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Bon Ami Cleanser’s Connecticut Roots

By Philip R. Devlin.

Feldspar “waste” from a Connecticut pegmatite quarry source of the product.

Sometimes significant discoveries happen by accident.

In 1945, Percy Spencer of the Raytheon Company was standing in front of a magnetron — a device used to generate microwave radio signals in radar units for the U.S. Navy during World War II — when he noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted. He then placed popcorn in front of the device, and it soon popped all over the room. Within two years Raytheon produced the first microwave oven.

In 1928, Alexander Fleming accidentally forgot to cover a petri dish containing staphylococcus bacteria. Blue-green mold from bread had fallen into the dish. Fleming noticed how the moldy bread had inhibited the growth of the bacteria; thus was born penicillin, the first antibiotic, quite by accident.

At a pegmatite mine in South Glastonbury in the early 1880s, J.T. Robertson noticed that the shovel used to separate feldspar from quartz was always bright and shiny. Pegmatite consists primarily of three minerals: quartz, mica, and feldspar. Feldspar had been considered a waste product. Quite by accident, the shiny shovel gave Robertson a new idea that led to using feldspar to produce one of the most enduring products in America — Bon Ami cleansing powder. It was made in Manchester for the first 75 years of its existence.

According to John A. Pawloski’s excellent book, Connecticut Mining, pegmatite mining began in Connecticut in 1825. Though pegmatite mines were scattered throughout the state, most were concentrated within a belt about a mile wide and nine miles long extending from Glastonbury to Haddam. This area is known as the Middletown Pegmatite District. Within this district was a mine known as the Husband Feldspar Quarry in South Glastonbury. Since Glastonbury borders Manchester, the Husband Quarry became the source of feldspar for the Bon Ami Company.

J.T. Robertson used the feldspar “waste” to start the Robertson Soap Company in Manchester in 1886. He mixed it with soap and produced the Bon Ami soap cleanser. Within a year he had changed the name of the company to the Bon Ami Company. The key to the product’s appeal was the soft feldspar component that would not scratch surfaces, even porcelain; in fact, the company’s enduring logo became “Hasn’t Scratched Yet!” Its logo became a newly-hatched yellow chick, as a newly-hatched chick will live off of the nutrients of its egg for awhile before having to scratch the ground for food — a fact readily apparent to Americans 100 years ago but not well known today.

Only three corporate logos are older: the man on the Quaker Oats box, the Smith Brothers on the cough drop box, and the arm of Vulcan on the Arm and Hammer Baking Soda box. The company hired popular turn-of-the-century artist Ben Austrian to paint their chick logo. So popular were Austrian’s logos that many were printed as lithographs. (See photo.)

Right up until World War II, Bon Ami was the leading scouring cleanser in the United States. In fact, the Bon Ami Company was one of only 16 companies throughout the Great Depression of the 1930’s to pay a dividend every year! In the postwar period, new rivals appeared such as Zud, Ajax, and Comet. These cleansers often had chemicals such as bleach in them and used clever marketing techniques to grab a sizeable share of the cleansing market. In addition, Bon Ami had to endure a period of shady business practices in the mid-to late 1950’s involving fraud and other types of corruption, such as the misuse of funds and kickbacks. In 1958, the New York Stock Exchange threatened to de-list the company. The Manchester plant, down to 70 employees, closed its doors on October 31, 1959, after almost 75 years of operation.

After changing hands a few more times, the Faultless Starch Company of Kansas City, Mo., eventually purchased Bon Ami in 1971 and still owns it today. The purchase coincided with a growing societal awareness of concern for the environment. Bon Ami exploited that concern by promoting itself as an environmentally friendly “green” product containing no harsh chemicals. In fact, the new owners had it listed in the first Whole Earth Catalog of 1974, touting the fact that Bon Ami contained no disinfectants, bleaches, dyes, phosphates, or perfumes.

Furthermore, Bon Ami was used to remove scuffmarks from the floor of Skylab from 1973-1979, as other cleansers containing bleach would have harmed important components on the spacelab. The strategy worked, as Bon Ami has regained a healthier share of the cleansing market. In addition, the company has returned to its roots by once again using products that others regard as waste: the packaging for new Bon Ami products consists 100% of post consumer-used plastic bottles.

Beginning in 1825, pegmatite mining in Connecticut focused mainly on extracting mica and quartz for its first 60 years. Quite by accident J.T. Robertson realized that the feldspar component of pegmatite mining had value as well. He turned that insight into one of the most enduring products in American commerce: Bon Ami. The last pegmatite mining operation in Connecticut ended in 1991. Feldspar from Glastonbury has not been transported to the north side of Manchester for use in Bon Ami since 1959. Nevertheless, by emphasizing its environmentally friendly roots in Connecticut, Bon Ami has been able to re-invent itself as a ‘good friend” of the environment and continues to prosper to this day.

Notes and Sources:

  • Connecticut Mining: by John Pawloski: 2006; Acadia Press—a wonderfully concise and informative history on the subject; lots of photos.
  • Fundinguniverse.com
  • Bonami.com
  • Jiffynotes.com
  • “Bon Ami” is French for “good friend.”

 

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