Famous bottle was a potent promotional device

January 16, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

It's a question that gets posed over and over again: Whatever happened to the big Bromo-Seltzer bottle on Baltimore's skyline?

Today is the anniversary of what happened. On Jan. 16, 1936, work began to dismantle and remove Baltimore's most potent advertising promotional device. The bottle went to the scrap yard.

The 51-foot-high bottle was fabricated of laminated steel. It was 20 feet in diameter, tinted blue to resemble the headache remedy's bottle and mounted on the very pinnacle of the Emerson Drug Company headquarters at Lombard and Eutaw streets. That towering building, thanks to its location just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, remains a super landmark in a city of landmarks.

Now about that curious bottle. Baltimoreans of a certain vintage recall that big bottle. Its fate has assumed the status of such vanished bits of Baltimoreana as Hutzler Brothers' Wellesley fudge cake, the Harley Original sandwich, the Russell Street RCA Victor dog (now in Northern Virginia) and the Valencia Theater's ceiling and stars.

The bottle, like the building, was a vision of Capt. Isaac Emerson, the man who had more promotional ideas than P.T. Barnum. Emerson, a one-man Madison Avenue of advertising and gentle persuasion, had the money to back up his dreams.

In 1909 the Emerson Drug Company was doing splendidly because its chief product, Bromo-Seltzer was a hot seller. The fizzing elixir headache remedy was originally compounded in a West Baltimore corner drugstore at Gilmor Street and Lafayette Avenue. Emerson, once a young druggist just up from North Carolina, patented the white crystals as a hangover cure and packaged it in a blue-glass bottle.

That Captain Emerson was a showman cannot be doubted. Even if he had never invented Bromo-Seltzer, he'd have made a fortune in advertising and promotion.

Money also burned a hole in his tailor-made trouser pockets. He employed fellow North Carolinian Joseph Evans Sperry, who practiced architecture in Baltimore, and local builder William H. Parker, a fellow Tar Heel, to design and construct an incomparable corporate symbol.

While it was under construction, he got another idea and had the Emerson Hotel built and named after himself. His ego not satisfied, he put up the Emersonian Apartments on Eutaw Place.

Whether Sperry was allowed to put his own pencil on paper is debatable. It's easy to imagine the enthusiastic captain leaning over the designer's shoulder and dictatorially sketching his own tower modeled after one in Florence, Italy.

He probably told the architect to merely concern himself with such small matters as load-bearing walls and the elevators. The building went up in 1910-11 and is still firmly in place today. It houses the offices of a city arts commission.

The captain put his name on the building (the Emerson Drug Co. Building), but few Baltimoreans ever called it that.

It became forever the Bromo-Seltzer Tower.

"Surmounting the bottle will be an enormous crown, a facsimile in gilt of the insignia which has been a part of the Emerson Drug Co.'s advertising matter for many years. This too will be resplendent at night with electric bulbs of various colors, set like jewels in a diadem," the Baltimore American reported.

The captain added a few extras to his tower -- more light bulbs, a mechanism to make the bottle revolve, a huge Seth Thomas clock, with Roman numerals that neatly corresponded to the letters B-R-O-M-O S-E-L-T-Z-E-R.

About the only thing the tower lacked was pounding bells to resemble a headache.

The magic elixir was manufactured in the building's lower floors. So were millions of promotional items: free placards, sheets of piano music, brochures -- anything that could be printed with the Emerson trademark and handed out to customers.

The revolving, blazing bottle lasted 25 years until January 1936, when winds and rain got the best of it.

Adolph F. Nethen, general foreman of Claude Neon Lights of Maryland, climbed to the top and took the metal sheeting apart.

"My father had serviced the electric lights on the bottle for years and he went out there rather than sending his men," said John A. Nethen of Bel Air.

Newspaper accounts said the metal skin peeled off the bottle "like an orange."

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