For as long as there have been places where people have lived and worked, there has been a need and desire for them to smell fresh, clean and inviting.

In modern workplaces, this is the role of the industrial air freshener, and given the connection between scent and productivity, the right-smelling office can make all the difference.

Getting to that point, however, has taken nearly a century and a range of complex and controversial technical developments, but the development of the air freshener as we know it today is the result of thousands of years of trial and error.


Tapputi And Historical Conflation

An oversimplification that many people often make when attempting to chronicle the history of air fresheners is to rely heavily on modern categorisation and definitions.

For example, whilst modern air fresheners and perfumes are treated as completely different product categories with fundamentally different uses, up until the 20th-century perfume was used far more broadly to describe any fresh scents, whether used to clean people or entire rooms.

The term itself originates from the Latin expression “through smoke”, which suggests that early perfumes were used in a manner far closer to incense, a burning fragrance that has been used since Ancient Egypt and Babylon.

This brings us to Mesopotamia, one of the first civilisations in history, and Tapputi-Belatekallim, the world’s first chemist and perfume maker on record.

Whilst a lot of this early information has unfortunately been lost, including half of the name of her lead researcher “(—)-ninu”, she was known to use filters and distilleries to extract the essence of flowers, as well as balsam, myrrh and calamus, techniques far ahead of their time.

She also was held in such high regard she received the rank of “Royal Overseer”, emphasising the importance of perfume and fresh air in Mesopotamia.

For the next three millennia up until the 20th century, the primary way to mask and remove smells was to replace them with carefully developed smells, and it would take until a radically new technology to fundamentally change this.


Dawn Of The Bug Bomb

In 1790, self-pressurised carbonated beverages were first introduced onto French shop shelves, forming the genesis of a technology that would eventually become the aerosol spray, by way of exceptionally bulky spray canisters.

That changed in 1927 when Norwegian chemical engineer Erik Rotheim developed an aerosol technology which used a chemical propellent to dispense various kinds of fluids as aerosol solutions. However, it took another 14 years for it to start being effectively used.

Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan, both chemists and innovators at the United States Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine, refined Mr Rotheim’s design to create the modern aerosol canister.

At the time, it was known as the bug bomb and was quickly used in the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War. Filled with insecticide, it was a portable defence for soldiers from mosquitoes carrying malaria and has since been credited as a part of the Allies’ victory.

More importantly, the technology’s development, rapid maturation and proven success meant that it was a ready-made technology that as soon as it was declassified could be applied to consumer products unrelated to the military.


First Scent Off The Blocks

A lot of articles exploring the history of air fresheners are somewhat incomplete. They claim that the bug bomb technology was adapted to spray fragrances instead of insecticides in 1948, but do not cite a source or an inventor.

It turns out that part of the problem is that the date is incorrect, and commercial air fresheners were invented a whole two years earlier than this.

In 1946, a year after the fall of the Axis powers, Bob Surloff of Surco Products developed the first air freshener dispenser.

This technology, sold under the brand Air-Scent, used a fan-powered diffuser to gently diffuse smells into a room in the same way a lot of modern industrial strength air fresheners do, and the company has endured to this day.

However, whilst also innovating in the field of smells, they also proved that a market exists for products that make an area smell good rather than just a person, and we started to see a range of new products emerge from later market leaders such as Air Wick, Renuzit and later Glade.

Some have endured to this day, whilst others have seen significant changes as technologies have improved, and taken the form of active sprays, diffusers and more passive fresheners as well.


Happy Little Trees

Little Trees, also known as Wunder-Baum in most of Europe and formerly known as Magic Tree in the UK, are a popular and familiar brand of air fresheners styled to look like evergreen trees originally developed in 1952.

Julius Samann wanted to help a milk truck driver avoid the smell of spilt spoiled milk and combined a range of fragrances with a blotter material he had devised, making a tiny passive air freshener that could be used in vehicles.

Whilst the range has expanded, the general design and style of these air fresheners have continued to be popular to this day.

However, this was not the case for all air fresheners.


The Big Aerosol Change

Modern aerosol air fresheners are fundamentally different from those invented in the 1940s and 1950s, and the biggest reason for this is concerns about the propellant chemicals used to make them work.

Before their devastating effects were known most aerosols used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a chemical that when released into the atmosphere contributed to the depletion of the ozone layer, leading to bans starting in the late 70s that spread to 140 countries in 1992.

Instead of CFCs, other propellants are used instead that have far less of an effect on the environment, and a lot of the scent technology and fragrance concepts devised thousands of years ago have been rediscovered in order to provide more natural air freshening technology.

Alternatively, fan-based diffusers are still highly popular in larger settings, as well as simple non-propellant sprays and atomisers such as those used for perfumes are also an alternative in smaller settings.

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