Earlier this week, craving salt, a gang of us in the lunch room started talking about an old-fashioned snack known as Bugles. Partly, this was a matter of flavor – Bugles are essentially corn chips fried in coconut oil, how could you go wrong – but it was also a kind of nostalgia. Bugles, after all, harken back to what passes for the good old days for Baby Boomers. First introduced to the market in 1965, they’re still in production – albeit not market leaders – 50 years later.
That conversation got me thinking, though, about old brands. Not old, as in my age, but really old. After all, some companies – especially sake and shochu distilleries in Japan – are over a thousand years old. Even the oldest companies in America – not an old country – date from the 1690s. So, what are the oldest brands still in existence? That question sent me on an expedition to Long’s Drugs (and Wikipedia) to scout the aisles for old-time products. Here’s my report:
Some of the oldest brands in the store turn out to be cleaning supplies. Bon Ami, a powdered household cleaner that advertises itself as non-scratching, hit the market in 1886. Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing (blue dye, in dilute formulas, makes your whites look whiter) came out in 1883. Hagerty Polish (1895), Milsek Furniture Polish (1914) and Wright’s Polish (1873) are all still on the shelves at Longs. Clearly, there’s money in cleaning.
In fact, soaps have been the foundation of massive companies. In 1879, William Procter and James Gamble, a soap maker and a candle maker who met when they married twin sisters, were persuaded by their new father-in-law to go into business together. Shortly thereafter, Proctor & Gamble concocted Ivory Soap . In 1911, they came out with Crisco, the first shortening made entirely of vegetable oil. Those are just the first of a long list of brands they founded or bought as they build their home products empire. In 1948, for example, they shook up the soap world when they introduced Tide, the first consumer detergent that made it possible to machine wash cloths in hard water. (Along with Willis Carrier, who invented the electric air conditioner in 1911, they created the modern world.)
Sometimes it seems like you can use soap to tell the commercial history of this country. In 1872, James Colgate, the son of another soapmaker, introduced Cashmere Bouquet, a perfumed soap that’s still made in the old-fashioned way, with animal fats and lye. A year later, Colgate & Company introduced its first toothpaste, which it put in a tube for the first time in 1896. Meanwhile, in 1898, a Milwaukee chemist named B.J Johnson invented a formula to make soap entirely from olive oil and palm oil. The resulting product, Palmolive, became the most popular soap in the world, surpassing Ivory. In 1928 Colgate and Palmolive merged into the conglomerate that we know today.
Another old soap brand, Lava, was introduced by the St. Louis-based Waltke Company in 1893, which added ground up pumice to create a heavy-duty cleaner. Curiously, today the Lava brand is owned by WD-40, itself no slouch of a brand, having been invented in 1953.
But it’s not just soap that makes an enduring brand. Another good place to find old brands is in the healthcare products aisles. Here, you’ll find Tiger Balm, a salve created in the 1870s by Aw Chu Kin, a Chinese herbalist from Burma; Fisherman’s Friend, cough drops developed by an Icelandic pharmacist named James Lofthouse in 1865; and Campho-Phenique, which was introduced in 1884 as an antiseptic. (It took another 100 years before it was marketed as a treatment for cold sores). In 1905, pharmacist Lunsford Richardson began selling Croup and Pneumonia Salve, a concoction of his brother-in-law, Joshua Vick. By 1912, it was rebranded as Vick’s VapoRub. Listerine, created by doctors in the 1870s as a surgical antiseptic, was first sold as an over-the-counter mouthwash in 1914. Robert Chesebrough first refined oil from the Titusville, Pennsylvania oil fields into Vaseline in 1872. Bag Balm, a salve originally intended to treat the chapped and irritated udders of cows after milking, has also been soothing the skin of humans since 1899. Alfrew Woelbing created Carmex lip balm on his kitchen stove in the 1930s. And in 1920, Earle Dickson, a Johnson & Johnson employee, invented Band-Aids to help his klutzy wife.
The healthcare section is also home to one of the grand-daddies of brands: In 1897, chemists at the German chemical giant, Bayer AG synthetically produced salicylic acid, a painkilling compound found naturally in willow bark. Thus was born the first wonder drug: Aspirin.
At Long’s, a visit to the men’s beauty product section (if that’s the term) is a step back in time. Here, you can get a scent of Murray’s Pomade, created by a Chicago barber in 1925. You can check out the Barbasol shaving cream, which was invented in 1921. Dab on another iconic pomade, Brylcreem, (a little dab will do you) which was introduced in 1928. Or go Latin and treat yourself to Tres Flores, a pomade invented in 1915. The women have their old brands, too. Pond’s Cold Cream, for example, was first made around 1900, and Noxzema in 1914.
There are also old brands that are of special interest to writers like me. The Mead Paper Company started in 1846. In 1906, Hall Brothers, a paper retailer out of Kansas City, began selling postcards wholesale. In 1928, they changed the name of the company to Hallmark. In the 1940s, Patrick Frawley invented an ink that dried instantly, ending the problem of smudging; but the Frawley Pen Company is less famous for its ink than for the pen they made to deliver it: Paper Mate. Paper Mate’s main rival, Bic, entered the market in 1950. Just one year later, Bette Nesmith Graham, a typist, invented a correction fluid she called Mistake Out. A few years later, Mistake Out was re-branded as Liquid Paper. Interestingly, Liquid Paper is now owned by Newell Rubbermaid, the company that also owns Paper Mate.
But we started this expedition with food in mind, so let’s see about old brands in the food aisles. Joseph Campbell began selling fruit and vegetable preserves in 1869, but Campbell’s didn’t become a commercial behemoth until after 1897, when a chemist named John Dorrance invented a process for condensing soup. Eventually, Dorrance bought out the Campbell family and took over the company. Maybe it should be called Dorrance soup. In 1889, Willoughby McCormick started selling root beer and fruit flavors door-to-door, but it was his purchase of a spice company, in 1906, that changed cooking forever. And there must be something about sauces and spices: Maybe the oldest brand on the shelves, Colman’s Mustard, dates back to 1814. Edmund McIlinney first started putting Tabasco Sauce in old cologne bottles in 1868. Henderson William Brand concocted A-1 steak sauce for King George IV in 1824. John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins sold their first batch of Worcestershire sauce in 1838. The origins of Morton’s Salt date back to 1848.
Elsewhere in the food aisles, we find Carnation evaporated milk, which debuted in 1899; Calumet baking soda (1889); and Kingsford corn starch (1842), which was originally intended as a laundry starch. Van Camp baked beans were first cooked up in 1861 as contract to supply pork and beans to Union troops in the Civil War. Peter Pan peanut butter debuted in 1928, followed by Skippy in 1933. (The company was promptly sued for copy-write infringement by Peter Crosby, the creator of the comic strip Skippy. Litigation continues to this day.) Jif, a comparative late-comer, wasn’t introduced until 1958.
The candy aisles have their own brand stories. Milton Hershey, already a fabulously successful confectionery manufacturer, began construction on his chocolate factory in Pennsylvania in 1903,. His signature milk chocolate bar quickly dominated the American chocolate industry, and was followed by other standards, like Hershey’s Kisses (1907), Mr. Goodbar (1925), Hershey’s Syrup (1926) and the Krackel bar (1936). And, in addition to its own inventions, Hershey rolled up other famous old brands. Peter Paul Halajian began making Mounds bars and Almond Joys as far back as 1919. Hershey bought the American rights in 1988. H.B. Reese, a former Hershey employee, invented his eponymous peanut butter cup in 1928. Hershey bought the company in 1963. And Good & Plenty, which may be the dean of old candies, was first made in 1893, but didn’t become part of Hershey until 1996.
Of course, a couple of really old food brands have long ties to Hawaii. James Dole’s Hawaiian Pineapple Company, founded in 1901, more or less created the world market for pineapples. After being acquired by Castle & Cooke, and merged with the Standard Fruit Company in the 1960s, The Dole Food Company became the giant we know today. Del Monte is even older, starting in California in 1886, but it came to the Hawaii game a little later when it bought its pineapple plantations and cannery in 1917. Another brand with Hawaii associations is SPAM, which was first stuffed in a can in 1937. But George H. Hormel opened his first meatpacking plant way back in 1891 and was canning hams as early as 1928. (Hormel also once had a plant in Hawaii.)
That’s a lot of old brands. And that’s just what I was able to scrounge up in a half-hour visit to the drugstore. So the next time you’re in Long’s, try out the Bugles. They’re just about old enough to be good.