Jessica Helfand | Essays

Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Four

Part One : Desertion

On March 21, 1920, Ezra and Vera had their third child, a daughter they named Jeannette. Six months later, on October 15, 1920, Ezra packed his bags and left. It would take five years for the divorce to become final, years Vera and the children spent in Chicago and later, in Chappaqua, New York. 

Excerpts from newspapers: left, The New York Times, and right, The Chicago Tribune

Like many, if not most married women of her generation, Vera did not work, and she relied somewhat fanatically upon her monthly settlement. Over the course of more than fifty years, she would continue to write frequently to Ezra, often demanding and threatening him, nearly always seeking something more: she had an exalted sense of entitlement, and seemed to care little for or about Ezra's life and work. Their relationship over the years was caustic and slippery, and their correspondence over time reflects the strain of managing their family, their finances, and their wounded feelings. In a letter to Vera during the summer of 1922, Ezra writes: I promise to love and cherish you as much as is reasonable. I regret I must add the "reasonable" but that is a reservation which you put in. It takes all of the meaning out of the first part of this sentence — just as it did to all you promised me.

Left, the three Winter girls with Vera's mother, Ella, about 1925; right, a copy of the divorce decree

Between 1920 and 1925, Winter received numerous private and public commissions for work that obliged him to work around the clock: there were ceiling decorations and pendatives, wall hangings and banners, travel and research and strategic, highly technical studies in construction and process — all of which required a level of extraordinary attention to detail and sustained stamina. Ezra Winter worked hard.

But he wasn't the only one.

Part Two : Perspiration

A respected ear, nose and throat doctor in his home town of Cincinnati, Dr. Abraham Murphey had noticed that during surgery, his hands were given to untimely outbursts of perspiration, obliging him to wear gloves that reduced — but did little to eliminate — the discomfort. Further research revealed that his was not an isolated case, and when he questioned his peers, they, too confessed to sweaty palms, particularly when operating.

While the topic of so called unmentionables was seldom discussed in polite company, Dr. Murphey’s teenage daughter Edna knew all too well that perspiration was the scourge of modern women. This was, after all, an age in which dresses were long and necklines unyielding: even bathing costumes came with tights. Could there be a broader appeal for an antiperspirant, she wondered? Could it appeal to women?

A typical "bathing costume" from 1911

Guileless, she took it upon herself to reframe her father’s mission. She borrowed $150 from her grandfather, setting up shop her family’s basement where she procured bottles and labels, wrote letters and designed circulars, and went door-to-door canvassing her new product, which she called “Odo-ro-no,” (a play on the words “Odor, oh no!”).

In the summer of 1912, young Edna took a booth at an Atlantic City exposition, which lasted the better part of the season. Initially, there was scarce interest in her home-brewed elixir, but young Edna persevered: as the heat grew more intense, interest in her product increased, and sales skyrocketed. She knew she was onto something.

The Atlantic City boardwalk, from a 1912 postcard

With what she received in payment, Edna reinvested in her fledgling company, finding regional distributors and buying local advertisements in the towns where there appeared to be greater interest, beginning in Cincinnati and moving quickly to Chattanooga. Before long, sales of Odorono had spread across the country. Initially, she partnered with a friend to produce the ads (Edna herself wrote all the copy) but soon recognized the limitations of her own capacity. 

An early advertisement for the Cincinnati-based Odorono Company

In the spring of 1914, Dr. Murphey received Patent 96,159 (for “toilet water preventing excessive perspiration”) and soon afterward, Edna decided to find a proper advertising agency. The story of Odorono’s meteoric rise from that point forward can perhaps be largely attributed to a posse of marketing strategists at J. Walter Thompson whose research led to repositioning the product less as a function of personal hygiene than as a perfumed beauty aid, but it also testifies to the future Mrs. Ezra Winter’s ability to both embrace and celebrate change. Initially, the shifts in direction led to ads that were, at the time, quite daring: the very subject of a underarm hygiene was thought highly inappropriate, and when published in such popular magazines as Ladies Home Journal, Odorono’s ads led to significant public outcry. In 1919 alone, there were hundreds of subscription cancellations. At the same time, sales of the product went up 112% that year. [1]

Undaunted by controversy, the young entrepreneur soldiered on, and her audience rose to the occasion: by 1920, ads were running in all the high-end womens’ magazines, perspiration was no longer framed as a fearful affliction, and sales had more than doubled. Murphey’s artistic aspirations moved steadily forward, emboldened by her increasing sophistication on matters that were likely guided by her JWT advisors. She worked with the best creative teams, redesigned her labels and even secured the Albanian photojournalist Gjon Mili to shoot a story for Life Magazine.

Still from a Gjon Mili photo shoot for Life Magazine, probably early 1930s

Some decades later, Pete Townshend wrote a song in her honor, which was released on his band’s 1967 album, The Who Sell Out. The song tells the story of a successful starlet whose dream of true love is torpedoed when her intended discovers her body odor. It ends with the lyric:

Her deodorant had let her down: she should have used Odorono.

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Over the course of the next decade, Edna traveled frequently to Paris, where she noticed that stylish French women were partial to wearing colorless nail polish. Intrigued, she bought the formula, tinted it, and borrowed money to place six small ads in the U.S. edition of Vogue. “The lovely glimmer given to the nails by Glazo is neither too deeply pink nor too pale — just cleverly in-between,” noted an advertisement in a 1929 issue of Photoplay. ” A natural, soft radiance that is subtly sophisticated ... utterly new and correct... ... giving new eloquence to the whole hand.”

Advertisement for Glazo nail lacquer, 1920s

Advertisements for Glazo nail lacquer, 1930s

A more sophisticated, international ad for Glazo

Glazo was an overnight sensation, and in conjunction with the ongoing success of Odorono, kept Edna extremely busy. These products also made her rich: in January of 1929, Edna Murphey merged both companies with Northam Warren, netting her the tidy sum of 3.5 million dollars. 

The New York Times reported on the merger in January of 1929

Ten months before the stock market crash of 1929, Edna Murphey was widely acknowledged to be one of America’s foremost experts in health and beauty. She was also, it must be said, extremely wealthy.

How she met Ezra Winter is uncertain, as is the story of her first marriage to a man whose surname was Albert. But Edna became Pat, and Murphey became Albert, and in July of 1932, Edna Patricia Murphey Albert married Ezra Winter and became Mrs. Patricia Winter. Her career as a cosmetics mogul behind her, she retired from active duty, only to reinvent herself once again — as a farmer, who would go on to build an herbal empire that she would sell in the 1950s to McCormick Spices. And that journey was only just beginning.

The Ezra Winter Project Archive >>

[1]  Odorono Company 1925-1936 Account Histories, Box 13 of 21, Account Files, J. Walter Thompson Collection, Hartman Center for Marketing Advertising and History. (Source: “Odor, Oh No! Advertising Deodorant and the New Science of Psychology, 1910 to 1925. Juliann Sivulka, Waseda University, Tokyo Japan.)

Comments [1]

I work at a national park where Ezra Winter's work is a significant part of the monument to George Rogers Clark. I read once that Ezra's last name was Winters and at 21 he changed it to Winter. Your study will add greatly to our paltry information we have about Mr. Winter. Thank you.

Jobs | July 12