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!!
(Edinborough Press, 2009)
by James M. Schmidt
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:
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.
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)
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.
More excerpts to come soon!
1. Cincinnati Gazette, September 17, 1861, p.1.
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.
8. Oscar G. Schisgall, Eyes on Tomorrow: The Evolution of Procter & Gamble (Chicago: J. G. Ferguson, 1981), p. 18.
10. “Border Community,” n.p.