MANCHESTER HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Bon Ami – “Hasn’t Scratched Yet”

Compiled by Jim Hall from various sources noted below
Excerpted from: "The History of Manchester, Connecticut" by Mathias Spiess and Percy Bidwell, 1924

The Orford Soap Company.

The most widely known of Manchester’s products, with the exception of the Cheney silks, is Bon Ami (“Good Friend”), the cleanser manufactured by the Orford Soap Company. The founder of the business was the late J. T. Robertson, who invented and began the manufacture of a “mineral soap” in Glastonbury in 1885, using a newly-hatched chick as its emblem and “Hasn’t scratched yet” as its slogan. In order to obtain additional capital Mr. Robertson formed the J. T. Robertson Company and moved to Manchester in 1891. He made his products, which included shaving and toilet soaps, in an old grist mill owned by W. H. Childs near the corner of Oakland and North Main Streets. Only three or four helpers were employed.

The expansion of the business in the past [since 1924] thirty years has been largely the result of an aggressive advertising campaign and a good product making it widely known. In 1893 William H. Childs, a resident of the north end who had become interested in the new product, undertook to market it, forming for the purpose a partnership with W. H. H. Childs of New York. The J. T. Robertson Company gave to Childs & Childs, the selling agency, a five-year option to purchase the manufacturing rights. The policy of consistent advertising having proved successful, the option was taken up and the Bon Ami Company was organized as the distributing agency and holding company, and the Orford Soap Company was formed as the manufacturing concern.

In 1899 the original factory on Oakland Street was destroyed by fire, and shortly thereafter the business was transferred to the factory on Hilliard Street formerly occupied by the Mather Company. In 1903 the entire Mather plant was occupied and since that time several additions to the plant have been constructed. Its present [1924] assessed value is $622,000 and 150 persons employed.

The Bon Ami Company, a holding corporation and the marketing agency, is [1924]capitalized at $3,500,000. It operates factories in the United States and in Canada. Eversly Childs of New York is the president of the Orford Soap Company, and William H. Childs, formerly a resident of Manchester, is vice-president. It is largely owing to the latter’s vision of the possibilities of the product and his courage in carrying on the advertising campaign that the business became a success. William W. Robertson has been factory superintendent since the death of his father, the late J. T. Robertson, in 1922.

Webmaster Note: To see a short biography of John T. Robertson on this web site, for whom the Robertson Elementary School is named, please click here.


Excerpted from “A New England Pattern” by William E. Buckley

The loss of the silk industry was the major economic calamity in post-World War II Manchester; and Bon Ami was not immune, either. Since 1890 Bon Ami had been made at or near the former Mather plant on Hilliard Street. In the 1950’s, control of the company changed hands several times and in 1959 the Securities and Exchange Commission suspended trading of its stock on the Exchange on the grounds that it had no longer sufficient sales to qualify for listing. That same year the management announced that its Manchester factory had shown an operating loss of $375,000 the preceding year and that it was to be closed.


Excerpted from “Old Manchester II – THE STORYTELLERS” by M. K. Adams

Webmaster’s Note: The short histories above tell you facts; however, remembrances such as from “The Storytellers” give you a more personal flavor of the firm; it’s also far more entertaining and informative. The first one was related by Richard S. Childs, in June 1973. The title of the first story is, appropriately, “A Soap Opera”.

In Glastonbury, not far away was the J. B. Williams Soap Company, makers of Williams Shaving Soap — its leading item — and a full line of other soaps. It made from locally mined ground quartz a scouring soap like Sapolio, which was one of the greatest trademarks of that era. The quartz was crudely intertwined with its chalkier and softer white cousin, feldspar. The latter was cobbed off the chunks of mineral by hand at the mine, and it occurred to someone to grind up some of that pile of discarded feldspar and offer it as a gentler soap for polishing rather than scouring, naming it “Brightness.” But neither product was promoted effectively by Williams and sales were negligible.

J. T. Robertson, their plant superintendent, quarreled with the management, resigned, and came to Manchester to set up a parallel business of his own in an old idle mill with water power, which my grandfather Childs owned. Local men, including Father, took shares in the enterprise, and the J. T. Robertson Soap Company began to make a line of a dozen soaps like Williams, including “Brightness.” A minister named Burgess on the board of directors, being of a literary turn, was assigned to coin the new trademarks, and the soft mineral soap was baptized Bon Ami. It was not an ideal trademark, for soon there were at least five usages of its pronunciation, and how many grocers called it Bonamy turned away customers asking for Bon Am-Eye will never be known.

Robertson knew nothing of selling or promotion methods and consumer advertising ventures foreign to his character. Father spotted opportunity in Bon Ami — it was different from Sapolio — housewives liked it for windows and mirrors for which Sapolio was too gritty and sharp. It could go its own way without being affected by Sapolio’s big advertising. But the Robertson Company’s Board had no funds or nerve for trying that long road; Father could try it with his own money if he wanted to, and they would make it for him.

My Father took the opportunity to his Cousin William H. H. Childs in New York. His cousin was 17 years older and a millionaire who had already found him “good for his undertakings.” So the firm of Childs and Childs obtained the Sole Rights to sell Bon Ami and we moved to New York. Housewives liked Bon Ami. The sales grew. The samplings gangs distributed small samples of the cake from house to house in expanding areas and repeated every three years — a “still hunt” that gained ground but did not alert other soap companies to bring out a competitive product.

Bon Ami continued in family hands and became one of the great national trademarks without ever encountering a prime competitor. The trademark, a little yellow chick just out of the eggshell with the slogan, “Hasn’t scratched yet,” is still remembered. The stock was put on the New York Stock Market while the family retained enough for some years to elect a Board of Directors, and the sales expanded to profitable millions. The controlled stock descended by inheritance into the hands of grandchildren of no pertinent experience and was finally sold to a Philadelphia wholesaler of good repute, who, however, accepted an offer within a year from a new group originating in Las Vegas. They proved to be a group of crooks who turned every asset of the company into cash, stopped all advertising and promotion, and left it a dismantled wreck. For that, two respectable-looking principals went to Atlanta penitentiary after which the imperishable trademark was picked up by individuals and corporations in a succession of ownerships, and is now in the ambitious hands of the Faultless Starch Company of Kansas City. It has begun a studious attempt to restore the sales with modernized forms of production, including the original cake, the powder form in the sifter can, and a trigger-canned spray.

Webmaster’s Note: The web site for Faultless Starch / Bon Ami is:  www.faultless.com/.


 
Excerpted from “Old Manchester II – THE STORYTELLERS” by M. K. Adams

Webmaster’s Note: The second item, part of a much longer remembrance, was related by Henry “Bud” Brooks, on July 18, 1888. The title of this segment of Mr. Brooks’ story is, “Working at Bon Ami”.

The Bon Ami Company, what I first recall, was the place to work in town. People thought they were great in the North End of town because they gave big, they gave Christmas bonuses, and it supposedly was a very solid company.

Somewhere during the Depression, or shortly after, I think they went into financial hard times. But as a kid, we used to go down to Bon Ami, had showers. We were allowed to go in and use the showers after we played baseball, things of that sort. And it was a community kind of thing. And I always felt Bon Ami did have that kind spirit, community spirit.


So: Where Did the Chick and the Saying Come From?

The image of the chick was created by noted artist Ben Austrian (1870-1921), whose paintings specialized in chickens, ducks and other poultry associated with farm work. The use of the chick and the saying itself was doubly warming, not only since young chickens are arguably among the cutest fowl, but also because — for the first couple of days of their lives — they haven’t yet begun to scratch the dirt. And since Bon Ami, unlike other cleansers, could not scratch glass, the mating of the two was a natural.

As noted in an biography on Austrian (at http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-18C), “Austrian’s work, which warmly and with perfect accuracy depicted animals and scenes of country life, instantly appealed to an urban public nostalgic for a lost, simpler life.” Which probably sounds pretty familiar.

Please click Austrian works to see Google-searched sampling of images of his work.

Please click Bon Ami ads to see a Google-searched sampling of ads for Bon Ami over the years.


The Bon Ami Building on Hilliard Street Today

The former Bon Ami building is now the home of the Time Machine Hobby company. The building retains much of its former structure, and is one of a number of tour locations which are periodically given by the Manchester Historical Society. Check our Events page to find the next tour there. Meanwhile, click each of the photos below of prior tours at the Building. Exterior photos are by Susan Barlow.

               

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