10 Origin Stories of Common Household Products

While houses may look entirely different on the outside, most of them contain very similar products on the inside. Sink cleaners, microwaves, dishwashers, air fresheners and hand soaps can be found in all kinds of homes across the world. But just because something is a household name doesn’t mean it is boring. Here are some fascinating histories behind a few common household products. Of course, if you don’t have any of these products or brand names in your house, then you’re probably either a hardcore hippie or you’re living in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

20 Mule Team Borax

Admittedly, many homes find themselves without borax these days, but there was a time where it was one of the most common cleaning products around. Of all borax brands, 20 Mule Team Borax is most certainly the best known, in part due to their distinctive packaging depicting a mule team carrying a number of cargo containers. The name was created all the way back in 1890 and the distinctive logo was created in 1891. In that time period, twenty-mule teams were actually used to carry borax from the desert where it was collected to the closest rail station. To help promote their brand image, the company even sponsored a radio and television program called Death Valley Days. The program, which was broadcast on the radio between 1930 and 1945 and on television between 1952 and 1975, dramatized real stories of the Old West. Source, Image via dok1 [Flickr]

Air Fresheners

I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that people have been covering up odors with pleasant fragrances since the beginning of time, but our modern concept of an air freshener is much more modern than that. In fact, the sprayable air fresheners we’re all familiar with weren’t introduced to the public until 1948. The original spray bottles used were based on military developments that were originally designed for dispensing insecticides. Of course, this major technological advance used a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) propellant, which was later discovered to wreak havoc on the ozone layer. Modern air fresheners all use different technology, but the concept is still the same. Source, Image via Roadsidepictures [Flickr]


These days, Colgate is known for making toothpaste, which is why it just might surprise you that during the first 67 years the company was open, they didn’t touch the stuff. Instead, they sold soaps. It wasn’t until 1873 that the company introduced their first toothpaste, which was originally sold in jars. Tubes of Colgate weren’t released until 1908. Source, Image via thelampnyc [Flickr]


There were a few early attempts at making an automatic dishwasher, but most of these early machines were ineffective and primitive. The first invention truly considered to be a precursor to modern dishwashers wasn't created by an inventor or even a frustrated housewife who was tired of scrubbing plates all day. Instead it was a rich woman named Josephine Cochrane (above), who was simply sick and tired of her servants chipping her expensive China plates. She is said to have exclaimed, "If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I'll do it myself!" Although it was hand-cranked, Josephine’s dishwasher incorporated a lot of design concepts that are still used to this day. She started out by building separate compartments for the different types of dishes. She then designed a copper boiler with a wheel inside. When the motor turned, hot water would spray from the bottom of the boiler and fall back down on the dishes. The design worked fairly well and it wasn’t long before Josephine made dishwashers for all of her friends and then put hers on display at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Although her design never took off commercially, it did serve as the main inspiration for all the machines that followed. Source


I think I might have to sneeze, can you hand me a “Cheesecloth UGG?” I don’t know about you, but I am pretty darn glad that Kimberly-Clark didn’t decide to name their disposable tissues after the material it was made out of. The Cheesecloth UGG material was developed by the company during WWI and was soon used as a cheap gas mask filter in place of cotton. After the war, the company started selling the material as a disposable facial tissue, originally marketed as an effective way to remove cold cream. The first Kleenex ads, placed in magazines in 1925, exclaimed that the product was, "the new secret of keeping a pretty skin as used by famous movie stars." While Kleenex are now considered a must-have for those with colds, the company originally canned the idea of marketing them as a disposable alternative to handkerchiefs after their head researcher first made the suggestion. Soon enough though, they decided to dedicate a small bit of ad space to the marketing concept and by the 1930’s the idea was popular enough that their main advertising slogan was “Don’t Carry a Cold in Your Pocket.” Source, Image via Logictivity


While we tend to think of Listerine solely as a mouthwash, it was originally purported to be useful for all variety of applications including a surgical antiseptic, a feminine hygiene product, a floor cleaner, a deodorant, a dandruff treatment, even a cure for gonorrhea. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that the company’s marketing team actually suggested it be used as a mouthwash that could treat chronic halitosis. In fact, bad breath wasn’t considered that big of a deal until after the marketing team started putting out ads that showed an engaged woman whose fiancé had bad breath. In the ads, she asked, "can I be happy with him in spite of that?" Within seven years of launching the ads, the company’s revenues raised from $115,000 to over $8 million. Of course, the company’s snake oil tactics continued throughout the nineteenth century. Up until 1976, they marketed the mouth wash as a prevention method and treatment for colds and sore throats. More recently, they promoted the idea that rinsing with their product was just as effective as flossing, something dentists found to be utterly reckless and dangerous to public health. Source, Image via chamisa flower [Flickr]


There are many brilliant products that were discovered by accident and the microwave just might be one of the most amazing. In 1945, Percy Spencer was hired by Raytheon to improve radar sets through the use of magnetrons, which generate microwaves that allow for smaller objects to be detected on radars. He was working on one of his radar sets when he noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had started to melt. He quickly realized the melting was caused by the microwaves being emitted from the magnetrons and he started experimenting with cooking different foods in the waves. He soon developed a large metal box which would prevent the microwaves from escaping. The device was extremely effective at cooking foods in a short amount of time. Raytheon filed a patent for the microwave in 1945 and gave one of their devices to a Boston restaurant for testing. The tests were a success and in 1947, the company released their first commercial version to the public. It was 5’11” tall, weighed about 750 pounds and cost $5000 (about $49,500 after inflation). The first one of these devices was installed in the NS Savannah, a nuclear-powered ship. It’s still there today. In 1952, Raytheon licensed their technology to the Tappan Stove Company to develop a home version. Their first creation was released in 1955 and cost $1,295 (about $10,500 today). This model sold poorly, but in 1967, Raytheon partnered with The Amana Corporation and finally released a counter-top sized microwave that cost $495 (around $3,000, BTW that's an Amana Raytheon model above). This device did a lot better in the home market and as the price of the technology came down and other companies started to release their own lines of microwaves, the device became more and more popular, peaking in the 1980’s as companies released full cookbooks based around microwave cooking. These days, it’s estimated that 90% of American homes have a microwave. Source, Image via jmv [Flickr]

Noxzema and CoverGirl

Noxzema was originally sold as a treatment to relieve sun burns. In fact, it was originally referred to as “no-eczema.” The treatment proved popular as it was the first sunburn treatment that wasn’t tallow-based and oily. The product gained popularity throughout the beginning of the nineteenth century and really took off during the 1940s when the company started advertising on radio programs and in magazines and newspapers. In the fifties, the company started selling other products, the most popular of which was the CoverGirl cosmetics line, which was notable for containing Noxzema’s medicated ingredients. That’s right, Tyra Banks wouldn’t have a show if it weren’t for sun bathers at the turn of the last century. Source, Image via defdif [Etsy]

Proctor & Gamble and Ivory Soap

One of the world’s biggest conglomerates, Proctor & Gamble started as a tiny enterprise created by two immigrants, William Procter and James Gamble, who met after they married the sisters Olivia and Elizabeth Norris. William was a candlemaker and James was a soapmaker and it wasn’t long after the two were introduced that their new father-in-law, Alexander Norris, urged them to go into business together. They officially started working together on Halloween of 1837 (yes, that means the company has been around for almost 175 years now). While the company grew fairly steadily, it really took off during the Civil War. At that point, the company was awarded a contract to supply the Union with its soap and candle needs. Proctor & Gamble received a huge boost from these sales, but they also were able to attract a massive new customer base by allowing thousands of soldiers to try out their products. Proctor & Gamble’s next big boon occurred when they started selling Ivory in 1879, which had two major benefits over other soaps of the time period: it was one of the least expensive and it floated in water, so it was easier to keep track of during bath time. The soap is now one of their oldest products still on the market. The reason Ivory floats is also the reason it’s cheaper than other soaps: it has air whipped into it during production. An old urban legend claimed that the company discovered this on accident when someone left the machines on to long, but P&G records show that the invention was very intentional and took quite a bit of research. It wasn’t until 1911 that the company first started branching out from soap and candlemaking for the first time. In fact, their first product to diversify the line was Crisco, which was also a major hit for the company as it was one of the first shortenings to use vegetable oils instead of animal fat. As you could probably guess by Proctor & Gamble's massive number of products on the market today, Crisco did pretty darn well and the company continued to innovate and diversify throughout the rest of the century. Sources #1 and #2,

Vacuum Cleaners

Like Josephine Cochrane and her dishwasher, Hubert Cecil Booth was not the first person to work on a vacuum cleaner, but he was the first to set the standard for our modern versions. Hubert was inspired when he saw a demonstration of a precursor to the vacuum that used air to blow dust and dirt away. It occurred to him that it would be much more effective to suck the dust and dirt up and filter them using a cloth. He tested his idea by putting a handkerchief down on a chair and then sucking on the back side of it. When he looked at all the dust on the bottom of his handkerchief, he realized that he was on to something big. Hubert’s first vacuum may have given birth to the concept, but it looked nothing like our modern machines. It was a massive device with an oil engine that was pulled down the street by horses. The machine, nicknamed the “Puffing Billy,” would pull up outside of the place that needed to be vacuumed and then the operator would attach hoses that stretched from the street to the full extent of the building. It’s hard to imagine something so massive and invasive gaining a lot of steam, but Hubert’s machine caught a lot of attention when it was used to clean the carpets of Westminster Abbey before Edward VII’s coronation in 1901. Throughout the years, Hubert continued to work on his machine, making it smaller in scale and replacing the oil-powered engine with one that was electric. Hoover beat his company when it came to the competition for the household market, but the company continued to thrive in the industrial circuit. The pneumatic tube systems once used at banks and other large institutions were grandchildren of Hubert’s first vacuum design. Source, Image via BVC How many of these products do you use? Will your opinion change now that you know their companies’ histories?

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I'm pretty sure that when Listerine touted itself as a product for "feminine hygiene", it was literally a euphemism for birth control or to induce miscarriage. Creepy, right? Same thing with Lysol!
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