Caswell-Massey Co. Ltd.
Caswell-Massey Co. Ltd.
Incorporated: 1752 as Dr. Hunters’ Dispensary
Sales: $20 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 325611 Soap and Other Detergent Manufacturing; 325620 Toilet Preparation Manufacturing; 446120 Cosmetics, Beauty Supplies, and Perfume Stores
Originally an apothecary shop, Caswell-Massey Co. Ltd. has been creating America’s most enduring scents since well before the specialty bath segment exploded in the 1980s and 1990s. Founded in 1752, the same year as Benjamin Franklin’s shocking kite incident, the firm is considered the fourth oldest business in the United States. At the time of Caswell-Massey’s 250th anniversary, “America’s oldest chemists and perfumers” had 15 retail stores in the United States and several licensed outlets overseas. The firm also sold products through a web site and a catalog reaching more than two million people. Three-quarters of Caswell-Massey’s 450 products have been around at least 25 years, and some, like Number Six Cologne, date from the 18th century.
William Hunter, a Scottish-born doctor, founded what would become Caswell-Massey in Newport, Rhode Island on March 26, 1752. Originally called Dr. Hunters’ Dispensary, the shop’s first specialty was providing medicine for midwives. Dr. Hunter is known as the inventor of orange soda, which people imbibed to take the edge off the dispensary’s bitter medicines.
The resort town of Newport attracted the Colonies’ social elite, who sought European-style luxuries. Dr. Hunter imported fragrances from the Old World and blended some himself. One enduring concoction was Number Six Cologne, based on an English blend of nearly 30 botanicals, including cloves, orange peel, rosemary, bergamot, orange blossoms, and pine. In those days, it was used for washing face and hands in place of water, which was considered unhealthful. George Washington bought two cases of Number Six for the Marquis de Lafayette. John Adams was another early customer, and Dolly Madison adored White Rose.
In spite of his products’ popularity among Patriots, Dr. Hunter himself was a Loyalist, and was forced to leave the area after the war. Before he did, he handed the key to his assistant—a mode of succession that would continue for 150 years.
Still Prominent in the 1800s
A Manhattan branch of the shop opened in 1833. In that year, the firm’s name was registered as Caswell & Hazard Company. The firm became known as Caswell-Massey in 1876, when then-owner John Rose Caswell formed a partnership with New York businessman William Massey. The firm then had one store in Newport and one in New York City, at 25th Street and Fifth Avenue. In the next 30 years, Caswell-Massey grew to ten stores in New York City, but closed its Newport store in 1906.
During this time, the company continued to be associated with eminent clients and enduring products. Before George Armstrong Custer made his Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he brushed his teeth with a Caswell-Massey Tilbury toothbrush. Annie Oakley and Edgar Allen Poe were other famous customers of the day. The legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt had the firm’s cucumber night cream, dating from 1887, shipped to her in Paris. Jockey Club, introduced in 1840, would later become a favorite of President John F. Kennedy.
The store launched a soft, intoxicating fragrance called Casma (a contraction of the company name), in 1922. Casma had notes of rose, jasmine, magnolia, vanilla, musk, ginger, and bergamot, and was a favorite of Carole Lombard. It would be re-released in 2001, in time for the 75th anniversary of Caswell-Massey’s flagship Manhattan shop. The store has been located in the Barclay New York Hotel at 48th Street and Lexington Avenue since its opening in 1926.
Although it was considered one of the country’s leading perfumers, Caswell-Massey was forced to scale back during the Great Depression. From ten New York City stores in the Roaring Twenties, by 1932, it was down to just one store.
In 1936, Milton and Ralph Taylor bought the company, the first time a change of ownership was accompanied by payment of money. In keeping with the apprentice’s tradition, however, it was noted that new chairman Ralph Taylor had once swept the shop floor. He and his brother, who served as company president, would own Caswell-Massey for 50 years.
The store continued to attract a stellar clientele, including musicians like Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and film stars John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo. Lauren Bacall chose the Manhattan store for her first meeting with Humphrey Bogart prior to the filming of To Have and Have Not in 1945. She apparently felt the proverbial soda fountain, which closed a few years later, provided the appropriate atmosphere for a budding starlet. President and Mrs. Dwight Eisenhower brought almond cold cream soap to the White House. It would remain the company’s best-selling soap for 50 years.
Caswell-Massey’s catalog, last seen in 1904, was reintroduced in 1963. The catalog business was said to be the third oldest in the United States, after that of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.
New Competition in the 1970s-80s
In the 1970s, a wholesale customer formed a new company that would become a serious competitor. Before founding Crabtree & Evelyn Ltd. in 1972, Cyrus I. Harvey, Jr., had offered to update Caswell-Massey’s packaging, reported Business Week.
In 1984, Caswell-Massey rolled out its first new scent in 43 years, Greenbriar. In the next few years, the company expanded its almond and aloe line of products and brought out a line of “old school” shaving products for men. Sales were about $10 million a year in the mid-1980s. The company had half a dozen company-owned stores, and about the same number of franchised stores. Its products were also sold in another 2,400 specialty stores. Two of Milton Taylor’s sons were being groomed for leadership positions: Adam Taylor served as vice-president while brother Joshua studied the perfumer’s craft.
High rents from an expansion into the nation’s malls resulted in near-insolvency for the company. In a bid to compete with Crabtree & Evelyn, which had grown enormously since 1979, the Taylors expanded to 100 franchised stores—more than they could reliably supply. The category of specialty bath stores was becoming crowded with old competitors like Crabtree & Evelyn and New Age-inspired, London-bred Body Shop International. Sales were about $15 million a year by the end of the decade.
New Owners in the 1990s
Two wealthy Hong Kong entrepreneurs, Peter Hsu and Sally Aw Sian, acquired Caswell-Massey in 1989. Sian’s family had developed Tiger Balm ointment. The pharmacy in the Barclay Store closed in 1990. Company headquarters were relocated from Manhattan to more modern facilities in Edison, New Jersey in April of the year. The decade soon brought other changes, marking the end of an era. Ralph Taylor died in 1993 and his brother Milton Taylor died the next year.
In 1992, W.R. Grace & Co. acquired a 40 percent holding in Caswell-Massey. The next fall, the company began a mass-market misadventure, selling to drugstore chains. This left a huge stockpile of unsold merchandise.
Beauty Nectar, $37.50 for 8.5 ounces, a face and body alpha hydroxy treatment, rolled out in 1994. The next year, the company introduced its complex Elixir of Love No. 1, a mix of passionflower, jasmine, lavender, musk, and wormwood. This reversed an emphasis on single-note floral fragrances begun in the early 1970s. Beauty Nectar and Elixir represented Caswell-Massey’s first use of national advertising.
Caswell-Massey opened its fifth Manhattan store, in Soho, in 1995. By this time, the company was again on the verge of liquidation. Caswell-Massey had annual sales of $13 million, reported Forbes, and was losing $3 million a year. W.R. Grace sold its holding to then-CEO Edward Hung. Anne Robinson was placed in charge of Caswell-Massey’s wholesale division in July 1995. She had an M.B.A. from another venerable Yankee institution, Harvard University, and experience with retailers like Filene’s Basement, Lord & Taylor, and Excell Home Fashions.
Caswell-Massey purveys to a most discerning and ever growing clientele, the finest toiletries and unique gift expressions. We are committed to satisfying those demanding individuals who revel in the joys and traditions of the past, offering products that preserve our distinct American Heritage, since 1752. Yet as instilled by our founder, Dr. Hunter, we endure by combining proven preparations with product innovation and industry leadership. Each and every Caswell-Massey product reflects this rich American Heritage. Every clientele purchase comes with the marks of business integrity that have guided us for 250 years: The finest perfume grade oils to scent our products; the purest ingredients including natural botanicals where they deliver true benefits; award winning packaging details that make each product a little luxury; a practice of no animal testing since our founding; a belief in providing environmentally responsible packaging.
Robinson’s involvement with Caswell-Massey had begun in 1991, when she was marketing head for Aphrodisia, Caswell-Massey’s Brooklyn-based supplier of potpourri and other supplies. After taking a marketing job with Caswell-Massey, she was soon named executive director after presenting a plan for saving the company.
The company had 28 stores and 113 employees when Robinson took over. After adding two high-end boutiques, she shut more than half the stores, trimmed the product line by a third, and released a quarter of the employees. She also refined inventory management and streamlined the organization structure to a single business instead of five divisions.
The catalog was redesigned in the fall of 1997 to give it a more old-fashioned feel. This helped make it profitable for the first time in eight years. The company catalog, with a circulation of 2.5 million, was important both for its contribution to earnings as well as serving as an introduction to the firm’s products for many people.
Repackaging also made a big difference. After putting a view of an English country cottage on the lavender soap wrapper, and using a cheaper bottle for the Beauty Nectar and knocking $12.50 off the price, both items became bestsellers.
1999 Management Buyout
Caswell-Massey returned to profitability in the last quarter of 1998. Robinson assembled a pool of investors to buy the company, a deal completed on September 17, 1999. American Capital Strategies, a NASDAQ-listed firm specializing in management buyouts, joined her in the deal, acquiring a 24 percent holding while investing $4.2 million.
Soon, Robinson was on QVC pitching the company’s wares. Her first visit to the television-shopping channel, in October 1999, was a success. Eight of the ten Caswell-Massey products presented sold out—Robinson logged $11,000 in sales per minute during the show.
Annual revenues were a profitable $20 million as Caswell-Massey entered the 21st century. While new channels such as QVC and the Internet were being exploited, the company also was paying careful attention to its retail stores. The flagship unit on Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue was remodeled. A 12-foot-long “perfume bar” encouraged shoppers to test 15 different fragrances. Other brands like Mustela, Claus Porto, and Avaha also were sold there and at Caswell-Massey’s ten other stores, scattered in upscale locations ranging from Washington, DC to Newport Beach, California.
There were also licensing agreements with overseas retailers in Italy, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines. A Tokyo store opened in 2000, in collaboration with the Tashiro Co., Ltd. beauty products retailer. This brought the total number of Caswell-Massey stores worldwide to 18. In addition to its overseas licensees, Caswell-Massey had 15 U.S. stores in 2002. The company planned to add two stores per year through 2007.
The reintroduction of Casma as Casma Stepping Out was accompanied by the company’s first use of nontraditional packaging. An ornate rhinestone, gold, and enamel shoe symbolic of the flapper era held the perfume. A new product, Bathtub Gin bubble bath, followed the jazzy 1920s theme.
250th Anniversary in 2002
One of America’s oldest companies, Caswell-Massey had a keen sense of history. As it celebrated its 250th anniversary it brought out limited editions of nearly all of the 33 fragrances it had ever sold. They were packaged in apothecary-style glass-stopper bottles with pewter labels. Number Six Cologne, George Washington’s favorite, was still number one among the company’s men’s fragrances.
Ever immersed in history, Caswell-Massey supplied the unique PBS reality series Frontier House with the types of toiletries the pioneers used. The series placed three families in a rural setting, and limited them to what would have been available to homesteaders in 1883. Caswell-Massey supplied such products as toothbrushes, 3½-pound blocks of Castile soap, and straightedge razors.
Bath & Body Works; The Body Shop; Compagnie de Provence; Crabtree & Evelyn Ltd.; Origins (Estée Lauder Cos.).
- Dr. Hunter’s Dispensary opens in Newport, Rhode Island.
- The firm is registered as Caswell & Hazard Co.; a New York City branch is opened.
- John Rose Caswell and William Massey form a partnership.
- The Newport store closes.
- Casma is introduced.
- The Barclay Hotel opens with a Caswell-Massey shop inside.
- Caswell-Massey is down from ten stores to one during the Great Depression.
- Milton and Ralph Taylor buy the company; Red Jasmin is introduced.
- Bogie and Bacall choose the Manhattan store for their first meeting.
- Catalog sales are reintroduced.
- The company is acquired by Hong Kong entrepreneurs.
- A disastrous mass market adventure begins.
- Anne Robinson is brought on board.
- Robinson leads a management buyout of Caswell & Massey.
- Caswell-Massey celebrates its 250th anniversary by reintroducing historic scents.
Chiacchio, Cassandra, “Caswell-Massey Gets a Leg Up on Fragrance,” WWD, May 4, 2001, p. 8.
Cohen, Edith, “Revolutionary Ventures: Surviving and Profiting Through the Centuries,” New York Times, Sec. 3, June 30, 1985, p. 4.
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Davis, Donald A., “Cosmetics: The Demarcation Lines Begin to Unravel,” DCI, June 1994, pp. 28ff.
Del Franco, Mark, “Synergies 250 Years in the Making,” Catalog Age, March 15, 2001, pp. 47-48.
Drake, Diana Lasseter, “Has Caswell-Massey Found Its Elixir for Survival?,” Business News New Jersey, October 11, 1999, pp. 22f.
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Grossman, Andrea M., “Caswell-Massey Turns 250,” WWD, February 8, 2002, p. 10.
——, “A 21st-Century Look for Historic Caswell-Massey,” Women’s Wear Daily, Best Beauty Retailers Supp., October 2000, p. 12.
Hoppe, Karen, “Caswell-Massey: America’s Oldest Drugstore,” Drug & Cosmetic Industry, November 1991, pp. 50ff.
Howe, Marvine, “Ralph Taylor, 89, 50-Year Co-Owner of Pharmacy Chain,” New York Times Current Events Edition, June 26, 1993, p. A27.
Jones, Lamont, “Sweet Smell of Success; Caswell-Massey Marks 250 Years of Pleasing Customers Who Have Included U.S. Presidents,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 12, 2002, p. G11..
Kagan, Cara, “Caswell-Massey Tries Its First Love Potion,” WWD, June 2, 1995, p. 6.
McCue, Janet, “Lathering in Luxury,” Plain Dealer (Cleveland), June 30, 1994, p. 1F.
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“Ms. Robinson, Mr. Hamilton,” New York Times, October 10, 1999.
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Puente, Maria, “Caswell-Massey: 250 Fragrant Years in the Beauty Biz,” USA Today, February 8, 2002.
Rigg, Cynthia, “New Owners Repowder Image of Struggling Firm,” Crain’s New York Business, May 14, 1990, p. 15.
Robinson, Anne, “How I Think of New Products,” Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), March 19, 2002, p. 16.
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“Rub-a-Dub-Dub, What Tales of the Tub!,” Plain Dealer (Cleveland), December 26, 1991.
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Simon, Ellen, “Sweet Smell of Success; Caswell-Massey Gets Back to Its Roots,” Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), March 17, 2000, p. 53.
——, “You, Too, Can Smell Like a Pioneer,” Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), March 13, 2002, p. 45.
Sparks, Debra, “Saving a Troubled Brand,” Business Week, September 11, 2000, p. F22.
Tode, Chantal, “Bathroom Chic Goes Mail Order,” WWD, January 9, 1998, p. 10.
Werner, Ray O., “Legal Developments in Marketing,” Journal of Marketing, April 1990, pp. 95f.
Winegar, Karin, “Clean Shaving: Traditional Gear Makes a Comeback,” Minneapolis Star and Tribune, December 21, 1986.
—Frederick C. Ingram
"Caswell-Massey Co. Ltd.." International Directory of Company Histories. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/caswell-massey-co-ltd
"Caswell-Massey Co. Ltd.." International Directory of Company Histories. . Retrieved January 23, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/caswell-massey-co-ltd
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