From the Heartland: Vintage Bath & Body Works

Products & memories from the "Heartland" era of Bath & Body Works (1990 - 2001)


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Though the company would have you believe that Bath & Body Works began on a farm in New Albany, OH, it was actually born at a mall. In the late ‘80s, Express sold a line of bath and body products that became so popular that its parent company The Limited (now Limited Brands) decided to give them their very own store. The very first Bath & Body Works opened in September 1990 at a mall in Cambridge, MA – very far from its supposed Midwestern roosts. However, BBW’s corporate headquarters was located in New Albany.

The first BBW stores were built adjacent to the Express stores where they originated. In fact, you could walk from one store to another (see the below photo, taken in 1992, as an example).

If you were to go back in time and visit the first BBW, you probably wouldn’t recognize it. The earliest BBW’s more resembled The Body Shop with its environmental theme and dark green colors. The products had brown labels with a dark green imprint. 

It was this eerie similarity to The Body Shop that got them in trouble. Anita Roddick, the founder of the The Body Shop, hated copycats and the company sued BBW in 1991. As a result of the lawsuit, the powers-that-be at BBW decided to take a completely different approach to its marketing, one that involved gingham, wooden barrels, and an ode to country living. Thus the famous Heartland Era was born.

Though it was slow to grow at first, BBW quickly took off when it hired its legendary CEO Beth Pritchard. According to a Business Week article written in 1997, “When Pritchard took over Bath & Body Works in 1991, it had just 95 stores with sales of $20 million. By 1996, she had expanded the chain to 750 stores as sales hit $753 million.” Pritchard lived and breathed BBW, and the company hasn’t been the same since she left the company at the beginning of 2003. When she left, so did the Heartland Era.

Most people, myself included, loved the heartland theme. It was like being welcomed into someone’s cozy country home and being invited to stay a while. You could actually try out the products (unheard of in a drugstore) and you weren’t pressured to buy. This was a unique concept at the time and it really helped differentiate BBW in the competitive personal care marketplace.

But BBW was more than a cute store—it changed the way people took care of themselves. It introduced women to the concept of using shower gel with a bath pouf instead of a bar of soap, as well as using body splash instead of perfume. Though this stuff is common today, it wasn’t in the early ’90s. You can thank BBW for bringing these products to the mainstream!

Unfortunately, once the 21st century rolled around, the company decided to axe the heartland theme in favor of a “modern apothecary” theme. The red gingham and wooden barrels were ditched in favor of white tables and white walls. And the beloved “sunburst” logo was replaced by a bland, soulless, text-only version.

However, the company seems to be coming back to its senses and is reintroducing the old heartland theme through its Fresh Picked line and rebooted White Barn Candle line. It remains to be seen whether the entire store will return to its roots, but us vintage BBW fans are keeping our fingers crossed. Here’s hoping the Heartland Era gets a second chance.
 

BBW TIMELINE

I created this timeline myself and it is not official in any way. Dates are approximate, and the time period names are my own. Feel free to contact me if you think something should be changed!

1990 - 1991: The Green Era
In the beginning, BBW resembled The Body Shop with dark green coloring and an environmental theme.

1991 - 2002: Heartland Era
In response to a lawsuit from The Body Shop for being too similar, BBW developed its famous sunburst logo and heartland theme. Stores were made to look like country marketplaces with red gingham and wooden barrels, and products reflected the country theme.

2002 - 2005: Modern Apothecary Era
When sales started to slide following the 2001 recession, BBW turned its quaint, country-style stores into “modern apothecaries.” Emphasis was placed on products with more holistic ingredients that provided health benefits, such as an expanded aromatherapy line, True Blue Spa, and the Pure Simplicity skin care line.

2005 - 2007: Multi-Brand Era
For some reason, BBW decided its own brand wasn’t good enough and decided to carry other, more expensive brands in its stores, such as Tutti Dolci, Le Couvent Des Minimes, and Goldie. They were also big on personalities and celebrities, such as Harry Slatkin, Frédéric Fekkai, and Patricia Wexlar.

2007 - 2011: The Youth Era
When Neil Fiske left as BBW’s CEO in 2007, there seemed to be more of a focus on capturing the teen/college student demographic. The superfluous brands were phased out (thankfully) and BBW revived its own product line with an emphasis on fun and splashy fragrances and designs. However, vintage BBW fans like me longed for simpler fragrances and more down-to-earth designs.

2011 – Present: The 2nd Heartland Era?
Slowly but surely, BBW seems to be reintroducing elements from its previous Heartland Era. Blue gingham is being used on products, signage, and shopping bags. The White Barn Candle line from the late ‘90s was reintroduced in the fall of 2012. And the recent Fresh Picked line evokes BBW’s old country theme. Is BBW finally returning to its roots?

ABOUT KATE: THE “FOUNDER” OF BBW

BBW was started by The Limited, a large retail corporate based in Columbus, OH. But this origin story didn’t fit in with BBW’s down-home style. So, the company created a fictional founder named “Kate” who embodied everything that BBW stood for. Though most customers never heard of her, her story was told to employees so they could always stay “on brand” in their work. Each BBW store was seen as “Kate’s home”, and employees were asked to treat customers as if they were guests in Kate’s home. They were greeted with a smile, encouraged to stay as long as they wanted, and pampered with the latest BBW products.

There are probably several variations of the “Kate” story, but here is the one I was told by my old manager:

Kate grew up on a farm in the Midwest and loved to make her own beauty products out of the natural ingredients she found around the farm. She went to college and majored in biology so she could learn more about the beneficial properties of these natural ingredients. When she graduated, she decided to open up her own store to sell her homemade, natural beauty products. Thus BBW was born!


Kate was even mentioned in the company’s 1997 Annual Report by Limited Brand’s CEO Les Wexner:

Their brand has a conscience: a conscience they call “Kate,” the fictional company founder. Everyone in the business knows her values, and what’s important to her. They talk in terms of a product’s “essential Kateness.” Would Kate do it? No? OK. Don’t. It’s that easy.


ABOUT NEW ALBANY: THE “BIRTHPLACE” OF BBW

BBW’s original headquarters was in the picturesque city of New Albany, OH. Originally a small, rural bedroom community of Columbus, it has since exploded into an affluent and thriving suburb. It’s everything you’d think BBW’s birthplace should be: palatial homes and landscapes that ooze country charm. It’s postcard-perfect in every way. 

According to early bottle labels, the headquarters was originally located at 35 Main Street, but later it moved to 97 West Main Street. BBW’s home office is now located in Reynoldsburg, OH.

ABOUT ME: A VINTAGE BBW FAN

I fell in love with the “old” BBW the minute I saw it. When I was in high school in the spring of 1994, my friend and I were trolling the local mall when we noticed a new store being built. We looked into the window and were amazed to see country-theme fixtures like a big blue wagon in the front. I had never heard of the store before (this was before the internet), and was eagerly awaiting the day it would open. When it did, that same friend and I smelled everything in the store. It was something we had never experienced before - they actually let us try out the products in the store! It was teenage girl heaven. Well, except for the prices. I was shocked when I learned a bottle of lotion cost $9! Up until this point I was using a Lever2000 bar of soap and probably some $3 lotion from the drugstore. And since I was underage and didn’t have a job, $9 was a lot. But it was so worth it! I finally settled on a bottle of Country Apple body lotion, and used it sparingly. At the time it was in the round-shaped bottles that were phased out in the mid-’90s.

Throughout high school I continued to buy a BBW product here and there, but could never buy everything I wanted. Luckily the store didn’t care if I came in and tried without buying. BBW was always a destination whenever I went to the mall - even malls while on vacation!

I eagerly awaited the day I turned 18 so I could apply for a job there. However, I didn’t actually get hired until the summer before my senior year in college in 1999. Though the hours weren’t the best (typical for BBW), I loved every minute of it. I fondly remember late night almanacs with the whole staff - this is what BBW calls floorset changes. We were given a fixture, the products, and a map (the “almanac”) to tell us where everything went. It was challenging, and exhausting, but so much fun. I remember arranging the blue hutch and the White Barn Candle shelf. We were given huge discounts on products, and I used to buy basically the whole Cucumber Melon line. It quickly became my signature fragrance of ‘99.

Sadly, I had to leave for college and didn’t work there again until early 2002. I came back needing a part-time job, hoping to recapture the good times from a few year ago. However, something had changed. As my new manager explained, BBW was in the process of changing its country heartland theme into a “Modern Apothecary.” They had already gotten rid of the famous red gingham aprons at that point. Bit by bit, the old BBW faded away as the store was painted white and old country-themed fixtures were replaced with plain white tables. By the time I left in early 2005, the store was unrecognizable from its heyday in the ’90s. 

However, employees were allowed to buy the old fixtures such as the wooden barrels, the hutch, and the wagon. So, in a way, the old BBW lives on in people’s homes - just where they belong. I myself purchased a few round display tins and baskets. And that wagon that caught my eye in the window so many years ago now lives in on in a nice lady’s garden.