Tag Archives: pet industry

Fleas and Other Itches, Part III: The Comb-A-Flea Atomizer, 1950

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Counter-top display, Comb-A-Flea atomizer, Comb-A-Flea Company, Seattle, Washington, between 1950 and 1952.

Flea season is back upon us, and pet owners everywhere are emptying their wallets for those expensive, but very effective, topical monthly treatments.  There is also a thriving online community of pet owners who share less expensive and chemical free approaches to managing fleas, from feeding dogs brewers yeast and garlic to spraying pets and their beds with solutions made from the herb pennyroyal.

I’ve written a couple of posts on “Fleas and Other Itches” (10 May 2014 and 5 October 2016).  These will give you background on the traditional use of flea combs, which I still use to check whether my pets are showing evidence of infestation despite my best efforts, and on the origins of commercial flea powders.

This entry focuses on the “Comb-A-Flea Atomizer,” a patented novelty that attempted combine the traditional flea comb with an atomizer that delivered powder close to the skin of the cat or dog.  My collection includes this unused counter-top display of ten Comb-A-Flea Atomizers. The comb head of each is carefully sealed in cellophane and contains a small instructional pamphlet.  The head of the comb is plastic; the bulb appears to be rubber and the material has become too stiff to squeeze.

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Detail, Comb-A-Flea atomizers in their display package.

The Comb-a-Flea Atomizer was patented in 1952 by John L. Sullivan, who assigned it to the Comb-A-Flea Company of Seattle, Washington.   Here is the drawing for his patent. The cutaway diagram shows how the powder was pushed up the neck of the comb when the pet owner squeezed the bulb.  Comb A Flea 2017-06-24 at 9.56.49 PM

It took almost three years between this application and the issuing of the patent, and around the same time, several other people also applied for patents for combs that dispensed flea powder.  Here is another patent drawing for an “Insecticide Comb-Applicator,” which was actually received two years before the Comb-A-Flea applicator.

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I have no idea why this kind of insecticide applicator became a topic of interest by more than one inventor, and so far I can find no evidence of contact among the inventors, or lawsuits about patent infringement.  This may just be one of those things — several minds facing the same problem and coming up with similar solutions.  One thing that almost certainly made the Comb-a-Flea possible is the proliferation of plastics after World War II.  Molding a hollow comb with a little hole at the base of each tooth was easy with plastics.

Each Comb-A-Flea came with an instruction pamphlet, and I was able to work one of them out without damaging the cellophane cover.

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Instructional brochure for Comb-A-Flea applicator. Front side, unfolded.

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Instructional brochure for Comb-A-Flea applicator, reverse side.

The Comb-A-Flea suggests a couple of interesting things to think about.  First, it is one example of the sudden increase in products for pet keepers in the two decades following World War II.  Examining magazines like All-Pets, which was aimed at pet-shop owners and wholesalers, suggests that small companies, perhaps associated with other post-war novelty businesses, pumped out many novelties intended to improve the experience of owning dogs, cats, parakeets and other creatures.   (I’ll discuss the novelties associated with the 1950s craze for keeping parakeets in another post.)  The Comb-A-Flea was intended to be convenient, a sales pitch used for many kinds of household goods at the time. This was because it combined grooming the animal AND treating it for flea, ticks and lice with one implement.  If you go back and read the instructions, however, you’ll see that the applicator wasn’t really any easier to use than a comb and a shaker of flea powder.  For one thing, the text suggests that it clearly had problems with clogging.

Second, the Comb-A-Flea did NOT make use of DDT, the toxic but ubiquitous insecticide that was introduced into many household products including flea powders. Pulvex, which made a line of over-the-counter remedies for dogs, introduced DDT into its flea powder as early as 1946.  The Comb-A-Flea powder contained Pyrethrins, Rotenone and Piperonyl, all of which had been around for a while and which are still in use in garden sprays and, in the case of a variant of Piperonyl, lice shampoos. Notice that the Comb-A-Flea brochure makes a point of assuring pet owners that the insecticidal powder is safe, and that it has been approved by veterinarians and dog breeders.

The Seattle-based Comb-A-Flea Company didn’t last long, and I haven’t yet been able to learn anything about it.  In 1951, the “Atomizing Comb-A-Flea” did appear in advertisements in a few East Coast newspapers;  here is a 1951 ad from Gimbel’s in Philadelphia. But the company seems to have been gone by 1953.

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Advertisement for Comb-A-Flea Atomizer, Philadelphia Inquirer 19 August 1951. The pet department of the Comb-A-Flea

The next innovation in flea control for pets, was the invention of the flea collar, a thick plastic strip impregnated with a flea-killing chemical.  I’ll discuss this, along with the use of DDT in flea powders, in a future post.  In the meantime, we might think about the balancing act in which we pet owners engage as we struggle between the desire for relief  (for both our animals and ourselves) from biting insects and the potential dangers  of prolonged intimate contact with potentially toxic chemicals.

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Dog repellents: suburban gardens, free-roaming dogs and Dogzoff

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“Dogzoff” repellant in an aerosol dispenser.  Bohlender Plant Chemicals. Inc.  Tippecanoe City, Ohio, ca. 1955.

Behold another of my unusual acquisitions — a 60-plus year old empty aerosol can!  Even as I work to de-clutter my own living spaces, I am grateful that so many Americans are such pack rats — or that they just can’t face that stuffed-full garage or basement workshop.  Their sloth is my gain — with a little help from flea markets, garage sales and online auction sites. ( Of course, my gain is also my ongoing storage problem….)

This can contained Dogzoff®, a popular repellent used by gardeners in towns and suburbs who wished to protect their prized shrubbery from blasts of dog urine.  The 1920s and 1930s were decades when the longstanding practice of letting dogs run free was challenged by changing attitudes toward the status of animals in towns.  These were the decades when family cows and backyard chickens were finally pushed out of many towns and cities by public health concerns, and wandering dogs and cats, but especially dogs, were also subject to renewed attention from the beefed-up ranks of animal-control officers — the dreaded dog-catchers. (1932 was the year that the Little Rascals films included one where Petey was nabbed by the dog catcher and almost “gassed” as an unwanted stray.)

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Back of Dogzoff aerosol can, circa 1955, showing the active ingredient, 2.75 per cent Oil of Mustard.

Dogzoff® repellent was the first marketed in 1933, and it appears in newspaper advertising all over the United States by the mid-1930s.  “DOGS — keep them away from shrubs and flowers — Dogzoff will do it,” promised an ad from Kadotani & Son, Florists in the 7 April 1935 edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.  The company that made and marketed Dogzoff, Bohlender Plant Chemicals, Inc., was an outgrowth of the nursery business started by Bavarian immigrant Peter Bohlender (1837-1914) and continued by his family.

Peter Bohlender is an interesting fellow.  His obituary in the Florists‘ Review says that he came from a “family of gardeners” that arrived in Ohio when he was only six, and that he started first nursery when he was quite young.  In 1889, he relocated his growing wholesale business to Tippecanoe City (now Tipp City), Ohio, just outside of Dayton.  According to the obituary, Bohlender had been an advocate for Arbor Day, and he was able to pass on his sizable business, which included nurseries and orchards in Oklahoma, Missouri and California, to four sons and a son-in-law. By 1912, Peter Bohlender & Sons had been rechristened Spring Hill Nurseries, the name it operates under today, and it had begun to shift its operations to mail-order rather than wholesale.  What, Where, When and How to Plant, a 1913 booklet written by son E. E. Bohlender, focused largely on suburban gardens with illustrations of large houses with spacious grounds, and included plans for long perennial borders, small domestic orchards, evergreen wind breaks and plantings of ornamental shade trees.

This is another context for the Bohlender family’s experiments with repellents, although I have not been able to find out more  about the decisions that led to the product.   Middle-class householders now enjoyed gardening as a leisure activity rather than a requirement for provisioning the family, and their ornamental plantings were apparently under assault by their neighbors’ dogs.  This June 20, 1931, letter to the editor of the Muncie Evening Press sums up the position of these avid gardeners:

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Dogzoff®, used mustard oil to irritate sensitive canine noses.  It was sold as a concentrate in a small bottle,  to be diluted and applied around the base of plantings using a hand-pump sprayer.   An instructional advertising flyer (below) pointed out that the solution also could be used to drive off rodents and keep cats away from birds (presumable nesting in the garden), but its primary use was to break dogs of “bad habits,” even away from the garden.  In the flyer, the repellent also cures dogs of dumping trashcans, chewing shoes and sitting on the porch furniture.

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Brochure for Dogzoff, interior spread, no date (1930s – 1940s).

Putting Dogzoff® into an aerosol can made it possible for an outraged gardener (or shoe lover) to reach for the product on impulse, and it also made more money for the firm since the product was premixed and sold only in 11-ounce cans.  Aerosol cans have a complex history, and you can click on the link to take advantage of Wikipedia’s thorough article on the subject For our purposes, the important thing to know is that the “crimp-on” valve was developed in 1949;  it made possible the creation of low-pressure aerosol cans for household use.  During the 1950s, a decade of innovation and expansion in the pet products industry, aerosol flea sprays and dog shampoos also appeared on garden center and pet store shelves.  (These novelties are a subject for a post in the future.)

Dogzoff® had a sister product Mosquitozoff®, about which little is known at present.  I theorize that both products relied upon the oil from mustard seeds, and I have found recent recommendations for the use of mustard oil in both “green” mosquito repellents and one element of garden sprays. Mustard oil has a number of traditional medicinal uses, too.  It is used in anti-inflammatory ointments; women in India use it as a tonic that stimulates hair growth.

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Advertisement for Dogzoff, Sedalia (MO) Democrat 1 May 1953.

What I’m struck by in the advertising for Dogzoff is how candid the text is about shooting dogs.  I also found this in a number of letters of complaint about dog damage to gardens.  I wonder how many of these gardeners actually carried out summary execution, or whether it was mostly a devout wish.

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A trip to the Milk-Bone Factory, 1938

Corporate magazines can be useful sources for historians interested in business and American consumer society.  Of course, the obvious interest of public relations departments in presenting firms in the best light possible has to be taken into account.  Even so, they often contain information and pictures that can’t be found anywhere else.

Studying the history of companies that made pet food has lots of obstacles; the absence of business archives from the many small firms operating in the first half of the 20th century is a big one.  I was lucky to find this issue of the National Biscuit Company’s corporate magazine from 1938.  The cover story was about Milk-Bone dog biscuits   Taking readers “behind the scenes,” the article stresses the modern, clean, mechanized facility, providing “good, wholesome nourishment, made with such scrupulous care.”  I especially like the last photo and caption, introducing the group of women who handled requests for free samples of Milk Bone and a booklet on dog care, received through mail-in coupons published in magazine advertisements.  “These girls keep busy….”

Remember that this dog-biscuit factory was in successful operation during the Great Depression.  My research on the history of dog food has suggested that the 1930s were actually a break-through decade for the use of commercial dog food, especially among urban and suburban households.  My post on the Canine Catering Company and its sales giveaway, the Puppy Puddle, discusses another Depression-era dog food business, one focused on a very well-to-do clientele in the greater Philadelphia area.

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Look at All My Toys!

I just purchased this snapshot of an unidentified Pomeranian and his stunning array of toys.  Fortunately, the image has a date. The film was developed and printed in December 1967. From the looks of this little fellow, he was well-loved, and the snapshot was clearly  meant to be funny.

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Unidentified Pomeranian with his squeaky and chew toys. Snapshot, photographer unknown, developed December 1967.

The 1950s and 1960s were decades when the array of products sold by the neighborhood pet store, along with the pet departments of local five-and-tens and the pet food aisles of large supermarkets, included a much-expanded array of toys, including squeaky toys of painted rubber or plastic  and chew toys made of nylon, hard rubber or rawhide.

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Detail of snapshot, showing the array of toys purchased for this dog.

Take a look at this incredible assemblage.  The squeaky toys are shaped like an opened pack of Winston cigarettes, hamburgers and hot dogs, a woman’s foot with painted toenails, a chicken head, a raw steak, an ice cream bar with a bite out of it and an array of cartoonish animal figures wearing clothing.  In the full photo, just behind the Pom’s head on the left side of the photo, there is a rubber toy shaped like a baby’s pacifier.  Along with rawhide bones in various stages of unraveling, hard rubber toys for chewing include a ball, a bone and a dumbbell.

After I looked at the snapshot for a while, I realized that I actually owned one of the toys in the picture!  Here it is, a dog in a Santa suit — in its original package, no less.

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“Squeaker” dog toy in original packaging, Stevens Company, United States, ca. 1967.  This toy appears in the right-hand side of the detail, above.

Of course, dogs don’t really care about the shape of their toys.  My childhood dog’s favorite toy was a pair of old socks that had been tied together, good for tugging and shredding and easily replaced in a house with growing children.  But since the 1950s, the people who own dogs have gotten a kick out of dog toys that are shaped like the everyday objects — often ones that dogs aren’t supposed to have — or that are visual puns.  Dog toys are as much fun for us as they are for our dogs.   A small dog carrying around an open pack of Winston cigarettes must have seemed pretty funny in a 1960s household where people smoked.  And the large pacifier was a self-conscious pun on the status of the dog as the household’s fur-covered baby.  I would love to know who thought up the shapes for these dog toys.

Further, there are parallels between the toys that babies have played from the mid-20th century to the present, and the toys that family dogs have enjoyed in the same era.  Rubber squeaky toys were common baby toys in the 1950s and 1960s.  Although I need to do more research on this, I believe that the same companies made both rubber baby toys and squeaky toys for dogs.  Nowadays, flexible rubber squeaky toys for babies have been largely replaced by other objects, including a much wider array of plush toys.  And now dogs often get plush-covered toys, too, in shapes that are funny to pet owners. My dog Stump  drags around a purple platypus that I bought for him because I thought it was cute.

I’ll write more about the origins of pet toys in future posts.

 

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The “Puppy Puddle” and the Canine Catering Company

On December 2, 1938,  Roy Goff & Company of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, received a copyright associated with the “Puppy Puddle,” a   9 1/2 by 13 inch paper advertising blotter presented for use as a house training aid.  “When an emergency occurs, place this “Puppy Puddle” on the wet spot. Press down lightly with the foot — the job is done.”  The text commented helpfully that “time is an element in the efficiency” of the blotter. When the mishap occurred on an absorbent surface such as a rug, the directions recommended that several of the blotters be kept in a “handy place” in “every room in which the puppy plays,” ready for use at a moment’s notice. The drawing of the puppy, who is sitting in his own puddle hollering as only puppies can, looks like a rough-coated fox terrier, a popular dog at the time.  (Remember Asta, the urbane canine star in the “Thin Man” films?)

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“Puppy Puddle” training blotter.  Roy Goff & Co., Ardmore, PA, copyrighted 1938.

The “housebreaking” directions also suggested that a used “Puppy Puddle” could be left on a tile floor as an attractant, the way that  “wee-wee pads” are used by some dog owners training puppies today.  This also recalls house training instructions that suggested using a newspaper already soaked with piddle to the same end.

The text on the Puppy Puddle didn’t only offer advice on house training, it also promoted Roy Goff’s “WHITE LABEL BEEF” as the foundation of an elaborate puppy diet prescribed by “a famous University Veterinary School.”  This reveals that the Puppy Puddle was actually an advertising giveaway.  It even had a blank space at the bottom right where a pet shop or veterinary clinic might stamp its name and address.

Looking for more information on  Roy Goff & Co. led me to an unexpected story.  LeRoy Goff, Jr., the president of Roy Goff & Co., was more than the inventor of a novelty for training puppies for life indoors. He founded the Canine Catering Company in his garage in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, in 1933. Goff, who was born in 1903 and graduated from Princeton University in 1926, is listed in the 1930 U.S. Census as a well-to-do young insurance broker, owner of a house valued at $85,000, married with a toddler daughter, and cared for by two live-in house servants. Did his insurance business collapse? I don’t know yet.  Yet, in the heart of the Depression, Goff built a successful business preparing and delivering high-quality fresh meals for dogs.  This was a time when the canned dog food business was expanding, but it was also the unregulated stepchild of the meat and livestock feed industries.  Many dog owners viewed canned food with rightful suspicion.

The November 1934 issue of Popular Mechanics, a magazine that was full of uplifting stories about successful home-based  businesses, featured Goff’s young enterprise in a one-page story titled  “Catering to Dogs Becomes a Real Business.”  It opened by noting that “dogs appreciate a fresh, neatly presented meal and their masters like to have them properly fed and healthy.  That is why a depression-time business, started by LeRoy Goff II, of Philadelphia, in his own garage with no capital, has grown so rapidly that it numbers 6,000 animal customers…and is now housed in a modern plant in Philadelphia with branches in eight cities.”

The article reported that Goff began by working up a diet for his own dogs with the help of a veterinarian.  By 1934, the company’s offerings included a”veterinary meal,” a “kennel meal,” and “a la carte special meals, vegetables and beverages.” Subscribers placed orders from “attractive menu cards,” and the food was delivered to households three times a week.  Local veterinary hospitals also used the service for convalescing animals, sending their cars to the Canine Catering Company daily.  One-pound meals cost 13 cents for raw food (presaging today’s interest in raw diets for dogs) and 14 cents for a cooked dinner.

By 1938, Roy Goff & Co. offered canned food, the White Label Beef promoted by the Puppy Puddle giveaway.  There is more to be learned about LeRoy Goff’s Canine Catering Company of America, Inc. –and apparently the National Archives branch in Philadelphia holds some records relating to inspection of the company’s processing activities. (Here’s a link to information on the records group in the form of a Facebook post on Canine Catering Co. ) I also know that the company was  actually not alone in offering home-delivered pet food at the time.  Advertisements and other giveaways survive from pet businesses that offered  delivery of fresh meat, including horse meat, from the 1930s through the 1950s, when self-service supermarkets developed large pet food aisles and the nature of the pet food industry moved toward increasing consolidation.  By the 1960s, Roy Goff & Co. was no longer packing dog food; instead, it became a distributor of pet food and products, providing “professional retail guidance to small independent retailers,” according to a short profile on the website Philly.com.

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Faced with an automatic pet feeder….1939

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Publicity photograph for the Kenl-Mastr automatic pet feeder. Photographer unknown. Undated (1939).

As I went back into my files for another look after  I researched the Kum-Pet Dog and Cat Feeder, I discovered that I owned two publicity photographs associated with another early automatic feeder, the Kenl-Master.  I did a web search for the firm, expecting to find absolutely nothing on this object, when up popped a reference from the June 3, 1939, issue of The New Yorker (p. 64), which I have excerpted below:

“our native inventors have been as busy as little bees.  At Bloomingdale…there is Kenl-Mastr, a covered food plate for dogs which pops its lid at feeding time if you remember to set its alarm-clock timer ($5.59).”

This reference was in one of the New York City shopping surveys that the magazine still occasionally publishes.  Incredible!

Upon closer examination,the Kenl-Master feeder seems to be the “Time Controlled Feeding Device for Domestic Pets” illustrated in a 1939 patent drawing in my previous post on the Kum-Pet Dog and Cat Feeder of 1947.  (Kenl-Mastr and Kum-Pet. Is anyone out there collecting gadget names?  Someone needs to work on this!)

Kenl Master feeder 2Notice the alarm clock in the second photo is set for a few minutes past six o’clock. The people who set up the shot are suggesting that six is the normal dinnertime for city dogs.   Now go back and look at the first picture.  The clock is set for ten minutes after five o’clock, and the handsome wire-haired fox terrier is shown already waiting at the feeder.  This is apparently intended to suggest that dogs in the 1930s tried to push dinner time up a bit, just as every dog I have ever owned has tried to do.

The feeder does not turn up in any of the trade catalogs or magazines in my collection.  The Kenl-Master Manufacturing Company is listed in a 1939 Los Angeles phone directory I found online — but here the trail ends for the time being.

 

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