A dandruff remedy, Wildroot Hair Tonic debuted in 1911 and was the first of what would eventually become an entire array of Wildroot hair care products manufactured in Buffalo, New York. An advertisement that appeared in the December 3, 1915 edition of the Buffalo Evening News was typical of the early sales pitch associated with the hair tonic.
We don’t say it will grow hair – nothing will do that but healthy hair roots. But we do say Wildroot will make sickly hair roots healthy and keep them healthy. Wildroot is a vegetable compound. It is sure death to dandruff germs, sure health to hair and scalp.
Give hair new life in both reality and appearance. Every hair can be saved if you start in time to use Wildroot – don’t delay. Thousands of users root for Wildroot.
A feature on Wildroot published in the December 19, 1921 edition of the Buffalo Commercial described how the business got its start.
The business was started by Robert J. Kideney and Morrell C. Howell. In fact in the early days Wildroot Hair Tonic was made in 5 gallon crocks in Mr. Howell’s home from the formula worked out by these men and first marketed to friends and acquaintances of the barber trade in the vicinity.
The 1908 Buffalo city directory listed Kideney’s occupation as “manager” of the barber shop located in Buffalo’s Iriquois Hotel, so it’s a safe bet that the product was first used there. This circa 1908 post card depiction of the hotel is courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum.
The name “Wildroot” was filed as the trademark for a dandruff remedy on September 2, 1911 by a business called the “Retone Company.” The notice was printed in “The Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office,” dated October 11, 1911.
Retone was apparently short-lived as the company name. That same year the 1911 Buffalo directory named Kideney “president” of the Wildroot Chemical Company and the following year the company itself was listed with that name and an address of 45 North Division Street. Later in 1918 the company name was shortened to the Wildroot Company.
Wildroot Hair Tonic newspaper advertisements began appearing as early as 1912. Curiously, the first advertisements appeared not in the Buffalo Commercial’s advertising section where they might get overlooked, but in the paper’s “Lost and Found” section. The two notices below were typical of this rather unique approach.
The following year the business expanded their product line advertising “Wildroot Shampoo Soap” as “specially recommended for use with Wildroot.”
By 1914 the business had outgrown their Division Street location facilitating a move to Buffalo’s Sidway Building. Located at Goodall and Main Streets, the company occupied two floors there for the remainder of the decade. Around the same time Harry Lehman assumed the presidency, with Kideney remaining with the company as vice president. Over the next 44 years the business would flourish under Lehman’s leadership.
During much of its first decade the company associated their name with a beauty parlor (or parlors) called the “Wildroot Hair Parlors. The parlor was operated by a woman named Bertha Courtright whose advertisement in the 1915 Buffalo city directory mentioned services that included hairdressing, shampooing, manicuring, facial massage and scalp treatments. A November 28, 1915 item published in the Buffalo Times leads me to believe it served a high end, female clientele.
Thats not to say that women were their only target audience as evidenced by this November 19, 1915 advertisement found in the Buffalo Evening News.
One “over the top” advertisement found in the Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal targeted both men and women blaming dandruff on the hats they wore. Disguised as a news story the March 23, 1915 item was headlined:.
The following story read in part:
The tight fitting hats worn by men nowadays and women’s stylish but poorly ventilated hats are to blame for the hair-destroying dandruff germ. Lack of fresh air and the pressure of the hat band shuts off blood circulation from the arteries of the scalp. The scalp tissue then gets weakened and is attacked by the microbe. The truth of this statement is proven by the fact that leading scalp specialists all over America have accepted it…
Our great chemists have given the world one positive way of regaining long, heavy, wavy, silky hair in “Wildroot,” that wonderful old remedy that has never failed to destroy the dandruff germ. But “Wildroot” as made nowadays is lots quicker in action than it used to be, for its nourishing, cooling vegetable oils are at once absorbed into the hair pores, and its first few days’ use brings back a healthy scalp in which no dandruff germs can live…
Their advertising, while misleading, was successful to the point where by decade’s end an October 19, 1919 story in the Buffalo Courier announced that another move to still larger quarters was in the works.
To adequately care for their growing export trade and the nation-wide demand for their products they have been compelled to purchase a property which will permit of greater production.
Through Parke, Hall & Co. this firm has just purchased the premises of the Bison City Table Company…situated at 1490 – 1500 Jefferson Street. This property now consists of a large two-story brick building 90 x 170 and several smaller frame and brick buildings which give a floor area of about 50,000 square feet.
This photograph of the main building was included with the Buffalo Courier story.
The company immediately set about remodeling the plant and by the time the December 19, 1921 Buffalo Commercial feature was published had increased the available factory space by 5o percent to 75,000 square feet. The feature went on to make it clear that the company had come a long way from their days at 45 North Division Street, where their entire work force initially numbered six.
80 x 260 feet ground space with a factory space of 75,000 square feet, giving steady employment to 100 people…
The concern is now doing an annual business of $1,000,000. The Wildroot line is being handled by 75,000 barber shops, some 50,000 drug stores, as well as being found on the toilet goods counters of the leading dry goods stores and hair dressing establishments of the country.
The concern maintains a staff of eighteen traveling representatives in the field, three men of which are engaged in New York alone. To assure prompt service and distribution to the trade, the company maintains seven warehouses in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City and San Francisco. Shipments are made to these points in car lots, from which spot distribution is carried on. The product is now likewise being exported to Great Britain, South America and several other foreign countries.
It was also around the end of the decade that the Wildroot Company made a little aviation history when they shipped 600 pounds of their product from Buffalo to New York City by air. According to a story in The (Carlisle, Pennsylvania) Sentinel:
“It was the first aerial freight trip across the state,” said W. G. Richardson. Other short trips have been made around the state, but it was the first time that the state was crossed by air with a load of freight.”
The trip took place on October 20, 1919 and the following day this photo, shot just before take-off, appeared in the Buffalo Courier.
The details surrounding the flight were included in the Sentinel’s story and are worth a read.
This was the situation that cropped up for the Wildroot Company:
An advertising campaign that it is conducting in New York made it extremely necessary that a quantity of its product be sent there as soon as possible. The railroads were tried and found wanting. Strikes on the express companies and other strikes forbade their use as a messenger.
“We didn’t know what to do at first,” said Robert J. Kideney, vice president of the company…” Then we thought of sending it by air and the Cuttiss company supplied an aeroplane and a pilot. That did the trick.”
Captain Chase took the air at the Curtiss field at Buffalo and planned to make the trip by way of Syracuse and Albany, because of the stops provided there. He had to descend at Troy, because of slight engine trouble, but he got started again.
The Wildroot product line grew throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s over which time some non-hair related products were added. One, advertised in the early 1920’s was a liniment called “Lincohol’ that got its name from “Lin,” meaning liniment and “cohol,” meaning alcohol. Others included a concentrated mouth wash called “Five Star Anteseptic Powder,” and another simply called “Wildroot Skin Lotion.”
That being said their main focus remained hair products as evidenced by this advertisement entitled “12 Best Sellers,” found in the August, 1941 edition of a publication called Chain Store Age. All twelve were hair related products.
World War II and the need to ration alcohol served as a catalyst for what would become Wildroot’s biggest seller during the 1940’s and 1950’s, Wildroot Cream-Oil. The June 13, 1943 edition of the Wichita (Kansas) Eagle told the story.
Introduced at a time when the hair tonic business was at its wits end to devise means of getting around alcohol rationing, Wildroot Cream-Oil got off to a head start because it contains no alcohol. Instead it contains Lanolin, a well-known and frequently prescribed soothing ingredient which closely resembles the natural oil of the human skin. The product is homogenized for uniformity and what the customer buys is a pleasant smelling cream that flows readily – only a few drops being required to keep the hair in place, relieve dryness and remove loose dandruff.
The story went on to say:
Few products have ever hit a market as much “on the nose” as the new Wildroot Cream-Oil formula according to J. Ward Maurer, advertising manager for the Wildroot Company who today announced an extension of advertising plans with the Wichita Eagle. Intensive advertising in newspapers rounds out the heaviest campaign in the annals of the company.
That fall several versions of this advertisement appeared in newspapers across the country.
A story in the October 19, 1946 edition of the Pittsburgh Courier made it clear that print was only a part of their overall marketing strategy when they hired Nat King Cole as the headliner for a national radio program to be aired on a weekly basis.
In the first move of its kind in more than ten years, the Wildroot Company signed the King Cole Trio to an indefinite contract to headline their own nationally aired commercial program.
Scheduled every Saturday via the NBC chain, the new commercial will be given its airing this Saturday at 5:45 P.M. EST. For several weeks it will present a stage, screen or radio famous star. It’s initial broadcast will be guest teed-off by song sensational Jo Stafford, the internationally known radio and recording artist.
The program’s debut was publicized in newspapers nation wide. In Minnesota, radio station KSTP’s promo was included in the Minneapolis Tribune and looked like this:
The Pittsburgh Courier story went on to say:
The program long under wraps in New York as executives of both the radio chain and Wildroot cleared the way for a national airing, will be presented as a musical show spotlighting the trio. They will be presented as star entertainers, America’s number one musical outfit without racial or religious tags.
The King Cole commercial will be aired for fifteen minutes and will not be an audience show. It will follow through with the usual product announcements and be heard on every NBC station in the country.
The program, well received, went on to broadcast weekly for well over a year. An April 23, 1948 story in the Lincoln (Jefferson City, Missouri) Clarion served to underscore the popularity of the venture even while reporting its demise.
The King Cole fans received quite a shock this week to learn that the famous trio has been dropped recently by the Wildroot Hair Oil Co., after 78 consecutive weeks of broadcasting. Reason for the latest venture on the part of the Wildroot Company was that the company budget had allotted the radio spot to a series of commercials. Doesn’t make much sense in view of the fact that the trio figuratively “sunburned” from spotlight honors this year, to say nothing of the tremendous popularity of the radio spot itself.
The company’s innovative advertising campaigns continued into the 1950’s with print, radio and television commercials. They even had famous cartoonist Al Capp come up with a character named “Fearless Fosdick,” who promoted their cream oil in a comic strip. Here’s an example from the March 1, 1954 issue of Life Magazine.
The company even sponsored one of, if not the first, give-away at a major league baseball game. According to the July 19, 1950 edition of the (Bucyrus, Ohio) Telegraph Forum:
Barbers Have Day At Tribe Stadium Aug. 2
It will be the well-groomed man, complete with hair shampoo and sheared looks, that attends the Cleveland Indians – Washington Senators night game here Aug. 2.
Some 4,000 barbers minus their shears, will converge on the stadium as the guest of the Wildroot Company.
To make sure the barbers feel at home, the company will hand out a regular bottle of the new Wildroot cream shampoo to the first 20,000 males to pour through the gates.
The company remained at their Jefferson Avenue location until 1946 when the need for expansion forced another move. According to preservationready.org, at that time they took over the former Grennan Bakery building located at 1740 Baily Avenue.
Wildroot took over the former bakery and connected two warehouses on Fay Street with a second story bridge. Wildroot also constructed a three-story administration building that connected the original warehouse to Baily Avenue.
By 1959 the company was topping $60,000,000 in sales but that same year Lehman, then 76, sold the company to Colgate-Palmolive. The March 2, 1959 edition of the Charlotte (N. C.) News reported the sale.
Colgate Buys Wildroot Firm
The Colgate-Palmolive Co. has announced that it has completed negotiations for the purchase of the Wildroot Co. The formal signing took place in Buffalo N.Y.
The Wildroot Co. will now operate as a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive. Manufacture of the Wildroot products will be continued at the Wildroot plant in Buffalo, but marketing will be taken over by the toilet articles division of Colgate-Palmolive April 1.
Lehman would pass away later that same year on October 29, 1959.
Despite their commitment to keep the Buffalo plant open, two years later the Rochester (N. Y.) Democrat and Chronicle reported the plant’s closing in their April 13, 1961 edition.
Buffalo Plant to Be Closed
The Colgate-Palmolive Co. yesterday said it will close its Wildroot Division plant here by mid-July.
The company which purchased the hair tonic business two years ago for $14 million from the Wildroot Co., said production would be shifted to other Colgate-Palmolive plants.
A spokesman for the company said “rising freight and re-shipping costs, plus duplication of operations,” were responsible for the shutdown.
About 90 persons are employed at the Buffalo plant. There was no indication that transfers would be made of the personnel.
Colgate-Palmolive continued to manufacture Wildroot products until 1995 when they sold several brands, including Wildroot to a Florida firm called Stephan for $12 million. According to a story that appeared in the January 3, 1996 edition of the South Florida (Fort Lauderdale) Sentinel.
The name Wildroot hair tonic conjures up images of the 1950’s: the stuff that teenagers oiled their hair with in those days.
What most people don’t know is that the brand name is alive, still on store shelves, and is now owned by a Fort Lauderdale based maker of skin and hair care products, Stephan Co.
“It has market, it has sales and it has earnings,” said Stephan spokesman Chuck Walsh.
On Tuesday, Stephan closed a deal to buy Wildroot and five other personal care brands from Colgate-Palmolive Co.
Colgate-Palmolive spokesman Bob Murray said the company sold the brand names because it wants to focus on its core brands such as Colgate toothpaste, Palmolive soap and Mennen deodorant.
The brand name is still visible today as both a hair tonic and hair cream.
The company’s last Buffalo home at 1740 Baily Avenue remains standing to this day, though its been unoccupied for years. This relatively current picture is courtesy of Google Earth.
I’ve found two Wildroot bottles, both machine made. The first appears to be an early hair tonic bottle with Wildroot embossed along both sides. A labeled example recently appeared for sale on the internet.
The second bottle has a one inch square cross-section with slightly sloped sides and a screw-top. Two sides are embossed “Wildroot.” On the other two sides, one is embossed “Special Wave Set,” and the other “Extra Heavy.”
I actually found a 1930 advertisement touting the two products side by side.