The Beards That Made Rough-keepsie Famous

PrintPrintEmailEmail
 
 
 

Arthur G., Trade’s only son, found cough drops distinctly boring. It is a tribute to the dynamism of the brand that it survived Arthur, who died in 1936. When a professional corporate manager, attuned to modern techniques of market analysis, asked Arthur, “Where does the money come from?” Arthur’s answer was simply, “Why, the postman brings it.” But Arthur left two sons who took sore throats seriously. Billions of the black drops (and an orange-colored menthol version) flowed from the stamping machines under the management of William W. “Bill” Smith o and his younger brother, Robert Lansing"Brud” Smith. Temperamentally, Bill resembled his grandfather, while Brud was relaxed in the style of his great-uncle Mark. Bill was clean-shaven. Brud wore a minimal mustache.

When the time came to celebrate the Smith Brothers centennial in 1947, the siblings put on swallowtailed coats, grew beards reminiscent of their famous forebears, and found themselves celebrities in their own right. Brud was taken for Monty Woolley, the actor and bon vivant . Time, Life , and The New Yorker , each in its characteristic idiom, paid tribute to the brothers and recorded for posterity the high jinks connected with the one-hundredth birthday of the cough-drop factory. For a full week that April, employees and town notables dressed up in 1847 cos~ tumes, square danced, waltzed, and sang “Daisy Bell.” A thousand people dined in the state armory and heard Bill and Brud praised as outstanding industrialists who made twenty tons of cough drops a day and were therefore significant figures in the struggle against Communism.

 

Not everyone, of course, was up on the story. Once while the brothers and their employees were bearded, Bill, a millionaire, and his sales manager missed the last train home from New York and went to a hotel without luggage.

“That’s W. W. Smith, one of the Smith brothers,” Bill’s associate explained when the desk clerk demanded cash in advance.

“And I’m one of the Dolly sisters,” the greeter replied. “If you want a room you pay now.”

The promotional touch that had marked Smith Brothers activities from the beginning did not diminish during the stewardship of Bill and Brud. In the early days of radio broadcasting, Smith Brothers put a singing commercial on the air that raised the question whether the brothers, when bedded down for the night, slept with their beards inside or outside the sheets. Political candidates received a supply of cough drops with the cordial message, “We hope that they will help keep you in good voice during the campaign.”

The tablets can be taken freely as a dainty confection, and about 40 per cent of them are consumed that way. But the company’s archives bulge with thousands of letters testifying to the efficacy of the product as a relief for hoarseness, sore throat, and related symptoms. Some are quite unusual, such as a letter from a wellplaced lady in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, who wrote that the wonderful little drops had cured a severe case of laryngitis for her pet Pekingese. The design of the package remained unchanged under the administration of Bill and Brud. When it was mentioned once, because of its great antiquity, as a candidate for the packaging Hall of Fame, the boys commented dryly: “It is very complimentary to our stubborn resistance to modern design.”

The last pair of Smith brothers are dead. Bill passed away in 1955, Brud in 1962. The restaurant is no more, the premises being occupied now by a redemption center for trading stamps. The male Smith line having daughtered out, the name, good will, and assets in the boiled-candy field were sold to the giant Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical Company of Morris Plains, New Jersey, in 1963, and operations were shifted from Poughkeepsie to Rockford, Illinois, earlier this year. But the fragrance of anise and licorice still lingers around the old plant, along with that of liquid sugar, corn syrup, charcoal, and the mysterious “essential oils,” all ingredients in the 125-year-old throat refresher. It is still fourth in volume, following Halls, Vicks, and Luden’s, the first also a member of the WarnerLambert product family.

And what of Trade and Mark? Today they occupy a small spot on the northwest corner of the box whose design has been brought up to date in accordance with the expertise of what industry is pleased to describe as “packaging engineers.” Soon a generation will grow up and pass on that knows not Trade or Mark. The Roman poet Ovid pronounced an appropriate epilogue for the Smith brothers early in the Christian era when he wrote ” Tempus edax rerum ,” which translates (freely) into “Time marches on.”