A Fresh Breath

Listerine advertisement from 1928. The Household Magazine.

Open almost any medicine cabinet in America and you’re likely to find a panoply of unctions, gels, pastes, and ointments ready to improve your life: they provide whiter teeth, softer hair, cleaner skin, and, of course, fresher breath. There’s history in that bottle of Listerine, a tale of an antiseptic solution that—almost inadvertently—created an industry and helped fundamentally redefine how consumers viewed their own bodies.

The story begins with Joseph Lister, the English doctor who pioneered antiseptic surgery. In 1865 he’d shown that surgical dressings soaked in carbolic acid significantly reduced rates of infection, which at the time killed nearly half of all major-surgery patients. He’d taken his inspiration from Louis Pasteur’s theories of microbial infection; Lister’s efforts in turn inspired Joseph Lawrence, who, working in St. Louis, set out to develop his own surgical antiseptic.

By 1879 Lawrence had settled on an alcohol-based formula of eucalyptol, menthol, methyl salicylate, and thymol. He named it Listerine in the great man’s honor. But Lawrence wanted to go beyond the medical profession’s surgical needs. His Listerine could do more than just sterilize gauze: he recommended it as an all-purpose germicide, useful for cleaning cuts and scrapes, killing athlete’s-foot fungus, and even treating dandruff.

Soon after, Lawrence licensed the Listerine formula to a local pharmacist named Jordan Wheat Lambert. The formula was a trade secret, and Lambert agreed to pay for as long as he or his new venture, the Lambert Pharmacal Company, used it. He died in 1889, at age 38, but his company lived on, managed by family trustees. By 1895 Listerine became “a pharmaceutical specialty for dentists,” described as “Antiseptic, Prophylactic, Deodorant, Non-Toxic, Non-Irritant, Non-Escharotic, Absolutely Safe, Agreeable, Scientific and Strictly Professional.” The packaging, aimed at dentists, also noted that “Listerine destroys promptly all odors emanating from diseased gums and teeth.”

Doctors also began to prescribe Listerine as a treatment for colds and sore throats (a use declared ineffective by the Federal Trade Commission only in 1975). Its popularity led to an over-the-counter launch in 1914, further expanding the market. Lambert Pharmacal had built a brand that was successful and respected, if not spectacular.

Only after Gerard Lambert joined the company did Listerine become a fixture in America’s bathrooms. The second-youngest son of Jordan Wheat Lambert, Gerard had lived a life of relative ease until a bad business deal left him debt-ridden and sent him back to his father’s company. He quickly began looking for ways to increase profits: he started by adjusting the manufacturing process to avoid taxes on alcohol; he then cut out the middleman who’d supplied Listerine’s corks, and he found a way to produce cheaper corkscrews. Eventually he trained his sights on advertising. He hired a pair of Chicago copywriters and batted ideas around. When his brother Marion repeatedly suggested Listerine as a bad-breath cure, Lambert scolded him for mentioning such an unseemly topic at a respectable meeting. Then he brought in the company chemist. In Gerard’s own words:

I asked him if Listerine was good for bad breath. He excused himself for a moment and came back with a big book of newspaper clippings. He sat in a chair and I stood looking over his shoulder. He thumbed through the immense book.

“Here it is, Gerard. It says in this clipping from the British Lancet that in cases of halitosis . . .” I interrupted, “What is halitosis?” “Oh,” he said, “that is the medical term for bad breath.”

[The chemist] never knew what had hit him. I bustled the poor old fellow out of the room. “There,” I said,” is something to hang our hat on.”

Halitosis became almost a magic word to the company. It supplied a euphemism for the impolite “bad breath,” one having the sheen of medical precision. The company’s advertising created and named a need most consumers didn’t realize they had; indeed, the earliest advertising warned readers that even their closest friends wouldn’t dare mention such dreadful words. “Halitosis makes you unpopular,” they declared, and recommended Listerine “Every morning. Every night. And between times when necessary, especially before meeting others.” Lovelorn women looked out from photographs captioned, “Often a bridesmaid but never a bride.” Of course, men could suffer from halitosis too, leaving a young woman to wonder in another ad, “Could I be happy with him in spite of that?

Lambert fully committed the company to such advertising. Between 1922 and 1929 the company’s yearly earnings rose from $115,000 to over $8 million (although the company spent over $5 million on advertising). The influx of cash allowed it to experiment with new products like Listerine Tooth Paste. Lambert shrugged off the company chemist’s concerns, knowing that in the end all that mattered was the advertising. Soon afterward he left to found his own ad agency.           

For over 130 years Listerine has remained essentially the same; certainly the chemistry hasn’t changed. But clever advertising changed Listerine’s place in society: it introduced consumers to halitosis, the insidious, fearsome enemy one product could easily vanquish. It created the mouthwash market and paved the way for an entire breath-management industry. Rivals like Scope—a solution of cetylpyridinium chloride, domiphen bromide, and alcohol—have found their own success, but largely in the shadow of Listerine, that iconic amber liquid that started it all.

Jesse Hicks has taught in the Science, Technology, and Society program at Pennsylvania State University.