the whole.
    I think the American pastel-hued machines are especially retro in a David Lynch Blue Velvet kinda way, don't you?

  12. Anon,

    thanks for confirming and wow, White Shoulders, talk about a trip down memory lane, quite a retro selection! It must have been a nice experience to actually see this. Maybe it will come to you where it was exactly...(hope so!)

  13. Anonymous03:04

    shoot, we don't even get tampon and sanitary napkin machines in most public restrooms anymore - so i don't see anything this genteel coming along anytime soon. at least, not in normal settings. maybe high-class joints would have them. would love to see them everywhere, though. along with hand lotions, which you also rarely find.

    as someone mentioned, bathroom attendants with their trays of toiletries are the closest thing to this we see these days. and from what i've seen, most younger, modern women don't know what to make of the attendants, and don't know to tip them.

    p.s. if i had a perfume dispenser in my classy joint, i'd offer chanel no. 5, musc ravageur, coco mademoiselle, balmain ambre gris, and narciso rodriguez edt. :)

    - minette/scentsignals

  14. likewise- the kind of people who frequent places that offer you free scent are probably already wearing it... still it's a nice touch... I am not sure your standard Brit lady does wear scent every day though sadly- i do though- obviously! (unless I'm sick) gotta try and get through it all somehow!

    I actually really want one of those! I wonder if you can get them at antique shops in the states?

    Great find!

  15. I had a little flip through, there is probably a better example elsewhere, but in chapter 3 ...

    "Lenina got out of the bath, toweled herself dry, took hold of a long flexible tube plugged into the wall, presented the nozzle to her breast, as though she meant to commit suicide, pressed down the trigger. A blast of warmed air dusted her with the finest talcum powder. Eight different scents and eau-de-Cologne were laid on in little taps over the wash-basin. She turned on the third from the left, dabbed herself with chypre and, carrying her shoes and stockings in her hand, went out to see if one of the vibro-vacuum machines were free."

  16. Minette,

    the tampons/napkins machine (as well as the condoms one in the men's room) is much more useful, that's for sure! LOL

    It always makes an impression on me how really young people haven't learned how to tip! Tip is included in the service here when dining and drinking (of course you can leave something extra if you're satisfied!), but services such as the toilet attending (whether they offer a perfume or holding your coat for you) is always extra. You'd think they'd know that, since it's an optional service and not par-for-the-course like a waiter's, but obviously they don't. I blame parents...

    BTW, you'd offer a LOVELY selection. It'd be interesting to see how they react to these.

  17. K,

    from my own experiences in the UK, I'd say that perfume wearing isn't as frowned upon as in the US (and increasingly Canada, latter from what I hear). Last time I was there, I could clearly smell the Angel and the Coco Mademoiselle when ladies were out clubbing. It became a bit too much in summer. But I much prefered it than the smell of vomit or piss in the streets...

    I think a couple of these machines even end up on Ebay. There was one a while ago. Probably under miscellania or retro things, don't search for them in perfume category.

  18. P,

    a gal you can count on! Thanks, off to read chapter 3 again.

  19. I remember those! They were in the bathrooms in such department stores as May Co, Bullocks and Broadway. The frequently had not just the two perfumes you mention, but Arpege, White Shoulders and... and... damn, I can't remember the last one.

    I suspect that if they still existed, they'd all be full of fruity florals. I don't want to even think about being in that bathroom!

  20. I am certain I'd seen or perhaps used that red machine when I was a little girl. Seeing the photograph triggered something lurking in my memory, along with memories of my grandmother in her heavy black fur coat, her heavy black handbag with the tin of Pond's cold cream she was always reaching for, and the Automat. Thank you!

  21. Anonymous18:48

    I have one of these pink perfumatic machines to sell, does anyone know what they are worth? I'm in Oxford, England

  22. Anonymous :

    I am interested in purchasing a Perfumatic. Email me at crussell@ochsner.org ---thanks!!

  23. Anonymous :

    Interested in purchasing Perfumatic- email me at crussell@ochsner.org. -- thanks!!


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