James S. Kirk & Co was a Chicago, Illinois soap manufacturer that advertised widely, produced many colorful trade cards and had a long run. The salient dates, drawn from the current Kirk’s Soap’s website, are mentioned in the paragraph describing the stock certificate. The company was founded by James S. Kirk in Utica, New York in 1839. In 1859, Kirk moved the company to Chicago, and, as the featured certificate showed, under his son’s guidance, it incorporated in New Jersey in 1900. The corporation was sold to Proctor & Gamble in 1930. Since 1996, a new incarnation has operated as Kirk’s Natural Products Corp. first in Chicago, its original home, and now in Cincinnati, where Proctor & Gamble had moved the business. Its featured product is Castile soap.
While soap itself appears not to have been subject to the Spanish-American War tax, nevertheless the company cancelled battleship revenues, presumably to reflect payment of the tax due on its line of perfumes. The example of RB31 shown (courtesy of Robert Mustacich) was meant to pay tax on an item retailing between $1.75 and $2.00 – a generous splurge of a purchase in that era – which supports the notion that it originally graced a perfume bottle. A website called Perfume Intelligence lists over fifty perfumes that the company marketed between 1893 and 1925. “Jap Rose,” dating from 1918, was Kirk’s most prominent perfume, and was one of the significant products mentioned as prompting Proctor and Gamble’s purchase of the company.
James S. Kirk, the founder of the company, was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1818, the son of a prominent shipbuilder and civil engineer. The family migrated to the new world when he was six months old, and he grew up in Montreal, Canada. While still in his teens he was already engaged in the manufacture of soap, candles and alkali, and later ran both a lumber camp and a lumber drive down the Ottawa River. At twenty-one, he married and moved to Utica to open his own business. He produced a brood of seven sons, no less than four of whom were later involved in the business: James A., John B., Milton W and Wallace F. Described as a “stern old churchman,” he lived in South Evanston, IL, and was a benefactor of Evanston’s Northwestern University. Upon his death in 1886, it was said that “there never was a resident of Chicago who was more highly respected and esteemed.” The tall stone shaft that marked his grave was noted in Chicago guidebooks as a prominent marker in the local cemetery.
The company flourished and prospered in the next generation. It was exceedingly proud that its name remained the same for almost a hundred years from 1839 through its sale during the Depression. It also took pride that its Chicago factory was located on the site of the first home in Chicago, built in 1779 by Jean Baptiste Point De Sable, “a Negro from Santo Domingo,” as the plaque erected on the site in 1913 by the company (but now apparently lost) read. With but a brief interruption because of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, it quickly became the largest manufacturer of soap both in Chicago and the United States, with sales in 1880 estimated at over 2 million dollars. In 1895, a contemporaneous history of Chicago noted the company’s main plant was a massive, five story building along the banks of the Chicago River served by a railroad spur that connected it to every railroad in Chicago, and its boiler house, containing a “battery of boilers, the largest in Illinois” was vented by a chimney 20 feet in diameter and 282 feet high, a “distinctive feature in the vicinity.” The company’s operating divisions were laundry soap, toilet soap, perfumes, colognes and toilet waters and glycerine. Three-quarters of the factory’s output shipped by rail and made its way not only throughout the United States, but also to “Europe, New Zealand, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia” and South America. The boxes that the goods shipped in were shaped at the company’s lumber mill located in Rhinelander, WI, and then assembled and stenciled at the Chicago factory. Counting the lumber mill staff, the company employed 750 workers and, by 1900, produced over 100 million pounds of soap per year.
In 1906, the company reincorporated in Illinois. The corporation paid handsomely in the first decades of the Twentieth Century, and its dividends rose from 4% in 1907 to a whopping 28% in 1921. However, by the end of the Twenties, it was locked in a battle with the Federal Trade Commission over the use of the term “Castile soap,” which the Commission contended, strictly speaking, could only be used in connection with a soap made entirely from olive oil as the originators of Castile soap in Spain had done. Perhaps the litigation with the government and the pressure to realize gain on the strategic factory real estate in the center of downtown Chicago, drove the family to extract its funds from the company in the form of the high dividends. In 1929, the soap works was demolished, and the following year, the company was sold to Proctor & Gamble (another potential subject for this column in due course). It was not until 1932, that the federal courts finally overturned the Federal Trade Commission’s ban on Kirk’s use of the term “Castile soap.” By then the brand had passed to Proctor & Gamble.
In terms of society page tidbits, aside from a certain tendency toward multiple wives shown by some of the sons, the Kirks of the second generation appear in the pages of the “who’s who” compilations of the times to have been sober Republican businessmen, who persevered in their father’s hardworking tradition. However, because such merchant princes were scrutinized by the press of that day the way today’s rock stars are, when the second wife (of at least three wives) of Milton W. Kirk, by then a past president of the Company, responded in a divorce action in Chicago that she had been “treated more … as a housekeeper or governess than a man would treat his wife,” no less a paper than the New York Times carried the story. A hundred years later, it still resides entombed in that paper’s digitalized morgue to be exhumed by prurient voyeurs In the third generation, John A Kirk’s son, Alexander Comstock Kirk (1888-1979), compiled a distinguished record as a U.S. diplomat, and, as U.S. ambassador to Egypt during World War II, entertained Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek during the Cairo Conference at the end of 1943, wealth again transformed into public service.