Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Extended "Lincoln's Labels" Excerpt (INTRODUCTION)

This week, I'm pleased to post some extended excerpts from my first book, Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, 2009).

Also stay tuned this week for some contest giveaways of advanced review copies of Lincoln's Labels at the book's Facebook page!

It seems like a good place to introduce the book is...well...the Introduction. Enjoy!!


On September 17, 1861, a notice on the front page of Cincinnati’s premier newspaper, the Gazette, attracted the interest of the city’s businessmen. The long announcement - beginning just above the fold and continuing for several inches below - declared that proposals were being sought to supply a million pounds of bread, hundreds of thousands of pounds of bacon, rice, and sugar, and tens of thousands of pounds of hams, coffee, and apples. Also needed were “25,000 pounds first quality candles,” and “80,000 pounds of good hard soap.”(1)

In another year, the solicitation for so much in the way of food and staples might have signaled preparations for a magnificent autumn social befitting the Ohio River’s “Queen City.” But 1861 was no ordinary year, and a closer perusal of the paper would have belied any illusion of normalcy. Poems, including one entitled “The Picket,” flanked the sides of the long list, and above and below were even more requests: for mess pans, infantry pants, and “gunboats for the western rivers.” All this served as evidence that the Civil War – the first shots of which had been fired that spring, was in full gear. What’s more, battles already waged from Missouri to Virginia to South Carolina were testament that the war would not be a picnic.(2)

The long advertisement in the Gazette was printed at the behest of Major A.B. Eaton, chief of the Office of the Commissary of Subsistence, with an eye towards building up stores to feed the Union armies in the coming campaigns. Still, Eaton’s seemingly long list represented only a fraction of the needs of the army’s subsistence department. Indeed, several such rolls, from “A to Z,” were needed to outfit all of the departments of the rapidly growing Union Army and Navy, including their ordnance, medical, and quartermaster departments:

ambulances, badges, caissons, drums, envelopes, fifes, grapeshot, hardtack, insignia, johns tents, knapsacks, lamps, minie balls, needles, overcoats, pens, quinine, rammers, sabots, telescopes, uniforms, valises, wagons, yams, zouave caps, and so on.

To acquire these items, government authorities – state and federal – advertised widely in newspapers and then granted supply contracts to hundreds of companies. Most of these firms are long out of business, but a few still remain, as witnessed in another notice printed in the same newspaper a few months later. There, on the front page of the March 20, 1862, edition, was a list of contracts awarded the previous day by Major C.L. Kilburn, a commissary agent headquartered in the city: “30,000 lbs. new bacon sides to Brooks, Johnson & Co,” “50,000 pounds lbs. hard bread to Brubeck & Height,” and “7,000 lbs. Rio coffee to R.M Bishop & Co.” At the end, given contracts for “1,200 lbs. star candles” and “400 lbs. soap,” was a Cincinnati company whose products (including soap) are found in an estimated ninety percent of American households today: The Procter & Gamble Company.(3)

P&G serves as a worthy model for introducing the other companies covered in this book, as its own story makes for something of an “everyman” experience of the various successes, challenges, and events, that drive the narratives of companies – famous and obscure – that did business in the Civil War: a “secession crisis,” loss of a Southern base of materials or customers, competition for lucrative army contracts, the costs of doing business with the government, charges of profiteering, and the challenges of being close to the battlefields; all informed by an interesting company history and founding philosophy.

William Procter and James Gamble, immigrants from England and Ireland, respectively, arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the early 1800s. James established himself as a soapmaker and William as a candlemaker. The men merged their businesses at the suggestion of their mutual father-in-law, Alexander Norris. A respected local candlemaker himself, Norris recognized both men competed for the animal fats from Cincinnati’s many slaughterhouses (the city had been dubbed “Porkopolis”), necessary ingredients in the manufacture of soap and candles. On this advice, the partners gave birth to the Procter and Gamble Company in October 1837. By 1859, on the eve of southern secession, P&G sales had reached $1 million and the company employed eighty people in its manufactory.


For P&G, a critical raw material was rosin. A key ingredient in soapmaking, rosin came almost exclusively from the harvest of trees from forests in the Deep South, arriving in Cincinnati on boats from New Orleans, the principal center of the trade. War would stall P&G’s relationship with southern rosin merchants, and thus stall the company’s ability to continue its primary product. It was this concern that prompted the principals to send their sons, William Alexander Procter and James Norris Gamble, to New Orleans in 1860. The two young men managed to quickly purchase a huge cache of rosin at the low price of $1.00 a barrel.

The purchase the two young men managed was no small deed: it proved the largest single acquisition of rosin made by any Cincinnati soap manufacturer up to that time. Wartime P&G employee John M. Donnelly, in his reminisces, regarded the New Orleans episode as “one of the many instances of keen foresight so characteristic of members of this firm in all its history.” Lacking the same foresight, the other local soap manufacturers considered the purchase extravagant and unnecessary, and predicted the doom of P&G.(4)

The gamble paid off for P&G. When war broke out only months later, other soap manufacturers scrambled to find rosin so they could submit bids and samples to the government. Donnelly later recalled that “Rosin went up to eight, ten, and fifteen dollars a barrel, and there was none to be had anywhere. Procter and Gamble were the only people who had any.” After close inspection of the P&G samples, officials gave the company contracts to furnish the western armies with soap and candles during the entire war.(5)

Still, lucrative government contracts had their own risks for the winning bidders. Before goods were shipped to the depots, they were subject to inspection, and the rigor and probity – or lack thereof - of the inspectors could have important consequences for the contractors. If too strict, they could refuse materiel, thus damaging the contractors’ profits; if too lax (or corrupt) they could do damage to the Union war effort. More important, delays in accepting the goods necessarily delayed payment. Donnelly maintained that the inspectors “never once failed to find [the P&G soap] up to the standard marked on each one of the boxes: ‘Full Weight.’”(6)


To be sure, not all suppliers to the Union Army were as particular about the quality of their goods, and P&G’s adherence to such high standards may have embittered other local manufacturers. One historian relates an anecdote in which a gang of hoodlums threw stones at the Procter home, breaking windows and hurling debris inside. A reporter explained that “both William Procter and James Gamble had been denouncing manufacturers who were cheating the government and the troops.” Procter in particular had exposed a company which was supplying soldiers with supposedly woolen blankets actually made of mere rags. An unexplained fire in a wing of the P&G factory during the war might also have been due to sabotage.(8)


Contracting during the Civil War had its disadvantages, but businesses also reaped the benefits of an unprecedented and unforeseen economic force: wide distribution of their products and labels, and subsequent name recognition by large groups of customers. P&G delivered their supplies to Camp Dennison, Ohio, where they were further distributed by the Union Army. When the cases of soap and candles carrying the P&G’s name and their “moon and stars” trademark reached the camps, soldiers used every scrap of material. Donnelly recalled, “It was often said at the army camps that the only seats provided for them were the Procter & Gamble soap boxes, but they had plenty of them.” After four years of this ersatz “advertising,” P&G became one of the best known firms in the North.(10)

The reputation for quality, and name recognition, that P&G sowed during the Civil War produced a harvest of innovation and expansion that transformed it into one of the nation’s largest and most familiar firms. To be sure, the saga of P&G in America’s great conflict is fascinating; even more so because it strengthens our own sense of identity with the average soldier. But the company’s experience is not singular: a host of other iconic names in American business – Brooks Brothers, Borden’s, Tiffany’s, Scientific American, du Pont, Squibb, American Express, and Wells Fargo – all have wartime narratives every bit as interesting.
Lincoln's Labels tells those stories and more!
More excerpts to come soon!


Endnotes (Selected)

1. Cincinnati Gazette, September 17, 1861, p.1.
2. Ibid
3. “The Civil War: Its Impact on a Border Community,” Cincinnati: Procter & Gamble Educational Services, 1984,“Border Community,” n.p.
4. Mark R. Wilson, The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), pp. 127-28.
5. “Border Community,” n.p.
6. Ibid
8. Oscar G. Schisgall, Eyes on Tomorrow: The Evolution of Procter & Gamble (Chicago: J. G. Ferguson, 1981), p. 18.
10. “Border Community,” n.p.

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