My father met my mother in Germany after the war, when he was in the occupation force. The Nazis had taken her from her home in Hungary and forced her to work in a ball-bearing factory. This bottle of French perfume was an early gift from him to her. I always thought the container was an odd choice for perfume: can you tell me more?
—Bill Hogan, Falls Church, Va.
French perfumer Marc Fael utilized an utterly unexpected vehicle for the packaging of his fine fragrance, “My Jerrycan.” Fael’s perfume, produced and sold in the immediate postwar years, married a glamorous fragrance with a very unglamorous piece of gear. The “Jerry can” was a German military canister (Wehr-macht-Einheitskanister) intended for one of the most precious and scarcest resources—fuel—but adapted later for many other purposes. The Allies reverse-engineered and adopted its stackable, leakproof design; ads for the perfume played on the motif, noting that the two-inch-tall container was “non-spillable for the purse.”
Your father may have stood in a long line for this delightful gift. After the liberation of Paris and into the postwar years, American forces were eager to experience the French capital. One of the most sought-after souvenirs of the European Theater was a bottle of real French perfume. Often, one serviceman or woman on leave would be charged with bringing bottles back for others in their company or crew.
The National WWII Museum’s archives contain a letter written by Private First Class Herman Obermayer to his mother on June 15, 1945, that tells of an afternoon perfume excursion in Paris: “Almost every store is out of the famous name brands, but if they have a little there is always a long line, about 80% of which is made up of American soldiers. After going to a couple of stores probably would of decided that there were better ways to spend an afternoon than in perfume shops, but I met a WAC who insisted on dragging me to Coty, Chanel, Houghbigant [sic], Tabu, Guerlain, Arden, Patou, and about a dozen more whose names were longer, but who were also sorry that they had nothing to offer.”
In 1946, this fragrance cost $12.50—nearly $200 today. Factor in the extreme deprivation of war experienced by so many, and perfume seemed even more luxurious. It was the scent of an earlier time, a normal time, but with a trace of war remaining.
The container is a story unto itself, but your parents’ courtship and the circumstances of the gift add another dimension to this query—one worthy of researching and preserving—that left this reader wanting more.
—Kim Guise, Senior Curator and Director for Curatorial Affairs, The National WWII Museum
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Kirstin Fawcett and HistoryNet staff April 8, 2022 at 11:17PM