Johnson & Johnson was founded in 1886. But this product – our oldest – dates from 1879. How is that possible? And what’s more, how did a product that started as a surgical disinfectant end up as a mouthwash?
The product is LISTERINE® Antiseptic, and it became part of our consumer product portfolio with the acquisition of Pfizer Consumer Healthcare in 2006. Despite its recent tenure with the Company, our new oldest product has something in common with the first products made by Johnson & Johnson: it was inspired by Sir Joseph Lister.
Sir Joseph Lister
Lister was an English surgeon who, in the 1860s, applied Louis Pasteur’s theory that invisible germs caused infection, and pioneered antiseptic surgery. He inspired Robert Wood Johnson and his brothers to start Johnson & Johnson to make the first sterile surgical dressings, and he also influenced a doctor from St. Louis, Missouri named Dr. Joseph Lawrence.
In 1879 Lawrence formulated an antiseptic liquid, naming it “Listerine” in honor of Dr. Lister. Lawrence’s surgical disinfectant had germicidal properties without being harsh or irritating, and was initially advertised for a whole range of uses, such as cleaning cuts and abrasions, as an antidote to dandruff and athlete’s foot, and as a soother of insect bites. Like the Johnson brothers, Lawrence was concerned with manufacturing and packaging products that could be used by doctors to improve public health. In keeping with Lawrence’s high standards, the product listed its ingredients on the label. According to the November, 1952 issue of Modern Packaging Magazine, it was either the first, or one of the first products ever to do so.
Lawrence purchased his product’s ingredients from a local St. Louis pharmacist, Jordan Wheat Lambert. In 1881, Lambert licensed the formula for LISTERINE® from Lawrence and formed the Lambert Pharmacal Company. In 1895, Lambert started marketing the product to dentists as an oral antiseptic. An early, undated ad listed the product’s virtues as being “Antiseptic, Prophylactic, Deodorant, Non-Toxic, Non-Irritant, Non-Escharotic, Absolutely Safe, Agreeable, Scientific and Strictly Professional.” The ad called LISTERINE® a pharmaceutical specialty for dentists, and listed a use in small print that would become more and more important later: LISTERINE® could get rid of bad breath.
LISTERINE® was available only to the medical profession until 1914, when it started to be sold to consumers…and it sold steadily if unspectacularly. So the people at the Lambert Pharmacal Company looked around for ways to generate more interest in their product. And the ones who came up with an idea were Jordan Lambert’s sons.
The Lambert brothers were sure that their product would sell better if they could find something that would make it indispensable to people. So in 1921 they asked the Lambert Pharmacal Company chemist to list all of the things for which the product was helpful. One of the items on his list was the fact that LISTERINE® could eliminate what he politely called “halitosis.” “Halitosis” is derived from the Latin word for “breath,” and the Lambert brothers most likely chose to use the word because it sounded scientific and would elevate bad breath from being a personal nuisance to an official-sounding social condition that could be cured by using their product.
Since virtually everyone was sensitive about the possibility of having bad breath, the new advertising hit a nerve with the public, and sales took off.
A typical ad from 1928 (shown above) was titled, unsubtly, “Halitosis makes you unpopular.” It began by trying to catch readers’ interest by playing on their insecurities:
“No matter how charming you may be or how fond of you your friends are, you cannot expect them to put up with halitosis (unpleasant breath) forever. They may be nice to you – but it is an effort.” [1928 Ad, “Halitosis Makes You Unpopular]
Now that the ad had the reader’s attention, it went on to say that the problem could be remedied by using LISTERINE®.
Perhaps the most famous ad campaign for the product dates from the 1930s and showed a weeping girl, with the phrase, “Often a bridesmaid, never a bride.”
Here’s another ad with the bridesmaid theme.
Some of the product’s advertising held echoes of its original purpose as a surgical disinfectant, such as ads urging its use to disinfect small cuts, or this excerpt from an ad from the 1920s encouraging consumers to dab LISTERINE® under their arms to use as a deodorant.
Or this ad, alerting men to the potential dangers of shaving:
For most of its history, LISTERINE® was packaged in glass bottles with the name of the product embossed above the label.
Examples of Earlier Packaging: Bottles with Cork Stopper (L) and Cap (R)
The early cork stoppers were replaced by a more modern screw-on cap, but the packaging remained largely unchanged — and reminiscent of the product’s original medical mission — until plastic bottles were introduced in 1994. Over the years, the advertising gradually shifted, with some ads taking a humorous theme. One famous ad showed a bottle of LISTERINE® next to a grotesque statue on the top of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. The three-word caption read “Gargoyle with Listerine.” Today, the product’s advertising focuses on promoting oral health.