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Soapmaker built cosmetics giant

By Barry M. Horstman, Post staff reporter

The two industries are as divergent as any could be: slaughterhouses and the soap-cosmetics business.

Yet without the lard by-products from the foul-smelling stockyards, there would be no pleasant fragrances from the soap business. So when Andrew Jergens and a partner opened a soapworks in 1882, he decided the logical location was near Cincinnati's meat-packing plants, on Spring Grove Avenue in what is now Camp Washington.

Over the next century, Jergens' one-kettle soapworks grew into a cosmetics giant that produced America's top selling hand lotion and a popular facial soap sold with one of the most famous slogans - ''For the Skin You Love to Touch'' - in advertising history.

Jergens was born in March 1852 in a small village in southern Denmark, about a decade before the region was annexed by Germany. When he was 7, his parents brought their two sons to America, where they settled on a rented farm near Tell City, Ind., an Ohio River port halfway between Louisville and Evansville. At 20, Jergens moved to Cincinnati, where he became an apprentice in the wood-graining trade, the profession he pursued until he entered the soap-making business.

He and a neighbor, Charles Geilfus, worked together in 1880 in a short-lived soap business on Freeman Avenue. When Geilfus approached him in 1882 about financing another bid at soap production, Jergens invested his entire $5,000 in savings - an unusually bold move for a man who displayed the stern, lifelong thrift taught by the poverty of first generation immigrants. Years later, when such economies were no longer necessary, his wife and son were embarrassed time and again by having to take the elder Jergens' worn-out pants to a seamstress on Race Street to be cut into pants for ''the boy,'' as Jergens always called Andrew Jr.

It was a well-reasoned risk, though, because Jergens launched his soap company at an opportune moment in American industrial and social history: when the industrial revolution was changing customs and a growing middle-class was becoming more concerned with the refinements of life.

Because Jergens had provided the capital, the new business was named after him - The Andrews Soap Co. - and he became its president. But the title conferred little privilege in the early days, when Jergens joined Geilfus and another associate, W.L. Haworth, in stirring the kettle where the coconut oil soap was made and in selling it door-to-door in a horse-drawn wagon. When one batch of soap was ready, production stopped until enough bars had been sold to pay for the next 1,000-pound ''pipe'' of coconut oil.

In 1894, the firm was renamed Andrew Jergens & Co. when two brothers, Herman and Al Jergens, were brought into the company, which moved to bigger quarters on Spring Grove in its first decade. It prospered by being the first Cincinnati firm to produce French milling soap. As cosmetics for women became more common, the company branched out into face powders, creams and hand lotions.

Seven years later, the company incorporated as the Andrew Jergens Co. and expanded by purchasing two firms - the John H. Woodbury Co. of New York and Philadelphia-based Robert Eastman Co.

The acquisitions brought several enormously popular products into the Jergens fold. ''Woodbury Facial Soap,'' developed by a New York dermatologist, was advertised as ''unequaled as a remedy for eczema, scaldhead, oily skin, pimples, flesh worms, ugly complexion, etc.'' However, a smooth white hand lotion developed by a former Eastman worker would eventually do even more for company fame.

Originally sold as ''Jergens Benzoin and Almond Lotion Compound,'' its name was later shortened to ''Jergens Lotion.'' Over time, product and company become inseparable in the public mind as Jergens' aggressive advertising and marketing made the lotion the best known product of its kind in the country.

By 1904, Jergens was spending $70,000 annually - a large sum for the day - on magazine and newspaper advertising, much of it built around the classic ''Skin You Love to Touch'' theme. Jergens sponsored Walter Winchell's Sunday night ''tell-all'' radio show from 1932 through 1948, where ''With Lotions of Love'' became his renowned sign-off. The company also was among the first to use Hollywood star endorsements and was a pioneer in selling through variety store chains.

Of Jergens' four children, Andrew N. Jergens, born in November 1881 only months before the company was founded, was his only son. Jergens' long hours at the factory made for an aloof relationship with his son.

Young Andrew - who had worked at the factory as a boy to earn pocket money - took a full-time job at Jergens as an assistant chemist in the perfume laboratory. Over his first year, he produced $200,000 in synthetic aromatic chemicals, and - well aware of the savings to the company - asked for a raise in his modest salary, only to be coldly rebuffed. When he persisted, his father shot back, ''Why don't you quit?'' and then, along with Geilfus, laughed him out of the office.

He stuck with the job, however, and succeeded his father as president when the elder Jergens died at 76 in January 1929 at his winter home in Sarasota, Fla. During the younger Andrew's nearly four decades as the company's head, Jergens solidified

its leading position in the cosmetics business.

In his personal life, the son did not share the extreme frugality of his father. During a trip to Syria in the early 1930s, Jergens saw an 18th-century Damascus room that he liked and had it dismantled and shipped back to Cincinnati to be installed in the three-story Gothic style stone castle that his father had built in Northside.

When he died at 85 in February 1967, his will stipulated that the 1890s house be demolished within a year if none of his four children wanted to live there. None did, and the house was razed in 1968.

In 1970, American Brands bought the company for $100 million. Then, in the late 1980s, the company was acquired by the KAO Corporation of Japan.

Back in 1882, Andrew Jergens was a difficult man to please. But even he would have to admit that his small soapmaking venture downwind of the stockyards ended up being a sweet-smelling deal, indeed.

Publication date: 09-07-99

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