Q: Recently, I seem to be noticing more ads again for Mitchum antiperspirant, which reminds me of a question I’ve had for decades. I have some friends who tell me it was named for actor Robert Mitchum, but they have no proof. Can you settle this?
Don Matthews, of Swansea
No sweat. Like your friends, speculation over a possible Tinseltown link still runs rampant on the Internet. You don’t have to search hard to find lengthy, heated arguments over whether the company stole his name, why the actor did not sue and the minutiae of trademark laws.
At first glance, it makes sense. First marketed in 1959, the deodorant came out when the then 42-year-old actor was still in the midst of his Hollywood heyday. After a 1945 Oscar nomination for “The Story of G.I. Joe,” Mitchum became a screen fixture in more than 110 films, including the original “Cape Fear,” “The Enemy Below” and “The Longest Day.” Who wouldn’t want to associate their product with a hard-working man ranked 23rd on the American Film Institute’s 50 greatest American screen legends of all time?
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But as it turns out, the story of this product began far from the glitz of La La Land in the small town of Paris, Tenn., population 9,325, where, as you might guess, a whole nother Mitchum family lived.
In the early 1900s, four red-haired sisters named Mabel, Maude, Nell and Annie Mitchum acquired formulas for a bleaching cream from a local woman. One of these proved effective in covering freckles, a skin blemish loathed at a time when milky white complexion was the ideal. Eventually, Nell Mitchum would marry William Warren, who, with his father and his wife’s brothers-in-law, started the Paris Toilet Co. in 1913.
After World War I, the company started to take off as its array of face powders, rouges and creams became increasingly popular. Many of these were branded as Golden Peacock, a trademark William Warren hit on while wandering through Broadway in New York and spying a black velvet theater curtain with a gold peacock on it. In January 1928, Warren changed the entire company name to Golden Peacock.
In the meantime, Warren paid homage to his wife’s family by naming a son Mitchum. In the early 1950s, Mitchum Warren could not resist renaming the company after himself and his ancestry — Mitchum. So much for the Hollywood link, although the coincidence probably didn’t hurt sales any from a name recognition standpoint.
Which brings me to the origin of the company’s flagship product. In October 1957, Bill McNutt was working as a pharmacist at Hamlet Drug Store in Paris when who should walk in but Mitchum Warren ready to offer McNutt a job to formulate and test new products, according to a 2004 Paris Post-Intelligencer story.
While McNutt was settling in, Warren made a trip to the West Coast, where he learned of a popular antiperspirant that was nonetheless both poorly formulated and packaged. When he returned, he gave McNutt a Herculean task: Concoct a new antiperspirant that was more effective in controlling wetness and odor, was safe for clothing (the West Coast stuff ate through fabric), was less irritating, was a water-clear liquid, was attractively packaged and had no fragrance. And, oh, yes, Warren probably wanted it yesterday.
“This sounded impossible to me,” McNutt told the Post-Intelligencer.
And, for a while, it was. He remembered one Friday afternoon when he thought he had whipped up the perfect formula, so he poured a small sample in a glass vial and left it on his desk, ready to show it off the following week. But when he returned on Monday, he found that the sunlight that had poured through the window all weekend had turned the liquid purple. Knowing consumers didn’t want purple underarms, he went back to the drawing board.
Finally, he came up with another antibacterial agent that was not light-sensitive and, as it turned out, was more effective than his purple formula. The result was Mitchum Anti-Perspirant, which changed national demand from deodorants to antiperspirants. McNutt remembered ordering 2,500 pieces for the product’s first run. In no time at all, the company was ordering a million cartons at a time.
Postcript: Mitchum Warren did not have long to enjoy the success of his namesake product, dying suddenly in 1967 at age 59. Within a couple of years, Warren’s company was sold to Revlon. In about 2007, Revlon dropped the product’s widely known marketing tagline, “So effective you can skip a day.”
How did Revlon get into trouble for its Mitchum advertisements in 1990?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: In 1913, Donerail defied seemingly insurmountable odds to become the highest paying winner in Kentucky Derby history. The betting was 91-to-1 of Donerail winning, but after being restrained until the stretch turn, the 3-year-old moved up “with a rush” and under the guidance of jockey Roscoe Goose drew away in the last sixteenth for the upset victory. A $2 bet returned $184.90, the largest payout for a winner in Derby history. Runners-up were Mine That Bird in 2009 (50-1 odds, paid $103.20) and Giacomo in 2005 (50-1 odds, paid $102.60). The Derby win along with the Hamilton Cup were the highlights of Donerail’s 62-race career, which included 10 wins, 11 places and 10 shows for career earnings of $15,156. He was put to stud in 1917, commanding a fee of $50 (about $2,500 today).