There’s a saying: “everything old is new again”. Which, when it comes to fashion is totally true. Take cologne: when I was in high school in the 80s, Old Spice was the tackiest thing imaginable. No guy – no matter if he was a jock, redneck, goth, skater or nerd – woulda been caught dead wearing the stuff. Yet somehow it’s “retro” and “hip” again. Go figure.
This is great, because bay rum – the classic American cologne and aftershave – is one of my favorite scents. But I bet you didn’t know where it comes from… which is actually pretty cool.
It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that sailors in the 1500s didn’t smell great. Contrary to what you might have heard, Europeans did bathe more frequently than you probably think they did. Except sailors. Even then they knew that bathing in salt water wasn’t fun, and there usually wasn’t enough fresh water on a ship to allow people to bathe. So while there were occasional sponge baths on a ship, sailors didn’t truly “bathe” until they ended up on land somewhere.
But at some point, early in the 1500s, sailors in the Caribbean discovered the West Indian bay leaf – pimenta racemosa (this is a different plant than the “bay leaf” you put in soups and stews; that’s the bay laurel leaf, laurus nobilis). Sailors noticed that the West Indian leaf contained a pleasant smelling oil that, when rubbed on the body, had a patchouli-like effect. Say what you will about patchouli, but I’d rather smell a sailor who hasn’t bathed in 6 months drenched in patchouli than one not drenched in patchouli.
Sugar plantations soon took over the Caribbean, and by the early 1600s some plantation owners discovered that their slaves had been secretly making a weak liquor out of molasses, one of the byproducts of sugar production. Intrigued, the owners took the drink and distilled it, thus making it far stronger and removing impurities present in the original drink. Although legend says that this liquor was first made on the island of Barbados, proof exists that it was being made a bit earlier in Brazil. Either way, the drink then called rumbullion took off, first in Colonial America, then Britain, then around the world via the Royal Navy.
We don’t know who it was – some evidence suggests a sailor, other suggests it was a merchant somewhere in the Caribbean – but either way someone, somewhere got the idea of steeping West Indian bay leaves in rum. That way it could be splashed on like a cologne, and the sailor wouldn’t have to rub leaves on his skin like a weirdo.
From there, the stuff can be traced to St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. A merchant – most likely a Dane named A. H. Riise – got the idea of adding citrus peel, cinnamon and cloves to the bay leaf-rum mix, then straining it and selling it as a ready-to-use cologne. Other Caribbean merchants invented their own particular blends. From there it spread to New York City, then to the rest of the United States, before heading over to Europe.
And the rest, as they say, is history. For decades, American barber shops reeked of the stuff, along with the heavenly smell of Clubman talc. Bay Rum kinda fell out of favor in the 1960s, but is an awesome, manly scent that surely deserves a Renaissance!