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The Beards That Made Rough-keepsie Famous

June 2024
8min read

Attached to every city in America is at least one illustrious industrial name. In Detroit it is Ford. In Durham it is Duke. In Milwaukee it is Schlitz, who made “the beer that made Milwaukee famous.” In the annals of Poughkeepsie, New York, it is Smith, or rather the brothers Smith, William and Andrew, whose patronymic is recognized wherever people cough. What Gloversville has been to gloves, Meriden to silverware, and Battle Creek to breakfast cereals, Poughkeepsie has been to medicated cough candy. There, on the banks of the Hudson River, two canny Scots made the throat lozenge an American institution, rivalled in popularity only by the town’s next most widely known product, Vassar girls.

It was a lucky day for four generations of Smiths when the bearded brothers had their bushy faces crudely cut on woodblocks (the photoengraving process having not yet been invented) and reproduced in line drawings on cardboard boxes containing exactly sixteen black, licorice-tasting troches. The arrangement of the graphic elements on the carton was such that the cut of William appeared to be identified as “Trade,” while Andrew was captioned as “Mark.” This juxtaposition tickled the national sense of humor, and the whimsical idea that the proprietors were named Trade Smith and Mark Smith enabled said Smiths to prosper as few Smiths ever have.

William, hereafter known as Trade, reached the scene of his lifetime endeavors as a consequence of a kind of Diaspora of Smiths from Fifeshire, Scotland, in 1831, followed by a pause of several years at St. Armand, Quebec, in the Lake Champlain area, just above the Vermont line. Here Andrew, or Mark, was born. It is significant of developments yet to come that the Smith family were long remembered in their Canadian parish for their splendid candy pulls. When Trade and Mark were still young, the family, headed by a James, made their final move, this time to the market town and old whaling port of Poughkeepsie. There in 1847 James started a small restaurant, ice-cream saloon, and candy business.

The family enterprise was first carried on under the title of “James Smith and Son.” The son was Trade, then known as the Candy Boy on the streets of Poughkeepsie, where he peddled stick candy and the tasty cough drops. According to Smith tradition, James Smith obtained the recipe for the cough candy from a pack peddler named Sly Hawkins. Whether the consideration was five dollars or, as a variant account has it, the settlement of a board bill, cannot now be ascertained. At any rate the remedy, first called James Smith & Sons Compound of Wild Cherry Cough Candy, was cooked up in five-pound gooey batches in the cellar kitchen of the Smith “Confectionery and Dining Saloon” and advertised on a modest scale in 1852 “for the Cure of Coughs, Colds, Hoarseness, Sore Throats, Whooping Cough, Asthma, &C, &C.” This claim was soon (and wisely) dropped, and the Smiths thereafter confined their enthusiasm to the actual benefits conferred by their formula, which produced increased salivation and warmed and soothed the irritated membranes of the throat.

In 1866 James Smith died and Trade and Mark took over the family interests, shifting the major emphasis to the medicated candy. Hoarseness and catarrh were endemic in the chilly, damp climate of the Hudson Valley. Cough-drop sales soared as the dynamic little pastille demonstrated that it really could relieve raspy larynxes. Retailers dispensed the drops in paper envelopes, hand filled with loose tablets from glass bowls. Pictures of the Smith brothers were printed on gummed paper and pasted on the bowls, a pioneering effort to maintain the identity of a bulk product through trade channels to the ultimate consumer.

The hair in the gravy was that success raised up a host of piratical competitors. Imitators called themselves Schmidt Brothers, Schmid Brothers, Original Smith Brothers, or Improved Smith Brothers, and there was even a pair of Smith Sisters. All endeavored to palm off their goods as the genuine and popular Poughkeepsie merchandise. Some rivals associated their drops with such bearded Presidents as Lincoln, Garfield, and Grant (Trade somewhat resembled Grant) and warned the buyer to beware of imitations. The authentic Smith brothers countered by registering their trademark in 1877, which makes it one of the oldest and most famous in America. This was fast action, for it was only in l870that Congress had first passed legislation providing for the registration of trademarks. The legal theory was that injustice is done to one whose goods have acquired favor with the public if imitators are free to substitute their merchandise by copying the distinctive symbols or designs of the original proprietors. The point is wrapped up in the oftquoted dictum of Lord Langdale: “A man is not to sell his goods under the pretense that they are the goods of another man.” The reasoning of Trade and Mark was that while multitudes shared their name, their whiskers and nicknames were theirs alone. The 1870 trademark statute was held to be unconstitutional but a similar one was re-enacted in 1876 with the objectionable features eliminated, and the Smith brothers were active in the courtroom when it was necessary to defend their right to their own faces.

Other trademark portraits followed in various lines of consumer goods, but no indicia of ownership produced more millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity than the chin whiskers of Trade and Mark, subjects of countless editorials, favorite topics of newspaper columnists, standard fare for funny fellows from the days of vaudeville to the coming of the standup radio comic. At one time the company kept sets of whiskers and wigs to outfit cutups who wished to attend costume parties as Trade Smith or Mark Smith. Knowing they had a good thing going, the brothers never shaved.

Soon afterward, the boys, by then both graduates of Williams College and aged thirty-six and thirty, took over the business. They bought an old barn on the edge of town and remodelled it into a twenty-six-kettle cough-drop factory. With production rising toward four tons a day, the brothers devised an economical system for packaging the cough drops. Each day’s output was collected at the end of the day in five- gallon milk cans and distributed by horse and wagon to the poor, along with a supply of Smith Brothers boxes. Some thirty families, living on what came to be known as Cough Drop Street, filled the little cartons during the evening and had them ready for the morning pickup. But not all the drops returned to the Smiths. Some of the workers adopted a system of their own that may be characterized as “one drop for the company and one for me.” A lively black market in the tablets developed until Trade and Mark turned to more conventional methods for packing their boxes.

Trade was the dominant figure, ambitious, quirky, public-spirited, a militant prohibitionist, and the ancestor of succeeding generations of Smiths. Mark was an amiable bachelor, not the least pushy, with no objection to taking a nip and so susceptible to a touch that he became known as Easy Mark. Trade enjoyed referring to him as Boss Andrew. Mark died in 1895, but his unsinkable brother lived on until 1913.

Many anecdotes preserve the memory of Trade’s impressive eccentricities. Early Smith Brothers records are scanty because Trade kept them on the backs of used envelopes. Cash for both cough-drop and restaurant sales mingled and accumulated in an old safe and was moved to the bank when the safe filled up. Trade tried his hand at politics, on the Prohibition ticket, of course, and ran at various times for mayor, state senator, and governor of New York, with the result that usually befalls a singleissue candidate. An applicant for a job as waitress at the Smith Brothers restaurant had to present a letter of recommendation from her minister and, if hired, live upstairs over the restaurant under the eye of a stern duenna. Ginger ale was not served because of the connotation of the word “ale.”

A staunch Presbyterian, Trade paid his workers low wages because he believed the money belonged to God. Yet his generous benefactions connect him clearly with the mainstream of nineteenth-century philanthropy. There is a park in Poughkeepsie, a gift from Trade to the city, that is still known to older residents as Cough Drop Park; but none of his gifts celebrated the name of Smith. Trade was careful to assess Mark for half the cost of all charitable enterprises and scoffed at Matthew Vassar, the local brewer, whose name was—and is—attached to a college and a hospital.


When Trade called an employee upon the carpet the interview began with a standard ritual.

“A lovely day, Mr. Jones!”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m sure we should all be very thankful to be alive, Mr. Jones.”

“Yes, sir.”

Then came the chewing out.

In his later years Trade became a subject of wide interest as guardian of the secret formula for the aromatic lozenges and as indefatigable booster of the family medication. He liked to pass out sample packages to railroad conductors, bellboys, and strangers generally, and observe carefully if they associated the picture on the box with his own face. Once when the delegates to a Y.M.C.A. convention in Washington were received by President Taft, Trade maneuvered to be last to pass down the receiving line so that he could press a box of his cough drops into the President’s hand.


Arthur G., Trade’s only son, found cough drops distinctly boring. It is a tribute to the dynamism of the brand that it survived Arthur, who died in 1936. When a professional corporate manager, attuned to modern techniques of market analysis, asked Arthur, “Where does the money come from?” Arthur’s answer was simply, “Why, the postman brings it.” But Arthur left two sons who took sore throats seriously. Billions of the black drops (and an orange-colored menthol version) flowed from the stamping machines under the management of William W. “Bill” Smith o and his younger brother, Robert Lansing"Brud” Smith. Temperamentally, Bill resembled his grandfather, while Brud was relaxed in the style of his great-uncle Mark. Bill was clean-shaven. Brud wore a minimal mustache.

When the time came to celebrate the Smith Brothers centennial in 1947, the siblings put on swallowtailed coats, grew beards reminiscent of their famous forebears, and found themselves celebrities in their own right. Brud was taken for Monty Woolley, the actor and bon vivant . Time, Life , and The New Yorker , each in its characteristic idiom, paid tribute to the brothers and recorded for posterity the high jinks connected with the one-hundredth birthday of the cough-drop factory. For a full week that April, employees and town notables dressed up in 1847 cos~ tumes, square danced, waltzed, and sang “Daisy Bell.” A thousand people dined in the state armory and heard Bill and Brud praised as outstanding industrialists who made twenty tons of cough drops a day and were therefore significant figures in the struggle against Communism.


Not everyone, of course, was up on the story. Once while the brothers and their employees were bearded, Bill, a millionaire, and his sales manager missed the last train home from New York and went to a hotel without luggage.

“That’s W. W. Smith, one of the Smith brothers,” Bill’s associate explained when the desk clerk demanded cash in advance.

“And I’m one of the Dolly sisters,” the greeter replied. “If you want a room you pay now.”

The promotional touch that had marked Smith Brothers activities from the beginning did not diminish during the stewardship of Bill and Brud. In the early days of radio broadcasting, Smith Brothers put a singing commercial on the air that raised the question whether the brothers, when bedded down for the night, slept with their beards inside or outside the sheets. Political candidates received a supply of cough drops with the cordial message, “We hope that they will help keep you in good voice during the campaign.”

The tablets can be taken freely as a dainty confection, and about 40 per cent of them are consumed that way. But the company’s archives bulge with thousands of letters testifying to the efficacy of the product as a relief for hoarseness, sore throat, and related symptoms. Some are quite unusual, such as a letter from a wellplaced lady in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, who wrote that the wonderful little drops had cured a severe case of laryngitis for her pet Pekingese. The design of the package remained unchanged under the administration of Bill and Brud. When it was mentioned once, because of its great antiquity, as a candidate for the packaging Hall of Fame, the boys commented dryly: “It is very complimentary to our stubborn resistance to modern design.”

The last pair of Smith brothers are dead. Bill passed away in 1955, Brud in 1962. The restaurant is no more, the premises being occupied now by a redemption center for trading stamps. The male Smith line having daughtered out, the name, good will, and assets in the boiled-candy field were sold to the giant Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical Company of Morris Plains, New Jersey, in 1963, and operations were shifted from Poughkeepsie to Rockford, Illinois, earlier this year. But the fragrance of anise and licorice still lingers around the old plant, along with that of liquid sugar, corn syrup, charcoal, and the mysterious “essential oils,” all ingredients in the 125-year-old throat refresher. It is still fourth in volume, following Halls, Vicks, and Luden’s, the first also a member of the WarnerLambert product family.

And what of Trade and Mark? Today they occupy a small spot on the northwest corner of the box whose design has been brought up to date in accordance with the expertise of what industry is pleased to describe as “packaging engineers.” Soon a generation will grow up and pass on that knows not Trade or Mark. The Roman poet Ovid pronounced an appropriate epilogue for the Smith brothers early in the Christian era when he wrote ” Tempus edax rerum ,” which translates (freely) into “Time marches on.”

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