The man behind Bromo-Seltzer's fizz

Baltimore Glimpses

September 13, 1994|By Gilbert Sandler

THE NEW YORK Times recently reported that a marketing whiz, Jeffrey S. Himmel, who specializes in reviving flagging products, is hoping to put the fizz back into the Bromo-Seltzer brand. He's had success reviving such brand names as Doan's Pills, Lavoris mouthwash and Ovaltine.

As many Baltimoreans know, the once popular Bromo-Seltzer began its meteoric rise here. In 1881, Isaac E. Emerson moved to Baltimore after graduating from the University of North Carolina. By 1889 Mr. Emerson owned three drug stores here.

Emerson is credited with creating the formula for Bromo-Seltzer.

Somehow he discovered that a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and acetaminophen (an ingredient found today in analgesics like Tylenol) made a fine hangover/upset stomach remedy.

And the product's name? Mr. Emerson, who had traveled widely, said the fizz reminded him of the bubbling action of Mount Bromo, a volcano he had seen in Java, near the Straits of Sunda.

He organized the Emerson Drug Co. in 1891; the company purchased the trademark and the formula for Bromo-Seltzer from Mr. Emerson and he became president of the company.

Sales of the potion in the famous cobalt-blue bottle -- which was also used for other Emerson products -- soared.

Captain Emerson, who earned his title after using his yacht to defend this country during the Spanish-American War, lived a charmed, if at times volatile, life.

In 1911 he built the Emerson Drug Co.'s tower and headquarters at the northeast corner of Lombard and Eutaw streets. The Bromo-Seltzer Tower, now the city-owned Baltimore Arts Tower, still stands, but the plant was torn down in 1969.

For a model, Emerson used the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy. Captain Emerson's tower closely matched the original, except for the four-sided clock that was larger than London's Big Ben.

Captain Emerson capped his tower with a 51-foot, 27-ton revolving likeness of a bottle of Bromo Seltzer. The bottle was actually 10-million times larger than the actual blue bottle sold in drug stores. A small motor made the bottle spin one revolution every 30 seconds.

At night the bottle was illuminated by 596 lights. On a clear night it could be seen as far away as Tolchester across the bay, according to press reports.

The newspapers loved covering Emerson's private life, too. In the early 1900s, details of Isaac and Emily Emersons' scandalous divorce made the papers. The Emersons lived in a three-story mansion on Eutaw Place with a commanding view of Druid Park Lake; in a pique, the Captain bought the lot next door -- between the mansion and the lake -- and built the Emersonian apartment tower (still standing), thus effectively blocking the glorious view of the lake that Mrs. Emerson had formerly enjoyed.

Isaac Emerson died in 1931. Five years later, the revolving bottle was removed from the Bromo-Seltzer tower because its vibrations had caused cracks in the building.

The Bromo-Seltzer operation moved out in 1967 (when Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical Co. bought it) to Pennsylvania. The company was then selling 18 million bottles and 29 million packages of Bromo-Seltzer a year. The building now houses Baltimore's Committee on Arts and Culture.

As he prepares his marketing campaign to restore Bromo-Seltzer to its former glory in the marketplace, Mr. Himmel, given how Baltimore figured in the life and times of Bromo-Seltzer, owes us one:

This slight addition to the Bromo-Seltzer label: Founded in Baltimore, 1891.

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