The Birth of the Blender
Land of Milk and Money
LET'S POINT the Pierce-Arrow north out of Chicago and shoot up the western shoreline of Lake Michigan. If we redeem a couple of traffic-cop karma coupons, we'll make Racine in a little over an hour. The "Belle City of the Lakes," a tiny hamlet founded on the edge of Injun country in 1836, now lies nearly surrounded by the perfect pastureland that made Wisconsin America's Milking Parlor. But Racine is much more than a whistle-stop on the dairy run. As Seattle was to grunge, ancient Rome to civil engineering, or Vienna to whipped cream, Racine was to mechanical wizardry. The same green acres that gave us Colby cheese (Joseph Colby fathered his soft mild namesake accidentally, when he flubbed a batch of cheddar) also nurtured, for a several glorious decades, a Sorcerer's Cupboard, stocked with ingenuity, illuminated by hard work, and replenished by luck and fabulous timing. The beneficiary of all this motorized magic was nearly every American who cleans or keeps house. For purposes of the period under examination, that means, whether they were cooking, cleaning or keeping men occupied: women.
Making Mama happy was the mission of the boys from Racine. Samuel Curtis (SC to you) Johnson abandoned his Racine-based family flooring business when his customers started spending more on his home-bottled floor polish than they did on his parquet. Your great-grandmother's vacuum cleaner; the electric clippers that snipped her flapper's bob; and yes, the plug-in boyfriend who kept her company while Great Grandpop did yardwork (the rotary lawnmower first throbbed and bristled over the lawns of Racine); all hail from the same hometown as your blender. For bigger jobs, the old man turned to Jerome I. Case (JI to you), who moved his eponymous Threshing Machine Company to Racine in 1892. Finally, by some accounts, that ultimate turn-of-the-century male toy, the automobile, was invented by the Methodist preacher with the implausible name of John Wesley Carhart.
And let's not forget the kids. The Racine Confectionery Company, 1908: high fives were in order on the day a new gizmo spat out hard candies with sticks attached -- ninety suckers born every minute -- the debut of the lollipop. Tiptoeing farther down the hall of the Midwest's mechanical maternity ward, we can chuck the cheeks of infants who nursed on the process that brought us Hershey's Whoppers, the milkshake -- and the blender.
Mines, Memories, Malteds, Mammaries
William Horlick had decided that there was no future in the family saddle business. So he booked passage from England to the United States, and dropped anchor in a Racine quarry. But it turns out that Willie wasn't made for mining. Between bouts with his pickax, he surveyed the local scenery and found himself unable to ignore that stream, that lake -- that sea of milk. And like a Florida developer dreaming of a desiccated Everglades, he resolved to drain that sea and dry it. Using a formula developed by his pharmacist brother James (with some help from a cousin in Chicago) he concocted a crystal so successful that he could have plunked down earnest money on a quarry the size of the Grand Canyon.
U.S. Patent 27896 -- Malted Milk -- was a sensation, and not just with the Walgreens drug store chain (whose HQ was a quick trip in the Cabriolet back down to Chicago). With a box of Horlicks powder and some warm water, Mommy or Nurse could stir up a nourishing nostrum for infants or invalids -- or intrepid explorers. Robert Peary and Richard Byrd stashed Horlicks in sleds bound for points extreme, both north and south. Assuming the nominative prerogative of his wayfaring forbears, Byrd took tribute a frigid step further: at 36 degrees S, 115 degrees W, far from the ice cream socials of a warm Wisconsin summer, the Horlick Mountain range rises from the Ross Ice Shelf in southern Antarctica.
This stuff is fine fodder for human and husky alike, but in fin-de-siecle Racine, and even today, it's problematic for the rest of us. Though the exact year is elusive, young Maggie once attempted to make milk from powder and tap water. Maybe it was at the summer cottage of the little friend whose mother introduced her to the binary vagaries of margarine; maybe it was a Brownie Badge obligation; heaven help her, maybe Home Ec. In any case, she shook that jar, stirred it, did everything but slap it silly, and all she produced was bluish water flecked with lumpy snowflakes. It tasted revolting, and -- cheese, of course, excepted -- milk shouldn't have texture, anyway. Unless you're wearing mukluks and your protein choices are scummy milk or malamute, it's undrinkable. But then, how to create that paragon of dairy delectables, the malted milkshake? Let's ponder it for a moment. Once upon a time, a milkshake was made to order, by hand, and served up in a shiny silver chalice, rather than extruded into a paper cup. Ice cream, followed by wholesome milk, malt, syrup and beaters, was lowered into a tall beaker. Agitation ensued. Frost gilded the goblet, and anticipation threatened to do you in. Then the nice man in the white cap poured your very own concoction into a tall glass and spanged the shaker onto the counter beside it. (This generosity was part of the magic of the malted -- the sure cure for the agony of an ice cream headache was knowing there was a second helping waiting in the can.) But that's our childhood -- the summers of Maris, Mantle and Mays. In these days of Bonds, Sheffield and Sosa, a typical shake is the culinary equivalent of a corked bat. You can't coax a proper malted from an oozing spigot. You need a blender. And to date its birth, we'll stretch all the way back to the early era of the Babe. It had a gestation that would have made Morganna droop. And as for paternity -- well, there are issues.
Most of the suspects are sweet Heartland engineers -- Midwestern boys with advanced tinkering skills. In addition to the aforementioned ex-saddlemaker from England and his pharmacist brother, the family tree includes a local manufacturer, a dapper bandleader from Pennsylvania, and the founders of two home-electronics companies whose products, to this day, hog a third of the shelves in Wal-Mart's aisle of small electrics.
In 1910, two Racine engineers, Charles Beach and Frederick Osius, and a master marketeer, Louis Hamilton, made household appliance history by inventing a small motor than ran on either AC or DC electrical power -- the first Great Leap Forward for plug-powered domestic machinery. Osius deployed this gem in a Hamilton Beach Mother's Little Helper -- the first portable vacuum cleaner. It joined a product line that included the Hamilton Beach Cake Mixer attachment, the Hamilton Beach Electric Fan, and the Hamilton Beach Vibrator. (Yes that kind of vibrator, vivaciously brandished by a wholesome housewife in a 1920 ad.) The company marketed its own home milkshake machine, the Single Spindle Drinkmaster, as early as 1911.
Meanwhile, Racine businessman Stephen Poplawski was frustrated with flakes -- the same ones that would mystify the preadolescent Maggie. Poplawski owned Steven's Manufacturing Company, makers of equipment for the booming soda fountain business. But even his finest milkshake machines couldn't conquer the lumps in Horlicks Malted Milk powder, already renowned as a tasty addition to the standard shake. A true son of Racine, Poplawski parsed the mechanics, speculated, tinkered and tested: what would happen if the spinning blades were mounted on the bottom of the machine? Five years before Ruth slapped sixty, he turned his core product on its head. Damn. Blades on the base beat better.
Now, in assigning credit for the invention of the blender, it might be useful to consider the roles of Leibnitz and Newton in the invention of the Calculus: though Gottfried invented it, Isaac made it sing the music of the stars. Likewise Poplawski and his mixer gone topsy. As Newton used the Calculus to take on the solar system, Osius meant to launch the blender from the lonely planet of soda shops into the universe of kitchens, bars, health food stores -- and eventually, Jonas Salk's vaccine lab. He tinkered with the design. He tailored it for the housewife. He twiddled until he had a machine sure to be snapped up by millions, and in 1933, he patented the "Famous Blending Machine," described in his application as "a disintegrating mixer for producing fluent substances."
It was a flop. Osius's passion, Hamilton's marketing, their company's sizzling track record in new product launches -- nothing could move the Famous Blending Machine off the pages of the Sears Roebuck catalog and onto kitchen counters. It had serious performance problems. And the liquid leaking out the blender's bottom wasn't good for anything -- most especially for dousing the R&D burn rate.
But Fred didn't despair, because he had a plan: enlist a few investors and a celebrity spokesman. A mere two degrees of separation -- a buddy who knew a bandleader's brother-in-law -- provided both.
Drop Out, Tune In, Turn On
Fred Waring wasn't the last kid to cast off college because his band was making serious money and having way too much fun gigging dances and frat parties. But unlike, say, Gram Parsons (Harvard) or Jim Morrison (UCLA), the Penn State engineering student lived to be eighty-four. His band, the Pennsylvanians, rocked ballrooms for almost seventy years. Waring, an enthusiast, a teacher and a teetotaler, had never lost the undergraduate itch to tinker. He was also very, very rich.
Osius planned an elegant but risky three-pronged campaign. First: dress to catch the eye of anyone but the costume mistress of Ringling Brothers (whose permanent tent is still pitched near Racine) -- loud yellow tie, striped pants, and a blue jacket with lapels flashy enough to generate AC/DC. Second: strut backstage at the Vanderbilt Theater in New York City, where Waring's fifty-five-piece big band was playing to packed houses and huge box-office receipts. Third: catch Waring's eye and trade on the brother-in-law connection. It worked. Wisconsin Fred bent Penn Fred's ear. He copped an audition for his baby, the Famous Blending Machine.
…Who blew it worse than a Shirley Temple wannabe tripping on her time step. Where the shaft penetrated the jar, it seeped to beat the band. Seemingly doomed to playing the sticks, Osius prepared to pack up his eye-goggling togs and catch the deadhead milk-run back to Wisconsin. But Waring had Racine genes -- and an ulcer that fostered a passion for banana-ice cream smoothies. If he could get this gizmo to work, he could grind veggies to glop that wouldn't bust his gut. With visions of dressing-room-blended bananas in his head, he offered the stunned Osius a check for twenty-five thousand dollars.
In 1933, a new Chevy sedan had a sticker price of five hundred sixty-five dollars. A quick pass at cars.com confirms the list price of a contemporary Impala (with barely a pocket for a pleasure from Smoothie King) at $21,585. Factor in figures for median household incomes, and twenty-five grand turns into a little under a million simoleons in today's R&D money. Elated, Osius headed back to the lab.
Over the next six months, he pureed every cent of Waring's money. And the damned machine still leaked.
Waring whipped the now Infamous Blending Machine from Osius' hands and plunked it into the palms of his own engineer, who plugged the leakage problem in about the time it took to bounce through 16 bars of a Lindy Hop. A promenade through the shop of a German designer endowed it with some cool Art Moderne curves. But "The Man Who Taught America to Sing" hadn't spent almost twenty years in show business without noticing how diaphanous drapery caught the eye of an audience. He replaced the metal jar with one of glass. An awestruck public could follow the action inside: a tiny blade spinning at 12,000 revolutions per minute. How cool was that?
Fred's Miracle Mixer first danced at the 1937 Chicago Housewares show; by 1938, it had changed its name to the Waring Blendor. The proud Papa pitched his million-dollar namesake on his radio shows, from the stage, and to the kitchen staff of every hotel booked by the peripatetic Pennsylvanians. He manifested himself in the housewares department of Bloomingdale's, and even spun off a small band called The Blendors (his preferred spelling). The price tag in 1937 was $29.75. In today's money, a kitchen appliance that expensive would have to be handcrafted of platinum, clean itself, and sport a full-range speaker woofing out The Pennsylvanians' Greatest Hits. But by 1954 -- Hank Aaron's rookie season, and the year Bill Haley first rocked around the clock -- Waring had gone platinum: a million copies sold.
• • •
Let's forsake the bright lights and catch the Twentieth Century Limited back to Racine, where we'll track the fortunes of a small company that made barber's equipment. A few years earlier, it had been pushed to the edge of bankruptcy by the War Production Board's ban on frivolous wartime clipper production. Determined to go out with bangs rather than a whimper, the company retooled -- and prospered, selling the government motors for radar installations. When peace finally prevailed, owner John Oster realized that returning GIs -- marrying in haste, playing house by the millions -- could make him richer than Uncle Sam ever would. But to leverage his vision, he needed an appliance company. In 1946, he found one right in the neighborhood -- the very Stevens Manufacturing Company where Stephen Poplawski first messed with his malted milk machine. Dreams of dollars flooding his brain, Oster ordered his engineers to scale Poplawski's invention down and spiff it up for home use. When it rolled off the line, the proud Papa had so much faith in its future that he gave the baby his name: Osterizer.
• • •
The legacy of Racine still resonates in consumer consciousness. Stroll the aisles of Target, DIY or BHV, and you'll see their children everywhere: lawn tractors, floor waxes, all-day suckers, hand-held vacuums, marital aids -- and the ubiquitous blender, which neither time nor Robo Coupe has conquered.
What's the secret? What propelled Racine from sleepy farm town to 20th-century Florence of the Heartland? There's no way to be sure, of course, but let this spin around your brain: newlyweds catch a creative buzz from Bollinger Brut; kids from chocolate chip cookies; and rappers get it from cognac and Coke. The next time you seek Friday night inspiration in a whizzed-up jar of frozen confection, forget the tequila, the rum, the triple sec and frozen fruit -- they weren't the fuel that primed the engines of Racine's inventors. Reach instead for that frosty white bottle.
It was the milk. It had to be something in the milk.
With Dave Scantland; Thursday, April 22, 2004