07/20/2010 12:04 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Baby Boomer Brands: A Sniff Down Memory Lane

I was strolling down the drugstore lotion aisle the other day, the way you do when you need absolutely nothing but know you'll find something to buy. The Coppertone display caught my eye. Or rather, my nose. I opened a bottle and inhaled deeply, the once familiar scent provoking a crashing wave of happy beach memories -- the seedy boardwalk in Seaside Heights, NJ, the cute lifeguard from Red Bank and that wonderful dreamy state when you're half asleep on the beach, the sun's rays beating down, with peals of children's laughter, the lap of gentle waves and a far-off transistor radio as muffled crunchy footsteps pass by your towel, a little sand hitting your leg. I've always wondered at the olfactory sense and its ability to unleash long ago experiences in kaleidoscopic detail. I've actually done the Coppertone sniff in years past, so pleasant and visceral was the experience.

Of course, back in the 60s and 70s, before the happy advent of Bain de Soleil orange tanning gel (part tan, part stain), all we had was Coppertone. In fact, it was like "kleenex" then -- brand name as generic product name: "Pass the Coppertone." I used to get mightily sunburned back then, so I don't know if it actually contained sunscreen. If it did, it wasn't much, and "SPF" was far from the R&D horizon. Who uses Coppertone now? Apparently many, but I abandoned it long ago. They were late to the game in advanced sun protection and now compete mightily with Neutrogena. Their SPF race has them now both offering factor 100, which is maybe not so smart as they have nowhere else to go save creating a sun deflecting hazmat suit. But I digress.

I had other memories to evoke. I twisted open a jar of Noxzema -- mildly medicinal, but fresh and minty. The scent was high school personified, but with memories leaning towards the unpleasant; it was definitely not one of the best times of my life. Gangly and with braces (twice!), anxious about being accepted, shy around boys and resentful that I always seemed to be in ballet class -- decidedly not cool back then -- while my friends were having fun. Everyone else seemed to have an instruction book for life that I lacked. Thank God for small favors; I had good skin. I don't think it was really due to washing my face with Noxzema, but I did then. We used it on sunburns, too, which I think is a little like putting butter on a burn. I abandoned it for soap and water when I went off to college and never returned. Of course, now I need something with bells and whistles and maximum miraculous anti-aging properties.

I found a dusty bottle of Prell Shampoo in a shop a few years back. A quick sniff brought back visions of their TV ad: a well manicured hand -- grownup ladies had pointy, claw-like fingernails back then -- dropped a pearl into the bottle, which slowly and gracefully made its way to the bottom through the emerald green goo. "Thick" was its selling point, though I'm not sure how that related to its cleaning properties. I'd wash with it just once (I had a friend who actually followed the instructions to "wash-rinse-repeat") and then use my Breck conditioner.

My hair was the bane of my existence. Long, frizzy and unmanageable, there were no "products" back then. We didn't know not to comb frizzy hair between washings, which just made it worse. Brushing your hair 100 times a night was the prevailing wisdom of the day. Think Monica in the Friends episode when they were in the super humid Caribbean. I exacerbated the problem by getting a shag haircut in eighth grade -- the short, curly top layer taking until junior year to grow out. I was not a boy magnet.

In the perfume aisle, a whiff of Charlie perfume reminded me why I didn't wear it. Jovan Musk, a smell I still like and which spoke to my inner-hippie rather than Charlie's carefree sophisticate, brought back parties in the woods with guys who could by booze, scrambling for rides home and crushes on boys who didn't crush back. You have to take the good with the bad when it comes to olfactory recall.

I stopped into a liquor store to see if they still carried the Boomer brands. I found Boone's Farm, which was a popular tipple among teenage girls, and now apparently a minor cultural icon. It has a fan appreciation site and has been memorialized in song, verse and on screen. There's even a Boone's Farm cake, (click here for recipe!). But my favorite was the higher test Tango, a curious mix of flat orange soda and vodka favored by teenagers and skid row drunks. It was sure to get you drunk, and almost as sure to make you throw up, particularly mixed with beer, Cheez Doodles and a joint.

These days, a nice run in the park or a little mediation are more likely to calm me down. But I'm considering keeping a bottle of Coppertone handy for when I'm feeling blue. Directions for use: "Smell-rhapsodize-repeat."