Whistle is an orange soda that hit the U. S. market in the Spring of 1916. Still sold today, it’s height of popularity occurred in the 1920’s when, according to one newspaper source, it out-sold Coca Cola in New York. Early on, it’s advertising slogan was:
Thirsty? Just WHISTLE
The Whistle story begins with a native Texan named Vess (Sylvester) Jones. According to a feature on Jones published in the July 20, 1922 edition of an advertising publication called “Printer’s Ink,” his business career began, not in the soda business, but in the garment industry.
He had been in the clothing specialty line and had built up a profitable trade, but he finally went broke as a result of a prolonged garment strike.
As early as 1912, he had become engaged in the syrup/soft drink business in Oklahoma City where several local newspaper accounts indicate he was serving as the Oklahoma representative for a Texas firm called the Jersey Cream Company of Fort Worth. By 1914, he had moved to St. Louis, Missouri where the 1914 city directory listed him as the vice president of the Orange Julep Company.
The 1922 “Printers Ink” feature picks up the story from there.
In 1916 Vess Jones thought of an idea for a new soft drink…
Having observed that the orange is an unusually popular fruit, Jones figured that a good beverage with orange juice as its chief ingredient should be almost equally as popular. Now Jones wasn’t the first person to hit upon the orange as the nucleus of a palatable beverage, and he knew it, but his formula called for something different from anything he had ever tasted. He aimed to mix a beverage that would make the majority of persons imbibe several drinks at a single sitting.
So, with an idea and $5,000 in savings Jones established the Orange Whistle Company, setting up shop (the “Printers Ink” story referred to it as a shack) at 315 North Main Street in St. Louis where he was initially listed in the 1916 directory. The company’s incorporation notice was published that February in the “Southern Pharmaceutical Journal.”
Though he settled in St. Louis, according to the “Printer’s Ink” feature, his first client was located in Illinois, not Missouri.
When his first batch of syrup was ready for marketing he hired a horse and wagon and started out to make the people of St. Louis acquainted with, as well as cultivate a liking for his new beverage. The bottlers of that city, however, didn’t display any particular interest in Whistle, even when Jones promised to create a demand for it, for at the start it meant no more to them than a hundred and one other soft drinks that have come and gone. Disappointed but not discouraged, Jones shifted his activities to Illinois, just across from St. Louis.
“I’ve got the best soft drink you ever drank.” Jones informed the first bottler he interviewed in Illinois, “and if you will bottle some of my syrup according to my formula and send it out to your dealers, I’ll spend my own money to move it from the counters.”
The proposition appealed to the dealer and he purchased some of the syrup, promising to bottle it immediately. By the time Whistle was ready for the public, Jones had made a tour of the city with his horse and wagon and put up signs and tacked posters around the stand or store served by that particular bottler. He supplemented his outdoor advertising with copy in the newspapers. Two weeks later the bottler, realizing that he had a valuable commodity, asked for and obtained the exclusive bottling rights to the city.
At first glance the above story appears to be nothing more than a fictional tale pumped out years later by an advertising agency, however, recognizing that the earliest newspaper advertisements for “Orange Whistle” appeared in Mattoon and Bloomington, Illinois, two cities located just north of St. Louis, lends credence to the story.
In Bloomington, this April 22, 1916 advertisement in their local newspaper called “The Pantograph” associated Orange Whistle with the H. Quosick Bottling Company.
In Mattoon, it was the Union Bottling Works, whose similar ad was published in the April 25, 1916 edition of Mattoon’s “Journal Gazette.” In fact, in Mattoon, according to this April 18th advertisement in the “Journal Gazette,” Orange Whistle was already being dispensed at the soda fountain in Frank J. Ritter’s Drug Store.
The following month, Orange Whistle newspaper ads were appearing in nine nearby states and by year end that number had increased to 15 states, all in the south and midwest. This rapid growth required the geographical expansion of Whistle’s manufacturing capabilities as evidenced by this story announcing the opening of a new plant in Greenville N.C. It was published in the January 21, 1917 edition of the “Greenville News.”
The Orange Whistle Company…has completed its plant on South Main Street and is now shipping its product to the bottlers of the Carolinas. The concern is one of five in the United States in which the Orange Whistle syrup is made..
Orange Whistle is a comparatively new drink, having been placed on the market only in the last year or so. It originated in St Louis and until the first of the present year, all of the syrup was made there. The demand for the new drink, however, was so great that it became necessary to establish additional factories in various parts of the country.
The story went on to say that Greenville, apparently like Jones’s other newly established plants, was supported by local capital and management.
When the city was selected local capital was invited to take stock in the enterprise. As soon as the fact became known that the company in St. Louis had determined upon Greenville as the logical place for supplying the Carolinas, a number of local business men made a hasty trip to St. Louis with the result that the Greenville Orange Whistle Company was formed.
A similar company, called the Orange Whistle Company of Indiana, was formed later that year around a newly established plant in Evansville Indiana. The pitch to local investors there was included in the July 6, 1917 edition of the Evansville “Courier and Press.”
By mid-1917, less than two years after being established, the company operated a total of seven factory locations, Six were located in the southern and midwestern U.S. cities of St. Louis, Missouri; Dallas, Texas; Birmingham, Alabama; Chattanooga, Tennessee, Greenville, South Carolina; and Evansville, Indiana, the seventh in Havana, Cuba.
By 1918, in addition to manufacturing Orange Whistle, Jones had begun to establish companies to bottle and distribute it as well. According to a September 15, 1918 story in the St. Louis “Globe Democrat:”
Organized in January, 1916, its operations for the first two years were limited to furnishing syrup to bottling concerns. Last January it embarked in the bottling business on its own account, and has plants in several other cities, principally in the South.
Meanwhile, back at their St Louis headquarters, the company was also expanding. Their original “shack” on North Main Street had been replaced with a factory located at 1035 North Grand Avenue and offices at 1418 Pine Street. In addition, the September 15th “Globe Democrat” story announced that a new, upgraded bottling plant was also in the works. Located in what was called the Cadillac Building, at 2920-22 Locust Street, it was described like this:
Equipment that will surpass that of any bottling concern in the United States, it is declared by Jones, will begin to arrive not later than October 15, under terms of the contract, and the cost will aggregate $80,000. Much of the machinery is being constructed under specifications furnished by the head of the Orange Whistle Company, to give it national leadership and also to effect an increase in capacity over the present plant of 500 percent, while lowering the labor force by 50 percent.
The new plant will have a capacity of 144,000 bottles a day. It is what is known as a low-pressure system. Empty bottles are cleaned, sterilized, given a double rinsing, filled, labeled and capped by machinery, without once being touched by human hands.
Early in 1918, the company was also expanding into the northeast and in February they established the Orange Whistle Company of N.Y. The incorporation notice was published in the February 20th edition of the “New York Times.”
The following year, the Whistle Bottling Company of Manhattan was established.
The above incorporation notice, published in the June 5, 1919 edition of the “New York Tribune,” located the bottling company’s offices at 111 Broadway in lower Manhattan. A week later the company leased a building on East 19th Street to serve as their new bottling plant and by August 12th, advertisements in the Tribune announced that “Whistle was now on sale in New York,” and invited the public to inspect their new plant.
Bottling plants in The Bronx and Brooklyn were added in the early 1920’s. According to a December 15, 1922 item in the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle,” the Brooklyn plant was established on Clifton Place.
The industrial department of Bulkley & Horton Co. have leased to The Whistle Company of America the entire building at 197-199 Clifton Pl. to be used as their main distributing and bottling plant to handle Brooklyn and Queens territory.
In the Bronx, the plant was located at 1360 La Fountaine Avenue
What was happening in New York was also happening in other parts of the country and by 1922 the business had certainly achieved a national presence. Around this time the company formed a Delaware corporation called the Whistle Company of America to serve as a holding concern for the various Whistle entities. The holding company’s incorporation notice was published in the April 14, 1922 edition of the “New York Times.”
The new parent corporation was headquartered on Washington Street in New York City , where it was listed in the 1922 N.Y.C. Directory along with both the Manhattan and Bronx bottling companies.
The 1922 “Printers Ink” story put some numbers to their exponential national expansion.
The old shack in St. Louis certainly enjoyed a rapid and healthy growth. Its only a memory now, but its offspring in the form of robust syrup plants are flourishing in sixteen large cities in this country and three in Canada. And these same plants furnish syrup to 1,200 bottlers, who, in 1921 sold 150,000,000 bottles of “Whistle.”
The story went on to credit much of their success to advertising, which at the time totaled $300,000 annually in signs, posters and newspapers. According to the “Printers Ink” feature:
For every gallon of syrup a bottler purchases the company agrees to spend at least ten cents advertising Whistle in that bottler’s territory. As a rule however, it invests from fifteen to twenty cents, and not infrequently it has spent three dollars a gallon at the start in order to create a demand for a new bottler.
It appears the company also supplemented these locally targeted advertising dollars with some rather unique general campaigns as well. One, likely considered “state-of-the-art” at the time, caught my attention as well as the attention of the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch,” who described it in a November 30, 1919 story.
MOBILE BILLBOARD TO ADVERTISE SOFT DRINK
A novel motor truck with a specially built body to be used for advertising purposes by the Whistle Bottling Co. has made its appearance on the streets of St. Louis during the last few days.
Miniature billboards, the length of the truck and about three feet high, are built on either side of the truck and in the rear. Each of the boards is electrically illuminated for display at night and artistically decorated. Pictures of various Whistle plants throughout the country are painted on each side.
C. L. Griggs, national advertising manager of the Whistle Bottling Co., said the truck would be sent to Chicago to attend the National Automobile and Truck Show in January and later would make an ocean-to-ocean journey, calling on many of the plants of the concern throughout the country. Motion pictures during the summer will be shown on a curtain attached to the rear of the truck. The pictures will show how a soft drink is made.
And that wasn’t the company’s only tricked-out truck as evidenced by this undated photograph exhibiting one with a hand-held bottle of Whistle popping out the top.
Also contributing to the company’s success was the attention given to “quality control.” According to Vess Jones in his own words:
“It’s a simple matter to sell anything once,” Mr. Jones said. “But unless you have a standard and see that everyone connected with it lives up to the standard, you’re not likely to hold your market, for confidence that is once betrayed is rarely regained. We could hand out franchises and then forget about them, but we don’t. It’s our duty to see that every franchise is kept valuable, and we do this in various ways.
Before we grant a bottler a franchise we get his rating, learn how he stands with the retail trade, investigate his plant to discover his daily capacity, see how many trucks he operates, and what else he bottles. If he doesn’t own an up-to-date bottling machine we insist that he install one before we will give him a franchise.
Provided a bottler seeking a franchise meets certain prerequisites, we have him sign a contract in which he agrees to keep his plant fit at all times for visitors’ inspection, to buy all his syrup for Whistle from us, to manufacture Whistle strictly according to our formula, to use only bottles with the name ‘Whistle’ blown in, to use them for nothing but Whistle, to see that every bottle of the product carries a Whistle label before it leaves his plant, and to paint his trucks with Whistle colors – orange and blue.”
Sometime in 1927 or 1928 Jones began manufacturing other favored drinks in addition to Orange Whistle. Marketed under the brand name “Vess,” one of the earliest was a ginger ale called “Vess Dry.” An introductory advertisement that appeared in the April 3, 1928 edition of the “Scranton (Pa), Times Tribune,” described it as :
Containing the purest spices available-genuine JAMAICAN GINGER- Pure Cane Sugar and blended FRUIT Essences.
As far as I can tell, at this point the manufacturing arm of the business was now called the “Vess Beverage Company.” At the same time, they continued to bottle and sell the Vess flavors and Orange Whistle utilizing the “Whistle Bottling Company” and its local franchises.
All that aside, there’s little doubt that the success of the overall business was due primarily to Orange Whistle. That success continued until the late 1920’s when the fluctuating price of sugar served as the catalyst for a downturn that ultimately lead to Jones selling the business to long-time employee, Leroy O. Schneeberger. The circumstances that lead up to the sale were recounted by Schneeberger’s son, Donald, in an interview published years later, in the March 29, 1981 edition of the St. Louis “Post-Dispatch.”
“In those days, Whistle provided sugar for its bottlers,” Schneeberger said. “The price of sugar rose sharply. Went from 4 cents to 20 cents a pound, and kept going. Whistle negotiated a contract at 20 cents, but the sugar producers wouldn’t deliver at that price. They had buyers for 30 cents.
Whistle sued. The sugar companies delayed until sugar went down to 4 cents. Whistle won – and had to pay 16 cents more than the market rate.
That drained the company. When the crash came, well, it killed them. My father bought the company for $10,000.
Schneeberger went on to say that only the midwest portion of the business survived.
Vess was never again anything more than a regional brand – the midwest region that the Schneebergers owned. The country was divided into four equal areas. The other three were not aggressive. They let it slip away. You can imagine what it was like trying to get four people to agree on advertising and marketing. That’s what really held it back…
The company operated under Leroy Schneeberger for the next 30 + years. As early as the mid-1930’s they introduced several new brands, one of which was Cleo Cola.
The Cola had a short but noteworthy history as told by Don Schneeberger in another interview, this one published in the June 27, 1994 edition of the St. Louis “Post-Dispatch.”
One name got its start from his father’s habit of smoking Cleopatra cigars, Schneeberger said. “He took the drawing of a girl in an abbreviated costume off the cigar label, put it on a drink bottle and called it Cleo Cola.”
The bottle looked good, Schneeberger said, but it brought protests that it would not be appropriate for a church picnic.
So his father took the girl off the bottle and substituted a shield. He fooled around, changing the bottle and script for the name.
That turned out to be a bad move, Don Schneeberger said. The company was hit by a suit from Coca-Cola, charging trademark infringement in the way the C’s were written. Coca-Cola won and Cleo had to pay a royalty on every case.
The name Cleo is clearly visible in the photograph of this 1935 Vess delivery truck, found in the June 28, 1970 edition of the “Kansas City Star.”
Another new 1930’s brand was a lemon-lime soda called “Bubble Up, advertised as “THE BILLION BUBBLE BEVERAGE.” Both Cleo Cola and Bubble Up made an appearance in this June 25, 1939 Vess advertisement published in the “Chillicothe (Mo.) Gazette.”
The company must have liked the “Billon Bubble” phrase because it wasn’t long before they were lumping the entire menu of Vess beverages under that phrase.
And…Orange Whistle had not been forgotten, as evidenced by this February 13, 1941 “St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times” advertisement that touted its “modern-styled BIG 12-ounce bottle.”
In late 1946 the company became one of, if not the first, to market a caffeine free soda. The December 10, 1946 edition of the St. Louis “Star and Times” announced it like this:
NO CAFFEIN IN NEW VESS COLA DRINK
A “First” has just been achieved by Vess Cola with the announcement by company officials that they are now featuring an entirely “caffein-free” cola drink. Distribution of the new Vess Cola, with no caffein, has now been completed in this area.
The removal of caffein from Vess Cola adds to the appeal of this popular drink. With all the true cola flavor, sparkle and refreshment quality in, and the caffein out, its the wholesome drink for children as well as adults
A known stimulant, caffein is capable of hindering sleep and of aggravating caffein sensitive nervous systems. Normally over-active children often react to caffein by becoming more jumpy and high-strung. With the caffein out, Vess Cola can be drunk early or late without risk of this over-stimulation.
Vess Cola with no caffein has now been distributed to retail outlets and is available throughout this area. Bottled under license of Vess Beverage Company by Vess Bottling Company, St. Louis. Mo.
In the late 1940’s ads like this were appearing in several midwest states.
Many ads went on to include this little jingle:
So whether you drink it early or drink it late,
Vess Cola doesn’t over-stimulate.
No wonder mothers say “Yes” to Vess Cola
The favors keen with no caffein,
According to Donald Schneeberger’s 1994 interview, their caffeine-free soda turned out to be an innovation that appeared well before its time.
Caffeine-free drinks got popular in the 1980’s. But in the 1940’s Vess didn’t have enough money to advertise the no-caffeine drink fully. It passed on without a lot of notice – no big deal.
Still headquartered in St. Louis, throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s it appears the company, now called Whistle & Vess Beverages, Inc., continued to utilize the facilities of the former Whistle company. Then in late 1949 they began construction of a new St Louis facility, a rendering of which was included in the December 25, 1949 edition of the St. Louis “Post-Dispatch”
According to the story that accompanied the rendering
Work has started at the southwest corner of Hereford Avenue and Arsenal Street on a new building to house the offices of Whistle & Vess Beverages, Inc. and the company’s locally franchised bottling agency, the Vess Bottling Co.
The parent concern…now has its office in the Arcade Building and the local bottling agency at 2925 Locust Street
At this point, according to another item in the story, the company was once again branching out geographically with “150 franchised bottlers, all located west of Indiana to the Pacific and south to the border.” That being said, the bulk of their newspaper advertising continued to be focused on Missouri and the surrounding states.
Leroy Schneeberger continued to run the business until 1968 when, according to a March 29, 1981 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, he sold Vess to a conglomerate. In an effort to continue the “truck’ theme, here’s the conglomerate’s 1970’s version of their delivery truck.
The 1981 St. Louis “Post-Dispatch” feature went on to say that under the conglomerate:
Vess went flat- lost 70 percent of its St. Louis business, 90 percent of its out-of-town trade.
The above statement is bolstered by the fact that in the two years between 1974 and 1975, at least two of their bottling franchises, one in El Paso, Texas and the other in Kansas City, Missouri, filed for bankruptcy.
In 1975, Donald Schneeberger, who had been working at Vess with his father until the mid-1960’s when he left to form another bottling/canning operation called Custom Packaging Corp., bought the company back. He promptly published this notice in the December 3rd edition of the St. Louis “Post-Dispatch.”
The younger Schneeberger served as president of Vess from 1975 until 1994.
During his term as president the business apparently made a comeback as evidenced by this item that appeared in a June 27, 1994 “St Lois Post-Dispatch” feature on the company.
In 1975, when he bought the company, it was turning out about 650,000 cases of soft drinks a year. In the last year it has turned out almost 18 million cases and had revenue of $50 million.
By then, according to a June 1, 1994 St. Louis “Post-Dispatch” story the company was still turning out its Orange Whistle along with 13 other sugar-sweetened flavors, eight varieties of diet soda and spring waters.
It was around the same time, in June, 1994, that Schneeberger sold both Vess and the Custom Packing Corporation to the Cott Corp. of Toronto. The June 27th St. Louis “Post-Dispatch” feature went on to say:
In buying Vess for $27 million, Cott gets a 235,000 square-foot plant here in the Westport area, plus a 130,000 square-foot warehouse and the 154,000 square-foot (Custom Packing) plant in Sikeston.
Donald Schneeberger passed away on December 27, 2019. His St. Louis “Post-Dispatch” obituary stated, in part:
Today his iconic flavors; Whistle Orange, Cream, Grape and Strawberry as well as many others are family favorites to this day.
Here’s an advertisement depicting today’s version of Orange Whistle’s packaging.
At least two St. Louis buildings occupied by the various Whistle/Vess companies over the years remain to this day. One is the Cadillac Building, leased by the Orange Whistle Company in 1918 to house their bottling plant. Located at 2020-22 Locust Street, here’s its present look, courtesy of Google Maps.
The other is the one built in 1949-50 at Hereford Avenue and Arsenal Street to house Vess. Again, here it is courtesy of Google Maps.
The bottle I found is machine made and contains 6-1/2 ounces. In addition to “WHISTLE,” embossed prominently on the shoulder, the words “WHISTLE BOTTLING CO., GLENWOOD LANDING, N.Y.” are embossed in small lettering along the heel of the bottle.
The Glenwood Landing reference almost certainly associates the bottle with the bottling company of a man named George Sessler. Sessler operated a bottling business in Glenwood Landing on Long Island, N.Y.’s north shore from 1907 until sometime in the 1930’s and possibly longer. The 1925 “Beverage Blue Book” specifically identified his business as a “Whistle” franchise.
In addition to his Glenwood Landing plant, Sessler also operated one on Long Island’s south shore in Baldwin, N.Y., as evidenced by this introductory advertisement that appeared in the May 10, 1923 edition of Rockville Centre (L. I.)’s “Long Island News and Owl”
More on George Sessler can be found in another post on this site.
Why Sessler was supplied with syrup from the Whistle Company of Pennsylvania as opposed to New York is unknown.
Our bottle exactly matches the Orange Whistle bottles depicted in advertisements that date from the late teens up through the mid to late 1920’s.
Ads like this one found in the May 7, 1931 edition of the St. Louis “Post-Dispatch” suggest that by the early 1930’s the company had transitioned to a different bottle design.