1. Adolph “Adi” Dassler – Adidas
Adi and his brother Rudolph owned their own shoe company in Germany during the 1920s and 30s. Their products were so popular, many of the German competitors in the 1928 Olympics wore Dassler Brothers shoes. But during WWII the brothers had a falling out. While both joined the Nazi party, Rudolph was more fanatical and went off to fight, leaving Adi to make shoes for the military. After the war ended, Rudolph left and formed his own company, Puma. Adi then renamed the original company after himself, and Adidas was born.
2. King Camp Gillette – Disposable Razor
King realized early on that people liked things they could use for a short time and then throw away. Since constantly sharpening your razor was a pain, he decided to come up with a disposable one. After five years of work he finally succeeded, and founded the Gillette Safety Razor Company in 1901. King came up with the idea to give away the razor for free and charge men for the blades. He also believed in a socialist utopia, where all companies would be combined into one, which would be owned by the public. He offered Teddy Roosevelt a $1 million salary to be head of this theoretical company, but was turned down. He also believed that everyone in the United States should live in one giant city called Metropolis, which would be powered by Niagara Falls.
3. Candido Jacuzzi – Hot tubsThe seven Jacuzzi brothers emigrated from Italy to California in the early 1900s. Once there they started coming up with innovations for the big new craze: the airplane. Their biggest hit was the creation of the first plane with an enclosed cabin, which the US Postal Service bought to deliver mail. According to legend, their mother was worried about her sons’ safety and eventually convinced the brothers to change jobs. They started concentrating on hydraulic pumps for irrigation and hospital use. In the late 1940s, Candido’s young son Kenneth started suffering from arthritis. He received hydrotherapy at a hospital, but his father decided his son needed to have access to it at home as well. He filed a patent for his invention, but it wasn’t until another relative, Roy, joined the business years later that they started selling their Jacuzzi tubs to the public.
4. Charles Rudolph Walgreen – Drug storesToday Walgreens pharmacies can be found in more than 8,000 locations around the US. But originally, Charles had nothing to do with pharmacies. He was working in a shoe factory in the late 1800s when he lost part of a finger in an accident. The doctor who patched him up managed to convince him to become an apprentice in a drug store. Eventually he became a licensed pharmacist, but enlisted to fight in the Spanish-American war before he could do anything with his new skills. At the war’s end, he started opening pharmacies that also had other amenities like over-the-counter goods and soda fountains. Soon Walgreens were popular hangouts, and Charles owned a chain of hundreds of them before his death in 1939.
5. Earl Tupper – TupperwareEarl wasn’t always in plastics. Originally he was a landscaping man, but the Great Depression put him out of business. He got a job at DuPont and created a lightweight, flexible plastic, which the government then used for gas masks during WWII. In 1948, ten years after he founded the Tupperware Plastics Company, he was contacted by a woman named Brownie Wise. At that time Tupperware was sold in stores, but Wise had started selling it at women’s get-togethers to great success. She and Earl joined forces and soon he pulled his entire line from shops and it was sold exclusively at these “Tupperware Parties.”
6. Frank Zamboni – Ice Resurfacers
Image credit: Zamboni.com
Before household refrigerators were common, the ice making business was booming. But in 1939, twelve years after Frank and his brother started their ice block business, refrigerators were popular enough that they saw little future in the venture. Stuck with many large refrigeration units, they decided to open an ice rink. It was there that Frank, who had no more than a 9th grade education, came up with a way to resurface the ice. Originally it took three men an hour and a half to get it done, but in 1949 he invented the precursor of the ice machine we know today. Now one man could resurface a rink in ten minutes. Like Xerox and Kleenex, Zamboni is a trademarked word that we now use to refer to all ice resurfacing machines. In April 2012, the 10,000th Zamboni ever sold was delivered to the Montreal Canadiens.
7. Dr. Klaus Märtens – FootwearThe Nazis were apparently very good at footwear. Like Adidas, Doc Martens were designed during WWII by Klaus while he was on leave from the German army due to an ankle injury. He experimented with making better boots for himself, and when the war was ending and Germans started looting from their own cities, he managed to get his hands on a bunch of leather. When the war officially ended he pilfered more from disused Luftwaffe air fields. He was surprised to find when he opened his shops that 40% of the people who purchased his comfortable, durable boots were housewives. Once his shoes were popular enough, an English company bought the rights to distribute them in the UK. Since it was only 1959 and feelings towards Germany were still negative, the name was Anglicized to Doc Martens.
8. Orville Redenbacher – PopcornThe creator of the most popular popcorn in the United States didn’t even start selling it until he was almost 50 years old. Orville spent most of his life breeding corn hybrids, tens of thousands of them, until he found one that would pop 40% larger than normal corn. Since this special corn, called “RedBow,” was more expensive, many distributors were hesitant to buy it. Orville hired a Chicago marketing company for $13,000. Their advice? Call the popcorn Orville Redenbacher’s and put his picture on the label. While Orville was fond of saying his mother came up with that idea for free, it worked and starting in the 1970s he was appearing in dozens of popular television commercials and going on chat shows to convince the public he was a real person.
9. Josiah Wedgwood – Pottery
Josiah may be remembered today in his eponymous pottery, but his life was far more exciting than that association would lead one to think. In his day he was a prominent abolitionist, and his pottery company made a medallion with the design of a black slave on his knees with the motto, “Am I not a man and brother?” He produced large quantities of the medallion and distributed them for free through the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Fashionable women started wearing them as jewelry and men smoked pipes with the image on the side. It became the most widely recognized image of a black person during the 1700s. Sadly, Josiah died before slavery was abolished in England. However, he also has the distinction of being the grandfather of Charles Darwin.
10. William Henry “Boss” Hoover – VacuumsBoss’s last name is so synonymous with vacuum cleaners that in the UK it is both the go-to noun and verb; there they hoover the house with a hoover. But it wasn’t Boss who came up with the idea. James Murray Spangler invented the first upright vacuum in 1908 because his asthma was exacerbated by the dust the carpet sweeper used at his work stirred up. He was making one every 2-3 weeks when he loaned a model to his cousin Susan Hoover. Her husband, Boss, was looking for a new business venture since he was a leatherworker and the popularity of the car was reducing people’s need for his goods. He seized the opportunity and bought Spangler’s patent from him. But if only a few people had been interested in Boss’s leather goods, absolutely no one was interested in his weird sucking machine. Desperate, he put an ad in a popular magazine allowing what was possibly the first ever “free at home trial.” The gimmick worked and within four years the Hoover Company was an international brand.
11. Linus Yale, Jr. – LocksLinus was originally a gifted portrait painter. But in 1858, his father died and Linus started working at the lock company his dad had founded. Once there, Linus used his drawing skills to envision ever more complex and secure locks. In order to make sure companies bought from him and not his competitors, Linus learned how to pick their locks and would demonstrate how easily they could be broken into at banks and businesses. He died of a heart attack in
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There are plenty more where these came from. If there’s an eponymous brand whose history you’d like to know more about, leave a comment and we’ll talk about a sequel.