culture

The fascinating origins of the pine tree air freshener

A mainstay in cars since the 1950s, this little scented tree started a global movement.

We've grown accustomed to seeing them hanging from rear-view mirrors the world over, but few people have stopped to consider how and why the now-iconic pine tree air freshener came to be.

The origins of this car fixture can actually be traced all the way back to 1952, when it emerged as the brainchild of a German-Jewish chemist called Julius Sämann.

To avoid persecution during the Holocaust, Sämann fled his hometown of Uffenheim, Germany, for Canada, where he studied the aromatic compounds found in the pine needles of Canada's evergreens for five years.

Eventually, he learned how to extract essential oils from these pine trees and was able to capture their scent using a special type of blotting paper.

Thus, in 1952 when a milkman from Watertown, New York, complained to Sämann that his delivery truck smelled of sour milk after a spill, the chemist was spurred into action.

Combining the essential oils from the pine trees with his specialised blotting paper, Sämann fashioned the two into the air freshener as we know it today.

According to Arnold Clark, Sämann filed a patent in 1954 for paper infused with “odour-destroying, air-perfuming substances,” that hung on a string and came in a cellophane wrapper.

Of course, it came in the shape of a pine tree, in a nod to the Canadian forests Sämann spent much of his life studying.

To this day, the original pine tree air freshener is sold by the company Sämann founded, Little Trees, which is still headquartered in the town that started it all: Watertown, New York.

When it first launched, the only fragrances offered were Royal Pine, Spice, and Bouquet, but the range has since extended to include over 60 scents.

Little Trees now exports its products all over the world – in Europe, they are sold under the Wunder-Baum brand or the Arbre Magique brand.

However, the exact components of the air fresheners remain a closely guarded secret, with Stuart Watson, Sales and Marketing Director for Little Trees Europe, telling Arnold Clark: "All the components of course are of the highest quality to ensure performance and safety.”

Sämann himself passed away in 1999 at the age of 88. According to a 2015 NPR report, Little Trees sells roughly USD$100 million worth of product globally every year.

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