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Philip W. Drackett: Earned profits, plaudits

By Barry M. Horstman, Post staff reporter

First came indoor plumbing. Then clogged drains.

And then Philip W. Drackett.

It was often said that Drackett was not a household name, but rather invented household names.

Many of the cleaning products that he and his Cincinnati company developed or sold - Drano, Windex, Vanish, Behold and Endust, among others - are universally known and used in most American households.

The results of Drackett's chemical curiosity and marketing ingenuity have been unclogging stopped-up drains, removing stains and rust, polishing furniture and cleaning windows and toilets for three-quarters of a century.

Born in 1854 to a Cleveland family in the shipbuilding business, Drackett decided early in life to pursue a different career, built around his after-school interest in experimenting with chemicals. While in high school, he began working in a drugstore, progressing to an apprentice pharmacist upon graduation.

After getting married, he opened a drugstore near Cleveland but continued tinkering with new chemical compounds. His fascination continued after he sold the store and became a sales representative for drug supply houses, first in Nashville and later in Cincinnati.

But it was not until he was in his mid-50s, with his two sons grown, that Drackett decided to try to turn his hobby into a career by plunging into another new - and financially risky - profession.

In 1910, Drackett and his wife, Sallie, started a brokerage firm that sold bulk chemicals such as soda ash, caustic soda, chlorinated lime and denatured alcohol to janitor-supply companies, laundries and other industrial users throughout the Midwest, South and West.

Five years later, by which time the young company was packaging the chemicals it sold, Philip Jr. and Harry Drackett joined their parents' business.

For the decade after World War I, P.W. Drackett & Sons was the nation's largest manufacturer of medicinal quality Epsom salt. But the consumer-oriented elder Drackett had already detected another need that he felt offered considerably greater growth potential.

By the early 1920s, indoor plumbing had become the standard in America. As a result, its inevitable companion - stopped drains - also became commonplace.

Drackett's experiments at his company's Spring Grove Avenue plant eventually led to a mixture of caustic soda and aluminum granules that, through a chemical reaction, generated heat and a churning action capable of clearing away drain clogs. (After learning later that a Pittsburgh firm had patented a similar product, Drackett signed a royalty agreement that gave his company exclusive grocery-store sales rights.)

Mrs. Drackett, who for years effectively served as the company's ''front office,'' is credited with naming the company's first major consumer-product breakthrough in 1923. An English purist, she insisted on using a macron - a small dash - above the ''a'' to ensure the correct pronunciation of Drano and leave no doubt as to its intended purpose.

Armed with glass demonstration pipes, about 50 Drackett salesmen fanned out across the Midwest, displaying Drano's effectiveness in visually dramatic tests in department stores and at food and home shows. Two-inch ads also were placed in Good Housekeeping and other women's magazines, and within seven years Drano had developed from an unknown product to the top national seller in its field.

During the same period, Harry Drackett became the company's president when his father moved to Los Angeles, where he oversaw Pacific Coast sales until his death in December 1927.

In the 1930s, Harry spurred Drackett's expansion with a move that followed his father's formula by balancing solid consumer research with gutsy, audacious action.

Rapid growth in the automobile and building-construction industries had spawned a geometric expansion in the use of glass. While many glass cleaners were on the market, none was particularly effective.

But, when Drackett developed a product called Windex in 1933, the timing seemingly could not have been worse. It was the depth of the Depression, when clean windows were the least of many American families' concerns. This was a marketing nightmare compounded by having to compete not just with other similar products but with ''free'' water.

Even so, Windex caught on, helped along by a savvy seasonal promotion at Halloween that extolled its use in removing tallow marks on windows. Another early print ad went so far as to suggest that using Windex could be a matter of life and death: ''Danger - Don't Drive with Bug-Blur on your windshield,'' said the ad.

Drackett also expanded into soybean extraction and by the mid-1940s was one of the biggest soybean processors in the Midwest, producing a wide array of products ranging from candy treats for dogs to a textile fiber that could be blended with rayon, wool or cotton.

Over the next half-century, Drackett's own research or acquisition of other companies gave it nine national leaders in their product category: Drano, Windex, O-Cedar mops and brooms, Crystal and Automatic Vanish toilet bowl cleaner, Endust, Nutrament dietary products and Twinkle copper/silver cleaner.

In 1965, Drackett - then led by Harry's son Roger, the third and final generation of the family to run the business - became a subsidiary of Bristol-Myers. Then, in 1992, ''the house that Drano built'' was sold for $1.15 billion to Wisconsin-based S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., commonly known as Johnson Wax.

For a company that began as a husband-and-wife kitchen-table operation, the billion-dollar sale was - fittingly enough - a truly impressive job of cleaning up.

Publication date: 05-21-99

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