Jacqueline Johnson's Classic Perfume Advertising features a collection of 370 color prints published in American and French magazines between 1920 and 1970. I’ve always admired the work of illustrators from the 1920s and ‘30s, so when I found this book on Amazon for a little under $29, I didn't think twice about ordering it. Although there are many print ad collections on the net nowadays, I prefer to browse through them in a nice, large book. I was also curious about the stories behind these ads, the people who created them, and the impact they had on the public. How did time affect universal themes in perfume advertising, like romance, sensuality, luxury, and elegance? I had high hopes for this book, and was really looking forward to it. But when my copy finally came in the mail, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed.
What you get for your 29 dollars is a book with a lot of beautiful illustrations indeed. Print ads for big houses like Coty, Guerlain, Lanvin, Lelong, Caron, Patou, and Schiaparelli, but also companies we seldom read about, like Lenthéric, or defunct brands I had never heard of: Ellyn Deleith, Marie Earle, Hattie Carnegie, and Mary Dunhill, for example. In the back of the book you’ll also find a small collection of carded samples and soap labels. A dearly missed brand in Johnson’s collection is Chanel, but there are plenty of dedicated Chanel books to make up for that.
What cannot be excused is the poor research that went into this book. The captions provide little or no useful information to the reader, and in far too many cases, the origins of the ads and the names of their illustrators remain unknown. There are errors in historical dates, and the names of several key figures in the industry are consistently misspelled. Which brings me to another problem: the manuscript for this book was obviously not edited before it went to the printers. There are tons of typos (even in product names and brands) that could have been easily avoided. Some of the captions in the last section of the book contain layout instructions instead of normal text. Unless they've shipped the wrong copy, I have to say that the final product is unfinished, and useless as a reference book.
And it doesn't end there. The "price guide" mentioned on the cover is little else than a short comment, five sentences to be exact, on the value of print ads in magazines. The information is so scarce and vague that it will hardly be of use to anyone who is starting a collection of their own; some practical hints (what to look for, what to avoid) would have been welcome. As for the general introduction to this book, I think it fails to give a good impression of what advertising is about.
Enough with the negativity. Despite its flaws and shortcomings, Johnson’s book is great fun to browse through. It’s in dire need of a thorough revision, but if you manage to look beyond that, there’s some great stuff in there to discover on your own. If you’re still interested, I’d recommend picking up a copy from your local library.
Jacqueline Johnson lives in Portland, Oregon. She founded Becker Street Antiques together with her husband, and is a member of the International Perfume Bottle Association.
Classic Perfume Advertising 1920-1970
Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd (2007)
Hardcover, 192 pages