The Smith Brothers made cough drops (and Poughkeepsie) famous in the 1800s. Learn more about the locally iconic brand’s past in the region.
Poughkeepsie has produced its share of eclectic and unusual famous people: Samuel Morse, of the eponymous code; Ed Wood, considered the worst film director ever; the inventor of Scrabble; assorted artists, athletes, musicians, and their acolytes, including the guitar player for Velvet Underground and “Mountain Girl,” Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia’s wife and muse. But perhaps no two Poughkeepsians are better known than William and Andrew, the Smith Brothers.
For almost 150 years, their prodigiously bearded faces have adorned the package of their singular product, Smith Brothers Cough Drops. Their first names may have been a mystery to many — indeed, because the words “trade” and “mark” appeared beneath their pictures, many 19th-century customers thought that they were Trade Smith and Mark Smith. But that is only because that trademark, registered in 1877, is one of the oldest and best known in American history.
In fact, many consumers still recognize the brothers, even though their cough drops have been largely unavailable for decades. But that is about to change. Poughkeepsie’s Smith Brothers may soon be known as the Comeback Kids.
For the Cure of Coughs
The Smith family made its way from Scotland to Quebec, where William Wallace Smith (1830–1913) and Andrew Smith (1836–1895) were born; they moved to Poughkeepsie in 1847. Their father, James, opened a restaurant and ice cream shop called James Smith and Son. In 1852, legend has it, fate introduced him to a salesman with the delightfully Dickensian name of Sly Hawkins, who sold him a recipe for a cough drop. Smith the elder cooked it up in the restaurant kitchen, called it “James Smith & Sons Compound of Wild Cherry Cough Candy,” and pitched it “for the Cure of Coughs, Colds, Hoarseness, Sore Throats, Whooping Cough, Asthma, &C, &C.” That was a stretch of snake-oil proportions. But the concoction did offer actual benefits: It increased salivation and soothed irritated throats, a symptom common to upstate New Yorkers then and now. And it tasted like candy.
William and Andrew helped make the drops and sell them on the streets of Poughkeepsie. When their father died in 1866, they shifted their attention to the growing cough-drop trade, and renamed the company Smith Brothers. The drops were immensely popular throughout the region; as American Heritage magazine put it, “There, on the banks of the Hudson River, two canny Scots made the throat lozenge an American institution, rivaled in popularity only by the town’s next most widely known product, Vassar girls.”
Success spawned competition. Companies called Schmidt Brothers, Schmid Brothers, Original Smith Brothers, Improved Smith Brothers, and Smith Sisters tried to muscle in on the action. So in 1872, William and Andrew, marketers well ahead of their time, put their hirsute visages on their wrappers. They also got their trademark a mere seven years after the U.S. Congress first passed legislation providing for the registration of trademarks.
“Other trademark portraits followed in various lines of consumer goods,” American Heritage wrote, “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.”
Thus was a major brand born.
This undated postcard shows the interior of the smith Brothers store in Poughkeepsie
The Delicious Odor of Licorice
The brothers built a factory on Church Street capable of producing six tons of drops a day; in 1915, the company built a newer facility, which increased production fivefold, on North Hamilton Street. Older Poughkeepsians can still remember the smell. “Today,” the Vassar Chronicle reported in 1944, “as one approaches the modern factory on Hamilton Street… the delicious odor of licorice is wafted through the air.” By then the company had another plant in Indiana. At its zenith, Smith Brothers was making 60 tons of cough drops — one million packages — a day.
Andrew — aka Mark — the more likeable of the brothers, was a bachelor who liked a whiskey now and then and was such a soft touch he was known as “Easy Mark.” William — Trade — on the other hand, was a Victorian through and through. According to the Chronicle, “he was a staunch prohibitionist and never allowed liquor to be served in his restaurant, a policy which still is in effect today. The shop was never open on Sundays, and no doubt William Smith would raise his eyebrows at the recent innovation permitting smoking.”
He was also a community leader; a friend of Matthew Vassar and an early steward of the college; an unsuccessful politician; and a very generous philanthropist who, it has been reported, assessed Andrew for half of all charitable donations.
Andrew died in 1895, and William continued as president of Smith Brothers up until his death in 1913. (They are both buried in Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery, and their sites are featured in the cemetery’s walking tour.) William Smith’s son, Arthur G. Smith, then took over and expanded the company, adding more products like menthol drops, cough syrup, and wild cherry drops. Arthur’s sons, William Wallace Smith II and Robert Lansing Smith, followed, and during the company’s centennial celebration in 1947, they put on swallow-tailed coats and grew bushy beards, putting themselves and their company back in the spotlight.
They kept the company in private hands until 1964, but after four generations, the family sold out to Warner Lambert, which sold the firm to F&F Foods of Chicago in 1977. Production in Poughkeepsie was discontinued. And Smith Brothers nearly coughed its last.
They Were the Innovators
The brand languished over the next few decades, a victim of poor corporate management and increased competition. In 2009, with the product essentially off the shelves of all major retail outlets, annual revenues were down to less than one million dollars.
In 2010, though, New York-based private equity firm York Capital Management bought the assets of F&F, including the Smith Brothers brand, for about $10 million. They teamed with minority partner Steven Silk, who has a long and Clio Award-winning history of reviving tired brands like Lea & Perrins, Hebrew National, Armour Hot Dogs, and Jell-O. As the CEO of the new Smith Brothers company, Silk worked to modernize the production facilities and retool the Smith Brothers products and image.
“I never knew the Smith Brothers brand was dormant,” he says of learning about the company in 2011. “I thought it was in Walgreens that day. There were still many references to the brand in pop culture: I saw it in Boardwalk Empire, in an Adam Sandler movie. It still had high brand awareness, even though it had been off the shelf for 20 years.”
That kind of awareness is the foundation on which he hoped to rebuild the company. “This brand is older than Levi’s,” he says. “It’s older than Heinz ketchup. But we are not rebuilding based on nostalgia. We want to be relevant to today’s consumer needs. The product has to be efficacious. We want to make better cough drops and cold and flu remedies.”
He expanded and, he says, improved the product line. He built a new Web site and ordered new packaging. And he slowly reintroduced the product in the Chicago market. Yet he never messed with the signature image: two bearded brothers from Poughkeepsie. Promotions featuring scruffy Chicago Blackhawks hockey players during the 2013 playoffs “caused quite a scene,” he says. This association with the NHL will extended nationally that year, with players in several cities bearding up for the pitch, including Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, Zdeno Chára of the Boston Bruins, and the Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. And Silk inked distribution deals with national chains like Walgreens, Target, Kmart, and CVS, and large regional chains like Shop Rite and Wegman’s.
In 2014, cough drops represented a $688 million product category, a category Silk calls “personality-less. I don’t know who Mr. and Mrs. Halls are. Ricola is some guy in Switzerland blowing a horn. We are introducing [the Smith Brothers] as living beings. They were the innovators. They made the first cough drops and built the first cough drop factory. And here we are, 160-something years later. We can build a lot of recognition from them.”
And their beards.
Update 2/19/19: York Capital Management auctioned off Smith Bros. in 2015 after a failed attempt to revive the brand. In 2016, Smith Bros. was acquired by Lane Brands, the family business behind GOPO joint care and Jakemans Throat & Chest. After relaunching the brand in 2017, Lane now works to reinvigorate the cough drop company and honor its Hudson Valley roots.