A Brief History
On March 23, 1857, Elisha Otis installed the first of his elevators at 488 Broadway in New York City. Otis did not invent the elevator, but he did invent a device to keep an elevator from free falling in the event of a broken cable. His Otis Elevator Company dominated the elevator business for many years afterwards. (Other than Westinghouse, can you even think of a name of another elevator company without looking it up?) Today we list 10 products that have dominated their market so thoroughly that the brand or company name has more or less become synonymous with the type of product.
1. Kleenex tissue.
Of course, we have no way of knowing for sure, but we would just about bet the owners and makers of Puffs or other tissues ask for a Kleenex when they need to blow their noses! Prior to the 1924 introduction of Kleenex as a facial tissue to wipe off makeup or cold cream, people would use a wash cloth for the messy job or a cloth handkerchief to blow their nose, a disgusting practice of sticking a booger filled rag back in your pocket or purse! Kleenex truly did make the world a less gross place.
2. Prestone Anti-freeze.
Although there are many brands of anti-freeze for internal combustion engines, the ethylene glycol based stuff was once largely just called “Prestone,” especially in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Originally a Union Carbide product, Prestone brand now appears on several types of anti-freeze as well as other automotive products such as radiator flush, radiator stop-leak, sidewalk de-icer, etc. The main anti-freezing ingredient, ethylene glycol, is highly toxic and can kill people and pets if consumed. Less toxic varieties are now available using propylene glycol or other chemical compounds. Methanol is another commonly used chemical in anti-freeze and is also toxic. Discovered in 1859, ethylene glycol was first used as an anti-freeze in 1926, replacing the far less efficient methanol. Prestone, founded in 1927, dominated the anti-freeze market and became synonymous with anti-freeze.
3. Xerox Copy Machines.
The Haloid Photographic Company began in 1906, making supplies for the photography industry. Chester Carlson, an independent physicist, in 1938 invented a photo-copy process using dry toner electrically charged to stick to copy paper. The invention was not refined enough to market for over 2 decades, but when it was Haloid changed their name to Haloid Xerox in 1958 and then just to Xerox in 1961, in recognition of the process they had named “xerography.” In 1959 the company produced the Xerox 914, the first widely used photo-copy machine and enjoyed great success. Thus, photo copies and photo copiers became known nearly universally as “Xeroxes.” The Xerox 813 introduced in 1965 became the first desk top copier to use plain typing paper, the beginning of what we would consider the modern portable photo-copy machine.
4. Channellock Pliers.
Also called “tongue in groove” or “water-pump” pliers, the adjustable jaw pliers are best known by the brand name “Channellock.” This incredibly useful tool can be used in place of a wrench or socket and ratchet in a pinch, and is an absolute must for any tool box. Invented in 1934, the pliers were so successful the company changed their name to Channellock. (Honorable Mention: Vise-Grip pliers brand of locking adjustable jaw pliers. And yes, these are also a must have for any home or vehicle owner. In the United Kingdom, the brand associated with this type of tool is “Mole.”)
5. Schrader valve.
Invented in 1891 and patented in 1893 by the Schrader Company (founded by August Schrader in 1844), these are the common tire valves you find on cars, trucks, bicycles, and just about all pneumatic tires made. The familiar device consists of a metal or plastic stem that projects from the tire rim held in place by a rubber grommet (sort of ) and encases a poppet valve, usually covered by a screw on/off cap. This type of valve is also used for a wide variety of gas storage and transfer devices, as well as refrigeration/air conditioning units. They are so common it is hard to think of how we would cope without them! Overseas they are often called “American valves.”
6. Colt Revolvers.
Oddly enough, although the Colt Revolver pistol was invented in the United States, it is in Europe where the name became synonymous with the revolving pistol. Prior to becoming the Houston Astros, the major league baseball team in Houston (1962-1964) was the “Colt .45’s!” (Can you imagine naming a sports team after a firearm in this day and age, the era of political correctness???) The name came from a “name the team” contest.
7. IBM Personal Computer.
IBM pioneered the name “Personal Computer” in their product line (1981), a descriptive and generic sounding name they no longer use. Today it has become synonymous with privately owned computers and especially those using the “PC” style of operating systems (Microsoft products mostly). It is commonly shortened today to “PC” (does not mean “politically correct!”)
8. F.L.Summer and Company Saltines.
In 1876, Summer began using leavening their thin soda crackers, naming them “Saltines” due to their salt content. The company merged with other bakeries to form the American Biscuit Company in 1890 and then became part of Nabisco in 1898. The name “saltines” has become generic for the ubiquitous soda cracker, although some are marketed as “unsalted!” This type of cracker is even found in military rations, both the old C-Rations and the newer MRE variety.
9. Vaseline Petroleum Jelly.
Invented by Robert Chesebrough of the United States in 1872, this handy “first aid kit in a jar” stemmed from Chesebrough noticing “rod wax” accumulating on oil drilling equipment, and oil workers using the stuff to treat burns and other skin conditions. He called his product Vaseline after a combination of the German word for water and the Greek words for Olive Oil. Vaseline was extracted from the rod wax, and Chesebrough marketed the stuff until the brand was sold to Unilever (Anglo-Dutch company) in 1987. Uses for Vaseline go well beyond medicinal, and are found in the house, the shop, and almost everywhere people go. Please share some of your favorite novel uses for Vaseline.
10. Band-Aid bandages.
Invented in 1920 by Johnson & Johnson worker Earle Dickson and his friend, Thomas Anderson for the benefit of Dickson’s wife, Josephine, who apparently needed frequent minor medical attention. The familiar adhesive bandages were easily self-applied by Josephine who no longer required assistance when treating small burns and wounds. Original Band-Aids were handmade and not particularly successful, until 1924 when they became machine made and sterile. World War II saw world wide distribution of Band-Aids, introducing them to a world eager to buy the product. Decorative Band-Aids were first marketed in 1951 and are now available in a wide variety of colors and patterns. Although Band-Aid has become a generic term for an adhesive bandage, Johnson and Johnson cling to their trade mark. Joke Band-Aids a foot long or more are made for people to put on dents on their damaged cars!
Question for students (and subscribers): What items would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
MacNabb, Matt. A Secret History of Brands: The Dark and Twisted Beginnings of the Brand Names We Know and Love. Pen and Sword, 2017.
Martin, Kathy. Famous Brand Names and Their Origins. Pen and Sword, 2017.