B. J. JOHNSON SOAP CO., MANUFACTURER
1/8 CENT REVENUES
1/4 CENT REVENUES
HANDSTAMPED AND PRINTED BATTLESHIP CANCEL EXAMPLES
B. J. Johnson Soap Co.’s sixty year history – the tale unfolded herein – resonates today as a strand spun into the fabric of burgeoning American capitalism, for its most famous product is that same Palmolive Soap still available for purchase at any supermarket or drugstore today. Certainly, the company began with no such purpose of becoming the quintessential example of capitalistic growth, and its oft-repeated story, usually casually tossed off as a minor antecedent derivation of the present day industrial behemoth Colgate-Palmolive Co., is virtually always recounted incorrectly. In fact, as one investigates more deeply the history of the B. J. Johnson Soap Co., one finds more variations concerning the principal events and personalities involved in its history, for as people have said – possibly since the time of the Roman Tacitus in the First Century A.D. – success has many fathers.
There are certain established generalities about the company. Its most forceful personality was Caleb Johnson. He is credited with introducing the formula for Palmolive Soap, and its success accounted for the surging expansion of the company which led to its ultimate absorption into Colgate-Palmolive Co., which, with Procter & Gamble Co. (P&G), is today one of the U.S.’s two most significant manufacturers of personal and household care products. However, despite the many attributions of the company’s entire success to Caleb, the company was neither founded by Caleb nor named for him.
Rather it was Caleb’s father, Burdett J. Johnson, who actually entered the soap making business and eventually came to organize the company that bore his name. While marketing his wares in various guises of powders and soaps, Burdett concentrated upon manufacturing a product that every household then needed: a strong laundry soap of the kind needed to soak Nineteenth Century grit out of clothes. Such products were then routinely made from animal fat, and Burdett’s company began with that recipe, but as it gained experience, it changed people’s expectations.
1898 B. J. JOHNSON SOAP CO. COVER
Born in the western New York State town of Ellicotville in 1826, and educated in that region, Burdett first entered business as a grocer in Buffalo, N.Y., with a partner named D. C. Baird, according to contemporary accounts. Later versions of the story refer to Burdett as Benedict, name his partner as Beard and denominated their original business in Buffalo as soap making. In 1864, properly gauging that America’s growth was shifting the center of commerce westward, Burdett and his partner’s son, George C. Baird, moved to Milwaukee to open a grocery store. In 1867, they bought the soap and candle manufacturing business that the pork packers Plankinton & Armour – yes, the same P. D. Armour later of Armour & Co. (yet another story for another day) – ran on the side to utilize the animal fat generated as a byproduct of their slaughterhouse. Over a number of years and with different partners, Burdett soon found he had a flair for the soap business, and eventually in the late 1870s, the B. J. Johnson Soap Co. came into being. As well as being a shrewd and respected businessman, Burdett significantly changed and improved his business by building his own box factory adjacent to his manufacturing plant in order to save himself the enormous cost of buying and transporting shipping materials for his product from the East Coast. One of his habits, for which he was long remembered, was his traveling around Milwaukee at a brisk clip in a “sporty roadster” pulled by a matched team of gray Percherons. Seeking an escape from the harsh Milwaukee winters for his family, which had already lost two children to tuberculosis, he also began a family tradition of traveling south to Orange Park, FL on the St. Johns River just south of Jacksonville.
GALVANIC SOAP IMAGES
Galvanic Soap was the flagship product of the B. J. Johnson Soap Co. It differed from the normal laundry soap of the day because its color was white, since it’s principal ingredient was coconut oil. At this late date, it is uncertain whether Burdett or Caleb, Burdett’s oldest child, born in 1857 and working for the company after 1876, innovated the formula which accounted for its distinctive white color, but perhaps the fact that Galvanic Soap was white, Palmolive has always been green, and laundry soap of the era was yellow, points toward Caleb’s early precociousness as a soap manufacturer. Once launched in 1884, Galvanic Soap’s novelty and quality quickly attracted a great following. Yet even with its popularity, the B. J. Johnson Soap Co. appeared in an 1888 Milwaukee business directory listed as merely one among nine soap manufacturers in the city, with another company choosing a much more prominent listing.
CRITICIZED 1911 GALVANIC SOAP AD
Galvanic Soap’s whiteness did cause a very minor tempest some years later in 1911, when the Johnson company ran an ad stating that housewives had to use its white Galvanic Soap, rather than any other yellow laundry soap, to produce truly white linen. A trade journal, the Soap Gazette and Perfumer, decrying the lack of a centralized soap manufacturing association to regulate the industry, felt compelled in its pages to denounce this ad as patently false and misleading, pointing out that the color of a soap had no bearing on its ability to clean, and asserting that the ad was a “contemptible assault on all the yellow laundry soap manufacturers of America.”
1908 AND 1910 PALMOLIVE SOAP ADS
However, by 1911, the B. J Johnson Soap Co. had found its true niche, for Caleb had experimented with other formulations for soap which utilized plant or vegetable fats in place of animal fats, and in 1898, had hit upon a combination of palm and olive oils that yielded a green soap. In a stroke of marketing directness, the company called the soap simply Palmolive. One very short version of Palmolive’s introduction, published in a 1922 advertising industry trade journal, claimed that Caleb prevailed upon his father to manufacture the new soap over the loud and vociferous objection of the company’s principal salesman who could not understand why the company would want to introduce any other brand in competition with its own well-recognized, well-respected, tried and true Galvanic Soap, but that Caleb’s persistence paid off.
CALEB JOHNSON AND CHARLES SUMNER PEARCE IN 1914
Another longer version of Palmolive’s success story was published in 1914 in a national magazine. It focused upon a twenty-five year old recent law school graduate, named Charles Sumner Pearce, who accosted Caleb in 1903 asking for a job. Caleb had just succeeded to the presidency of the B. J. Johnson Soap Co. after Burdett’s death also in 1902. In this variant, while Caleb had developed and introduced Palmolive Soap in 1898, its sales were extremely disappointing. It had neither generated the great boost in business that Caleb had anticipated, nor even matched the enthusiasm that the introduction of Galvanic Soap had engendered. Its earnings were respectable, but nothing like what Caleb believed they should be, and they were not outstripping those of the tried and true Galvanic Soap.
CIRCA 1905 PALMOLIVE SOAP ADS
Caleb told Pearce that he could create a job for himself at the company as Caleb’s assistant if he could figure out a way to make Palmolive’s sales match Caleb’s expectations. Pearce studied the company’s sales methodology, and found that soap was sold individually from retailer to retailer by the company’s drummers – the slang term for traveling salesmen – in the same fashion that sales of virtually all manufactured goods were conducted at that time. For sales to increase, the salesmen had to convince more retail outlets to offer the soap to the public, and retailers had to convince the public to buy it, a two-step process. Moreover, using drummers had its limitations because they could cover only so much territory, and they were offering Palmolive to the same people who were already selling Johnson products so it was competing with Johnson’s other soap products like Galvanic Soap.
1886 JOHNSON CO. POSTCARD ALERTING RETAILER TO IMPENDING CALL BY ITS DRUMMER
[If this model of salesmanship sounds remote and foreign, think of the “Rock Island” opening number from the “Music Man” – a story, suffused in nostalgia, set in idyllic small town America at the very same time as Pearce was making his very real study of the soap market – in which, as they rattle from one tiny town to another over the clatter of the wheels of the local “milk” train, the drummers sing of the passing of the era when a salesman had to “know the territory,” setting the stage for the antics of Prof. Harold Hill, whose violation of this sacred rule lies at the heart of the musical.]
AD AND POSTCARD MAILING OFFERING PALMOLIVE FREE WITH PURCHASE OF GALVANIC SOAP
Pearce convinced Caleb that national advertising was the key to creating the larger market that Caleb dreamed about. Caleb and Pearce then brought in W. T. Kester of the Lord & Thomas advertising agency, and the agency executed a national advertising campaign for Palmolive Soap, which, indeed, increased Palmolive’s sales, but still did not result in Palmolive’s becoming a serious national brand. Caleb, still convinced of the uniqueness of Palmolive’s qualities, remarked that if he could get a bar of soap into every housewife’s hands, the women would instantly recognize its superiority. Pearce devised the method to make Caleb’s wish a reality. He suggested to Kester that the next Palmolive advertisement to the public contain a coupon good for exchange free at any local store for one bar of Palmolive soap. Cleveland, Ohio was selected as a test market, and the Johnson sales force flooded Cleveland promising every retailer in town that Johnson would redeem for ten cents each coupon the retailer received from a member of the public. Fortified by the promise that the coupons would be backed by hard cash, Cleveland retailers ordered 2000 gross, or 288,000 bars, of Palmolive in advance of the release of the ad. The Cleveland papers that ran the ad had circulation of 200,000 and within weeks 20,000 coupons were redeemed. Palmolive catapulted to the position of industry leader, and Kester readied the national campaign by choosing a select group of magazines each of which had a national circulation of 5,000,000 in which to place the ad.
DIRECT CONSUMER MAILING OF PALMOLIVE COUPONS
However, before the magazine ads ran, the company – abandoning its policy of having its traveling salesmen solicit orders face to face – mailed 50,000 circulars to retailers all over the country alerting them that they would soon need a stock of Palmolive to meet the needs of customers seeking to redeem the Palmolive coupons. The tsunami of orders that Johnson received finally matched Caleb’s expectations for Palmolive’s national potential, and also by far outweighed the cost to the company of coupon redemption, which it scrupulously honored. Pearce’s job at B. J. Johnson Soap Co. was finally secure.
1915 NATIONAL MAGAZINE ADS
While this longer story of marvelous success of Palmolive Soap may be somewhat closer to factual accuracy than the short version, it must still face critical scrutiny. One must take into account the source of the story. It ran in Hearst’s Magazine, apparently one of those magazines with circulation of more than 5,000,000. Although couched as a human interest story – one of a series devoted to the “master builders of America” – and while praising Caleb and Pearce’s ingenuity, it really served as its own advertisement for Hearst’s Magazine. The story both shamelessly trumpeted the superiority of national advertising as a means of creating a demand to drive distribution, as opposed to the old-fashioned method of slowly and laboriously building a localized distribution network before advertising, and forcefully exhorted every advertiser to devote the lion’s share of its advertising budget to national magazine advertising.
1916 AND 1917 NATIONAL MAGAZINE ADS
Yet a third different version of Palmolive’s success story was told by a Lord & Thomas advertising man named Claude C. Hopkins in his memoirs published in 1927. Hopkins came to Lord & Thomas on the rebound. He had already had a successful career in advertising, but his reputation had been badly bruised by being called out in print by name as the man who devised the ads for one of the most worthless patent medicines denounced at length by Samuel Hopkins Adams in his Great American Fraud series of articles (Yet another future story). Lured out of “retirement” to head Lord & Thomas’ copy writing department, Hopkins prepared a brochure inviting manufacturers to submit their products its “advisory board,” a group of sixteen employees headed by Hopkins, who would render an opinion as to whether advertising would boost their businesses.
1917 AND 1918 NATIONAL MAGAZINE ADS
In this retelling of Palmolive’s tale, Johnson and Pearce auditioned their very successful Galvanic Soap before the “advisory board” in 1911, which, because of the soap’s already established prominence, opined that another ad campaign for Galvanic Soap would simply be gilding the lily, but then asked if the company had any other product that might benefit from greater advertising exposure. Johnson and Pearce mentioned that they had a very obscure brand called Palmolive Soap, but they had little hope for its prospects. Hopkins suggested that Lord & Thomas might have an idea to create a market for Palmolive Soap. Hopkins asserted he then devised the ad that offered every housewife a coupon to trade for a bar of soap. He claims that the Lord & Thomas suggested the Johnson Company invest $1000 to make the test market Grand Rapids, MI, but, because of its objection to the large cost, compromised on an even smaller test market, Benton Harbor, MI. Hopkins calculated that the ads and rebates cost about $700 and netted several thousand dollars worth of sales among housewives in Michigan. His account confirmed others that a (second) test in Cleveland cost the company $1000 for the advertising space plus $2000 for the rebates and netted $20,000 in sales in a region where it had generated only $3000 total sales in the prior year. He further confirmed that the coupon juggernaut rolled full tilt from then on, but alleged that Lord & Thomas dreamed up and handled the advanced mailing that the Johnson Company made to 50,000 retailers to alert them that the national Palmolive coupon campaign was about to begin. All accounts agree that within a year after national campaigned was launched, ninety-nine percent of U.S. drug stores were carrying Palmolive Soap.
1906 SATURDAY EVENING POST COUPON AD
Hopkins’ account, which subordinates the Johnson Company’s role in its own success to that of its own advertising agency, contains two factual errors. One is quite minor: he identifies the Johnson who allegedly appeared before the “advisory board” in 1911 as B. J. Johnson. The available Johnson in 1911 was Caleb not Burdett. The other error is more substantial: Hopkins fixed the date of the agency’s meeting with Johnson and Pearce as 1911, although he did concede that his memory might have been “somewhat, but not seriously, at fault.” The coupon advertisement pictured above ran in the Saturday Evening Post in 1906. If the coupon exchange idea was developed as early as 1906, the timing of Hopkins’s account is far off and the Lord & Thomas personalities associated with these events may well be mis-identified; Claude Hopkins was not even at Lord & Thomas in 1906. So much for the tail wagging the dog!
1899 PALMOLIVE SOAP ADS
While Caleb Johnson is portrayed as a dreamer in Hearst’s version of the story and almost a supplicant in the Hopkins’s account, his dreaming had a practical edge and he could be hard-headed as well. Caleb saw Palmolive Soap’s target sales market as the modern American woman and pitched even its earliest ads, pre-Lord & Thomas, to feminine sensibilities, stressing both Palmolive’s use of the same exotic ingredients as ancient queens and princesses and the soft, smooth skin these elements would produce. At an exposition in St. Louis in 1909, he observed French machinery for making hard-milled soap, which he immediately purchased and used to enhance Palmolive’s smoothness and uniformity. At the same time, he also brought out Palmolive face cream, the first in a line of Palmolive cosmetics designed to place the soap at the center of an entire personal care regimen, and in 1910, the company sketched its vision of the path to ideal femininity using its products in a booklet called “The Easy Way to Beauty.” The additional cosmetics that followed subsequently helped to shift thinking about Palmolive Soap from laundry soap to personal care beauty soap.
WORLD WAR I B. J. JOHNSON SOAP CO. REVENUE CANCELS
As a businessman, Caleb was tough. In 1911, when the City Council of Milwaukee threatened to block the construction of a rail siding next to his factory because it would require closing a public thoroughfare, Caleb flatly declared to the press that if the Council acted adversely to his desires, he would simply close his factory and move to Kansas City. Needless to say, the company remained in Milwaukee. In addition, as Caleb expanded his facilities to keep pace with the exploding demand for Palmolive Soap and associated products, he willingly incurred the wrath of organized labor in Milwaukee by using non-union construction labor, causing the Building Trades Council of Milwaukee to issue a bulletin in 1915 to all unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor asking them to boycott the products of the B. J. Johnson Soap Co. That boycott had virtually no impact, and Palmolive Soap’s business continued to soar.
MIRA RIO – CALEB JOHNSON’S WINTER RETREAT
In 1917, encouraged by his sister, who had already set up an estate in Orange Park, Caleb purchased a twenty acre portion of his sister’s land on which to build his own mansion. Designed by Milwaukee architects – thus being one of the only structures in Florida with a basement – it was completed in 1923 and named Mira Rio. Caleb was able to enjoy it for only a year before his death in 1924. The estate later passed to his wife, then to his daughter, and then to her two children. In 1964, grandson, Caleb (Jon) Massee bought his sister’s share of the property, eventually turning the house into an elegant resort. Massee also brought his grand-aunt’s estate back into the family and incorporated her mansion into the resort complex as well. The resort is still in operation.
CIRCA 1920 PALMOLIVE CO. COVER
In 1917, the B. J. Johnson Soap Co. renamed itself the Palmolive Co. in recognition of its principal product, and in 1923 moved its headquarters to Chicago, the second largest city in the country. By the early 1920s, with no son of his own to inherit the business, Caleb has begun to shift the mantle of responsibility for the Palmolive Co. to Charles Pearce, and Pearce led the company after Caleb’s death. By the middle of the Roaring Twenties, its great rivals had emerged as P&G and Lever Bros, two other companies whose stories will ultimately unfold in these pages as well. In 1922, Caleb dismissed talk of a merger of his company with Lever Bros. as “[p]ure imagination. One of those wild rumors that comes out of Wall Street during the dull Summer days,” but, after his death, Pearce determined that the Palmolive Co. required a larger structure to keep competing effectively with P&G and Lever Bros. Pearce found an ally in the Peet Brothers Co. of Kansas City, another family owned regional soap manufacturer founded in 1872 which, inexplicably, seems to have left no philatelic trace, and in 1927, the Palmolive-Peet Co. was formed.
1906 PEET BROS. LETTERHEAD
PALMOLIVE-PEET CO. TRADE TOKEN
In 1928, the Colgate Co., a company with a much longer history (which will be recounted also in another article), joined with the merged company to form the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Co. The new combined company had $100 million per year in sales, a number judged sufficient to allow it to keep pace with P&G and Lever Bros. Charles Pearce led the merged company for the first few years, and evinced an insatiable appetite for further mergers that would have united these companies with others to create a single vast interconnected manufacturing and retail consumer products company. Talks actually took place with the Kraft-Phoenix Cheese Co. and Hershey Chocolate Co., and were about to begin with a meat-packing company, a cannery and a retail grocery chain when the stock market crashed in October 1929. Pearce’s dream crashed along with the stock’s price, which dropped from 90 to 7 by 1933, when the Colgate family finally reasserted control over the merged company and forced Pearce out of power by making him Chairman of the Board. Although he lived until 1965, and served as chief executive of one of the forerunners of the paper industry giant Kimberly-Clark Co. from 1933 to 1943, when Pearce lost operational control over the merged company, the last of the distinctive personalities nurtured at the B. J. Johnson Soap Co. disappeared and so the subsequent history of the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Co. belongs to the Colgate Co.’s still unfolding story.
CIRCA 1930 COLGATE-PALMOLIVE-PEET CO. RADIO PROGRAM SPONSORSHIP
The B. J. Johnson Soap Co. drove the invention of a new industry which transformed pedestrian laundry soap into an artifact for attaining ineffable, transcendent beauty and whose evolution is captured in the ethereal, evanescent yet lingering, Art Nouveau ad images displayed in this article. Its two-generation history, mirroring that of so many companies of that era that hurtled from obscurity to fame with one brilliant innovation, combines together hard-headed business acumen, mythology and delicate imagery, and, for this reason, is irresistible.
© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2015