Pepper Spray's Progressive Origins

The government's favorite air freshener is also a tool of individual empowerment.


In late September, a New York cop started spritzing Occupy Wall Street protestors with the predatory zeal of a Macy's fragrance demonstrator dispensing free samples of Kim Kardashian's latest perfume. Then, Seattle's finest chemically neutralized an 84-year-old grannie. Next there was Lt. John Pike in central California, quelling a very quiet riot on the campus of UC Davis. As a row of students huddled docilely against the machine to protest tuition hikes, Pike blasted them with the bored demeanor of a municipal maintenance worker blowing leaves off the sidewalk.

Now, perhaps, may not seem like the most auspicious time to champion pepper spray as a populist triumph, the eye-searing embodiment of some of America's most cherished ideals. But a landmark moment in the history of the personal defense spray industry recently passed with virtually no notice: Thirty years ago, in November 1981, Chemical Mace, pepper spray's predecessor, was made available to the public for the first time, in the state of Connecticut. And while the unwarranted actions of police officers like Lt. Pike have helped position pepper spray as the ruling elite's favorite air freshener, an efficient way to perk up the public square with the lush scent of compliance, the origins of Chemical Mace suggest far more progressive impulses.

The Chemical Mace story actually began in 1962. That's when a Pittsburgh physicist named Allan Litman started experimenting with chloraceptophenone (CN), the active ingredient in tear gas. His motivation, according to a 1968 New York Times article, was to "develop a product that could be used by women for their own protection." (An unsourced Wikipedia entry claims he started working on the project after his wife Doris was "threatened on the street.")

While Litman's intent smacks of paternalism—didn't the guns of the early 1960s work for women too?—it was also undeniably enlightened. Women were increasingly leading more independent lives at precisely the same time that crime rates were soaring. Litman, apparently, wanted to equip them with tools that could help protect their autonomy. Eventually he figured out how to mix a 1 percent solution of CN gas with various solvents and deploy it via a small aerosol spray can. Upon contact with an assailant, it caused burning, stinging, and grogginess, incapacitating him enough to allow the product's user to seek safety. But the symptoms only lasted half an hour or so, and ostensibly left no lasting injuries. While people who'd suffered its effects, physicians, and even some police departments would ultimately contest such claims, it was a weapon, essentially, that attempted to engineer restraint, mercy, and even forgiveness into its overall impact.

In 1965, a company called General Ordnance Equipment Corporation (GOEC) brought Litman's product to market. Apparently priorities had shifted in the intervening years. When "Chemical Mace" made its commercial debut, it was offered only to law enforcement agencies. Self-defense, rather than coercive power, remained the primary selling point: A 1967 New York Times article reported that Chemical Mace had initially been positioned "to protect policemen from attack." But the 1960s were an era of frequent public demonstrations that often escalated into violence, and as GOEC president John Campbell told the Times, Chemical Mace proved "more effective in riots than [the company] had anticipated."

It was an ideal product for the age of NASA, love-ins, and an increasingly image-based culture—technologically innovative, seemingly humane, and relatively media-genic, at least compared to a baton smacking a temple or an attack dog latching onto a peacenik's crotch.

GOEC had a hit on its hands. In approximately three years, it sold 250,000 cans to 4,000 police departments. The cans cost between $4.50 and $8.45 (in 1960s dollars) and the most popular model was shaped like a billy club. According to The New York Times, "more than 20,000 people [had] been doused with the incapacitating spray" by May 1968.

But none of these dousings were being done by women seeking to protect themselves. While Chemical Mace inspired knockoffs with names like Intruder and Rebuff that were marketed to the general public, they were generally regarded as ineffective. They took too long to produce a reaction. The reactions they did produce were not strong enough to fully incapacitate a determined assailant. Chemical Mace didn't stop every attacker either, of course, but it worked well enough to establish itself as a law enforcement staple, with GOEC selling millions of cans to thousands of police departments throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1981, however, Smith & Wesson, which had purchased GEOC, decided to finally offer Chemical Mace to civilians. In part this was because public demand for personal defense sprays had evolved into a market that was selling 10 million cans a year. In addition, Chemical Mace had become synonymous with defense sprays in general—to spray someone with an incapacitating chemical agent was to "mace" them—and company officials told The New York Times that their product "was being blamed for incidents in which other tear gases were being used unsuccessfully by crime victims."

At first, Chemical Mace was available only in Connecticut, but distribution increased to most states over time. Meanwhile, another similar product was evolving too. In 1960, two years before Allan Litman had started experimenting with CN gas, a pair of researchers at the University of Georgia, James H. Jenkins and Dr. Frank Hayes, D.V.M, had developed a spray using oleoresin capsicum (OC), a derivative of cayenne peppers. OC spray has a similar effect as Chemical Mace and other tear gas products—it causes a burning sensation in the eyes, tearing, temporary blindness, choking, gagging, restricted breathing, intense mucous flow, and loss of coordination.

In 1963, a product using their formula was marketed to consumers as Halt Animal Repellent. A year later, the U.S. Postal Service became a customer—letter carriers were suffering more than 7,000 dog bites per year at the time. A Washington Post article suggested that the spray could temporarily incapacitate dogs but would cause "no permanent harm to the dog or his eyes." Foreshadowing Fox News contributor Megyn Kelly, who recently described pepper spray as a "food product, essentially," the postmaster of Miami, Florida sprayed some Halt on a garden salad and ate it, presumably to convey its relative harmlessness.

While Halt proved to be at least somewhat effective on canines—the U.S. Postal Service continues to use it—no one initially thought to use OC spray as a defense against two-legged attackers. In 1977, however, a Florida businessman named Gardner Whitcomb started selling an OC spray called Cap-Stun via his company Luckey Police Products.

Whitcomb's first decade of business was so unsuccessful he had to sell his home at one point, but in 1987, Thomas W.W. Ward, an FBI agent in charge of Quantico's less-than-lethal weapons program, started testing Cap-Stun. In February 1989, he recommended that the FBI approve pepper spray for use by its agents. That summer, the FBI advised Ward to write a report about pepper spray for distribution to police departments around the country. Ward mentioned Cap-Stun by name in the report and Whitcomb, who'd been running his business out of his garage, was suddenly swamped with orders. In 1990, the Denver Post reported that more than 1,000 police departments had followed the FBI's lead and "switched from mace to Cap-Stun." In July 1990, Whitcomb told the Associated Press that he was producing 10,000 units a day, with 85 percent of his sales going to law enforcement agencies.

What Whitcomb didn't mention was that he was also writing checks to a company owned by Ward's wife, for "public relations work." From December 1989 through December 1990, Whitcomb paid a total of $57,500 to Ward's wife, and during this period, Ward continued to tout Cap-Stun's benefits at FBI training events. For not disclosing this conflict of interest to the agency, Ward would eventually receive a two-month sentence to federal prison.

By this time, however, pepper spray had already replaced Chemical Mace as the industry standard. It had a quicker reaction time than Chemical Mace and other tear gas products. It was considered to be more effective on individuals under the influence of alcohol and narcotics.

When Smith & Wesson first started selling Chemical Mace to the public in 1981, local police chiefs opposed the company's decision to do so. A decade later, when an increasing number of pepper spray products started coming to market, that process repeated itself. According to a 1993 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York and Wisconsin passed laws "at the urging of police" that made it illegal for individuals to possess such products. Other states required permits to obtain it or put restrictions on container sizes or the strength of the spray.

Such hindrances did little to inhibit the public's demand for pepper spray during this era, however. According to "industry sources" quoted in the Inquirer article, "manufacturers [had] marketed 40 new sprays [in 1992] and posted about $60 million in sales." And women were reportedly doing most of the buying—the president of the Association of Defense Spray Manufacturers told the Inquirer that "75 percent of all customers" were female. A 1994 New York Times article called pepper spray the "hottest must have item among female students at Rutgers University." In 1996, New York was the last state to legalize self-defense sprays for individual use. "A common theme among men inquiring about Mace was protection for their wives, girlfriends or daughters, especially daughters going away to college," the Times reported at the time.

Today, this trend continues. "In the fall, a lot of parents buy pepper spray for their son or daughter whose about to go off to college for the first time. A lot of daughters," says Sally Morris, PR representative for the Pepper Spray Store, an online retailer that has been selling pepper spray products since 1995. "We see an increase in pink and purple keychain models."

Granted, a teenage girl wielding a canister of pepper spray has the same potential to misuse the product as a middle-aged riot cop. Earlier this week in Harlem, a 14-year-old girl sent nine of her classmates to the hospital after she "reportedly sprayed [pepper spray] indiscriminately into the air." In another widely reported incident, a 32-year old mom in Southern California made news when she deployed pepper spray in the scrum of Black Friday commerce at Walmart. Initially, it was thought that the woman had done so to gain a competitive edge on her fellow bargain-hunters—but then police officials reported that it was possible she'd simply been trying to protect herself from getting trampled in a chaotic environment.

While law enforcement officials continue to investigate the incident, the possibility that the woman was merely acting in self-defense is a reminder that pepper spray isn't just for overreaching cultural custodians eager to eliminate the pesky odors of free speech and dissent from the public square. As much as it empowers the state, it also empowers individuals. Like any weapon, pepper spray comes with risks and responsibilities. It doesn't always work as anticipated. It can be easily abused. But its less-than-lethal nature makes it appealing to individuals who aren't comfortable with the idea of inflicting permanent or fatal damage on even those who are seeking to harm them. Its low cost and relatively unregulated status makes it far more accessible to a wide range of people than firearms are. In the hands of law-abiding citizens who simply want to protect themselves, pepper spray is the sort of democratic phenomenon that should bring a tear to every American's eye.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.