The Beards That Made Rough-keepsie Famous


Attached to every city in America is at least one illustrious industrial name. In Detroit it is Ford. In Durham it is Duke. In Milwaukee it is Schlitz, who made “the beer that made Milwaukee famous.” In the annals of Poughkeepsie, New York, it is Smith, or rather the brothers Smith, William and Andrew, whose patronymic is recognized wherever people cough. What Gloversville has been to gloves, Meriden to silverware, and Battle Creek to breakfast cereals, Poughkeepsie has been to medicated cough candy. There, on the banks of the Hudson River, two canny Scots made the throat lozenge an American institution, rivalled in popularity only by the town’s next most widely known product, Vassar girls.

It was a lucky day for four generations of Smiths when the bearded brothers had their bushy faces crudely cut on woodblocks (the photoen-graving process having not yet been invented) and reproduced in line drawings on cardboard boxes containing exactly sixteen black, licoricetasting troches. The arrangement of the graphic elements on the carton was such that the cut of William appeared tobe identified as “Trade,” while Andrew was captioned as “Mark.” This juxtaposition tickled the national sense of humor, and the whimsical idea that the proprietors were named Trade Smith and Mark Smith enabled said Smiths to prosper as few Smiths ever have.

William, hereafter known as Trade, reached the scene of his lifetime endeavors as a consequence of a kind of Diaspora of Smiths from Fifeshire, Scotland, in 1831, followed by a pause of several years at St. Armand, Quebec, in the Lake Champlain area, just above the Vermont line. Here Andrew, or Mark, was born. It is significant of developments yet to come that the Smith family were long remembered in their Canadian parish for their splendid candy pulls. When Trade and Mark were still young, the family, headed by a James, made their final move, this time to the market town and old whaling port of Poughkeepsie. There in 1847 James started a small restaurant, ice-cream saloon, and candy business.

The family enterprise was first carried on under the title of “James Smith and Son.” The son was Trade, then known as the Candy Boy on the streets of Poughkeepsie, where he peddled stick candy and the tasty cough drops. According to Smith tradition, James Smith obtained the recipe for the cough candy from a pack peddler named Sly Hawkins. Whether the consideration was five dollars or, as a variant account has it, the settlement of a board bill, cannot now be ascertained. At any rate the remedy, first called James Smith & Sons Compound of Wild Cherry Cough Candy, was cooked up in five-pound gooey batches in the cellar kitchen of the Smith “Confectionery and Dining Saloon” and advertised on a modest scale in 1852 “for the Cure of Coughs, Colds, Hoarseness, Sore Throats, Whooping Cough, Asthma, &C, &C.” This claim was soon (and wisely) dropped, and the Smiths thereafter confined their enthusiasm to the actual benefits conferred by their formula, which produced increased salivation and warmed and soothed the irritated membranes of the throat.

In 1866 James Smith died and Trade and Mark took over the family interests, shifting the major emphasis to the medicated candy. Hoarseness and catarrh were endemic in the chilly, damp climate of the Hudson Valley. Cough-drop sales soared as the dynamic little pastille demonstrated that it really could relieve raspy larynxes. Retailers dispensed the drops in paper envelopes, hand filled with loose tablets from glass bowls. Pictures of the Smith brothers were printed on gummed paper and pasted on the bowls, a pioneering effort to maintain the identity of a bulk product through trade channels to the ultimate consumer.

The hair in the gravy was that success raised up a host of piratical competitors. Imitators called themselves Schmidt Brothers, Schmid Brothers, Original Smith Brothers, or Improved Smith Brothers, and there was even a pair of Smith Sisters. All endeavored to palm off their goods as the genuine and popular Poughkeepsie merchandise. Some rivals associated their drops with such bearded Presidents as Lincoln, Garfield, and Grant (Trade somewhat resembled Grant) and warned the buyer to beware of imitations. The authentic Smith brothers countered by registering their trademark in 1877, which makes it one of the oldest and most famous in America. This was fast action, for it was only in l870that Congress had first passed legislation providing for the registration of trademarks. The legal theory was that injustice is done to one whose goods have acquired favor with the public if imitators are free to substitute their merchandise by copying the distinctive symbols or designs of the original proprietors. The point is wrapped up in the oftquoted dictum of Lord Langdale: “A man is not to sell his goods under the pretense that they are the goods of another man.” The reasoning of Trade and Mark was that while multitudes shared their name, their whiskers and nicknames were theirs alone. The 1870 trademark statute was held to be unconstitutional but a similar one was re-enacted in 1876 with the objectionable features eliminated, and the Smith brothers were active in the courtroom when it was necessary to defend their right to their own faces.