The Remarkable Legacy of Cellucotton

In the latest edition of "Forgotten History," Dan O'Donnell examines the fascinating story of a Wisconsin company's gas mask filter that became one of the world's most ubiquitous products.

World War I was Hell, not just in a philosophical "War is Hell" sense, but literally Hell on Earth for soldiers trapped in the trenches. They fought for weeks on end over inches of territory, while dysentary and disease ran rampant. If a bullet or bomb didn't kill, the conditions would.

And that's to say nothing of the gas. Every soldier dreaded the gas. Chlorine, bromine, phosphene, mustard gas. It could cripple in seconds, kill in minutes, and it could descend on a trench at any moment.

War was Hell, and back home, American businesses worked like hell to support the troops who had to live through it.

Far from the trenches, a company in the small city of Neenah, Wisconsin developed a cotton bandage that soldiers could use to quickly dress wounds on the battlefield. They loved it; it was easy to use, clean, and effective, and it saved countless lives--so many, in fact, that the company devoted much of its time, energy, and resources to aiding the war effort by mass producing what it called cellucotton.

Soldiers in the trenches couldn't get enough of it. And when the gas descended, they started using cellucotton to line their gas masks. Suddenly, the company back in Neenah had to dramatically ramp up their production since cellucotton was saving more lives than ever before.

The company could barely keep up with demand. Cellucotton was suddenly one of the most valuable products on earth...until "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918, when America and its allies signed an armistice agreement with Germany.

Suddenly, cellucotton wasn't needed in the trenches, on the battlefield, or anywhere. And the company had entire warehouses full of it. It had ramped up production to the point that there was no possible way to get rid of a product for which there was literally no demand.

The company was in deep trouble. It had spent a fortune but now couldn't sell its stock. So it got creative. The early 1920s saw the rise of a brand new industry in America: movies. Audiences by the millions flocked to theaters to see silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Rudolph Valentino.

Men modeled their looks after the suave leading man, while women wanted the beauty secrets of gorgeous starlets like Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, and Greta Garbo. Makeup sales skyrocketed, and the company had an idea. What if it marketed its cellucotton bandages as makeup and cold cream removers?

The new product was released in 1924 and was instantly a massive hit. In one of Hollywood's first examples of product endorsement, the company hired the most beautiful and glamorous movie stars it could find to endorse it as their beauty secret. Almost overnight, cellucotton became a staple of every woman's makeup kit, and the company quickly sold all of its reserves and once again struggled to keep up with the demand.

And not just from women. Men began raiding their wives' makeup kits and used their cold cream remover to blow their noses. Why carry around a disgusting used handkerchief when they had an endless supply of disposable cellucotton--especially after the company patented a pop-up box that always had a handkerchief at the ready.

Of course, since it was the 1920s, men didn't want to be seen using a women's product, so they wrote letters by the thousands to the company asking for a line of disposable cellucotton handkerchiefs for them.

In another stroke of genius, the company did, and within just a couple of years, far more people--men and women--were using its cellucotton to blow their noses. So the Kimberly-Clark Corporation changed itsmarketing strategy again and emphasized its use as a disposable handkerchief.

And with that, Kleenex was born.

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