Bath Cubes and Talcum Powder: The smells of yesteryear

Mar 11, 2022
Does talcum powder transport you? Source: Getty

Ripping off the pretty wrapping paper to find several small cubes wrapped in cellophane and ribbons, smelling strongly of flowers, or the telltale squishy cardboard cylinder of talcum powder – these were the gifts we would often receive when I was very young. Who can remember the slowly dissolving bath cube with the hot tap pouring over it as the bath filled up? Having a bath was a treat so this was something we looked forward to as showers used less water. I hated showers though as the slimy nylon curtain would cling to my legs. Back to the bath cube. Maybe the water would become slightly cloudy and the fragrance would permeate the steamy room. Sitting in the bath it would feel slightly gritty, but I wouldn’t complain as this was such a highlight to our bath time.

And then the liberal application of talcum powder which would spread to the bathroom floor or wherever you chose to shake it over yourself. And that was it. I smelt nice and would put on my pyjamas and get ready for bed, still smelling the fragrance of flowers as I snuggled up to read a book and hug my teddy bear.

But bath cubes and talcum powder are rarely seen these days. Bath cubes have been superseded by bath bombs which are usually balls infused with flower petals and a strong fragrance. I’m not much of a fan as they smell so strong and I’d guess most are imitating the smell of flowers with the use of chemicals. And talcum powder. Johnson and Johnson’s baby powder was found to be contributing to Ovarian cancer in women. Also, the rise of the use of deodorants and body moisturisers has made them less popular. Consumers want to know what they are putting on their bodies. Is it toxic or not? We’ve become a nation of label readers. 

But remembering the bathroom cabinet of my childhood. There was not much in there. We can all probably remember the comforting smell of Vicks Vaporub. Probably Calamine lotion and some Savlon. The vile ‘Lane’s Emulsion’ which mum would spoon into our reluctant mouths most mornings. Dad had his ‘Old Spice’ and Brylcream. Mum had her Yardly ‘April Violets’ perfume and Cyclax makeup. My big sisters had mysterious makeup bags which I was forbidden to touch. The oldest sister had cake mascara in a little box which she would use to enhance her lashes. Also, eyeliner carefully painted on. Both had their own fragrance. Catching a whiff of any of these smells takes me back to my childhood. Dad freshly shaved and smelling of ‘Old Spice’ his hair slick with Brylcreem.

Mum wafting out the front door leaving a fragrant trail of ‘April Violets’. And if she kissed me I could smell her Cyclax makeup. And the pungent odour of hair spray liberally applied. After she died I would often pause at the chemist to have a nostalgic sniff to remember her.

When we compare the botox, infills, dermabrasion and plastic surgery on offer today, the old days seemed far simpler. I can still remember hugs from my Godmother Aunty Ollie. She would wear a fur coat and smelt very exotic. Mum made hand lotion from Palmolive soap and glycerine. It would be mixed up in the kitchen mixer. It looked like meringue (but didn’t taste like it – I know because I sampled it one day). She would rub it on her cracked heels. Smelling Palmolive soap today takes me right back to that memory.

We even had a nun at school called Sister Pascal. She would give us girls money to go to the chemist to buy her ‘Second Debut’ skin cream. We would have a bit of a surreptitious sniff on the way back to see what it smelt like. I don’t think it was allowed in the convent but she seemed to get away with it – poor old thing.

Today we even have fragrances for our homes. Certain smells can evoke all sorts of reactions. Aromatherapy has become very popular. Citrus smells are uplifting. I myself dab on lavender oil at night to help me sleep, as well as spraying my pillow with lavender spray. 

Sometimes there is a certain hint of a fragrance or smell which catapults me back to childhood. We can be such nostalgic creatures and I suppose we have an olfactory memory which can take us back to certain times. What fragrances take you back to your childhood? 

What's a smell that's takes you back to another time?

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