I met John Tinseth, creator of the blog The Trad, for coffee yesterday and had an interesting discussion about cologne, the fashion business, and the importance of telling stories in marketing.
Tinseth started his blog about three years ago with the aim of documenting the arc of American traditional clothing and gaining access to the archives of heritage brands (at least that’s my take on it).
Occasionally, he touches upon the worlds of both cocktails and cologne. Earlier this year, he ran a three-part series on Caswell-Massey, which may be the oldest fragrance company in America.
Caswell-Massey, founded in 1752 before America actually became a country, had a store at 48th and Lexington in Manhattan for 84 years. They lost their lease this year, but moved into the Limelight, the former church-turned-club at 20th and Sixth.
Below: The Lexington Avenue store before its demise. Photos courtesy of The Trad.
I hadn’t heard anything about Caswell-Massey since the early 90s. I’ve always associated them with Crabtree & Evelyn, another soap and fragrance company that seemed to fade out about the same time. That association is no accident: Crabtree & Evelyn was founded in the 1970s by Cyrus Harvey, a soap and fragrance retailer from Cambridge, Mass. who offered to help redesign Caswell’s packaging. When Caswell’s owners, brothers Milton and Ralph Taylor, declined, Harvey started his own company, a sort of Polo Ralph Lauren to their Brooks Brothers, out-heritaging one of the country’s most heritage-rich companies. Financial trouble has dogged Caswell Massey ever since.
And this is essentially why I didn’t know that Caswell-Massey was the oldest fragrance company in America. As Tinseth says, the stories a company tells to its clientele are invaluable. They give a faceless brand life. Caswell-Massey has lots of these stories to tell: George Washington bought Caswell-Massey’s No. 6 cologne as a gift for the Marquis de Lafayette; President Kennedy used the Jockey Club cologne; President Eisenhower used the Almond Cold Cream soap. So why, during an American heritage brand renaissance, is Caswell Massey under the radar? Caswell-Massey is America’s Penhaligon’s, our Santa Maria Novella.
As Tinseth wrote last March
“Colognes for $10 an ounce. Soaps (and drawer sachets) for $8 a bar. One of the oldest companies in the United States. Made in the US. Trad as Trad can be… Who cares about George Washington—it is the scent of J. Press for God’s sake. And you’d be surprised how many people don’t even know about it. Instead, we’re spritzed with Sean Combs and Elizabeth Taylor as we defend ourselves from the department store infantry shoving scented cannon fodder at us with some slick marketing promise of celebrity. Now that smells bad.”
I was shocked to see that the No. 6 cologne is $30 for three ounces, as is Jockey Club. With their story, they could boost the prices to at least double that and pay for a marketing campaign. But don’t tell them that.
Business Week had a great story about the company and its long history about ten years ago. Beyond that, I have yet to actually smell any of the Caswell-Massey line—at least not since the 80s. So for now, it’s a great story. But can the scents live up to it?