Time-tested and trendy

Salves: Rosebud Perfume Co., an old-fashioned family business in Frederick County, counts fashion and film stars among customers for its century-old secret recipes.

November 26, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The Smith family of Woodsboro has been keeping a secret for 107 years -- and it is still paying off.

George F. Smith created salves from secret recipes in the 1890s that are still widely sold, used by top fashion models and shipped worldwide from the same Frederick County shop -- a converted hotel where the furnishings have been unaffected by time.

Rosebud Perfume Co. has no computers, but does have three roll-top desks, its Depression-era calendars on the walls, a grandfather clock that dates to the 1890s, and Smith's handwritten prescription ledgers.

"Just about everything in this place is old. But our philosophy's always been if it ain't broke, don't fix it," said Vivian Clipp, the energetic woman in her 70s who oversees the operation.

Clipp, a former schoolteacher and one of Smith's grandchildren, bills customers at a roll-top desk and keeps track of them with handwritten index cards stuffed into wooden file cabinets.

The business may be unusual. But it has caught the attention of Hollywood and the New York fashion world.

Fran Drescher reaches for a tin of Rosebud Salve in the movie "The Beautician and the Beast," and a dozen fashion magazines, including Mirabella, W and Vogue have printed articles about Rosebud products.

Most of the articles have appeared in the past year or so. They either mention the salves as a skin care option or contain profiles of models and starlets, such as Jennifer Grant and Dina Meyer, who recommend them as parts of their beauty regimens.

Clipp keeps the magazines on hand for such testimonials.

"Supposedly, even Naomi Campbell uses it," Clipp said, showing a few of the clippings.

Desiree Gruber, Campbell's publicist in New York, said Campbell was out of the country and could not be reached. But Gruber confirmed that Campbell uses Rosebud Salve.

"I know what you mean. It comes in a blue tin, right?" Gruber said, accurately describing the salve container. "I wouldn't say Naomi swears by it, but she does use it."

Clipp said she is mystified by the sudden attention. She doesn't advertise much, depending on word of mouth.

But she said one key to some of the success may lie in her relationship to Fannie Flagg, the actress and author who wrote "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe."

Flagg, whose late grandmother in Irondale, Ala., was Clipp's aunt, has been promoting the Rosebud line to friends in California for years.

Flagg said in a telephone interview that she's been to Woodsboro -- about seven miles northeast of Frederick -- several times and remains a loyal customer.

"It's really good stuff," she said.

`Reliable family salve'

The Rosebud Perfume Co. hasn't sold perfume for several years, but has been around since 1895, the brainchild of a teacher turned pharmacist.

George Smith was raised on a farm near Woodsboro, taught school and married one of his former students. Sometime around 1890, he earned a pharmacist's license and bought a drugstore on Woodsboro's Main Street.

Back then, Main Street was a major thoroughfare between Frederick and Gettysburg, Pa., and pharmacists were known to dabble in ointments and potions.

Smith created his Rosebud Salve in 1892 and began marketing it to travelers and through the mail as "a reliable family salve." The slogan is still printed on each tin.

The business thrived, using children and neighbors to peddle salves door to door in the 1920s. It survived the Depression by extending credit to longtime customers.

Clipp refuses to discuss revenue or divulge the ingredients.

"It's a secret," she said, smiling.

On most days, thousands of tins of $3 salve and $4 lip balm are packed into boxes and moved by hand truck across Main Street to the Woodsboro post office.

"You don't see this kind of stuff too often, do you?" said Jeanne Cutshall Smith, another grandchild and a retired nurse who helps with recordkeeping and finances.

Rosebud accepts orders over the telephone for the three products that Smith invented in the 1890s: Rosebud Salve, Smith Mentholated Salve and Strawberry Lip Balm.

The company also accepts orders and distributes a handful of other skin care products created by other entrepreneurs, including soaps made with witch hazel and pine tar, and a skin cream made with rose water and glycerin.

Customers include boutiques and beauty shops in New York, London and Beverly Hills and chain outlets, such as Walgreens, Southern States, Urban Outfitters and Essentials. Local outlets include the Medicine Shop in Stoneleigh and Visions in Hair, a beauty shop on York Road.

Rosebud's salves aren't made in Woodsboro. They are mixed according to Smith's specifications at a Joppa manufacturing plant, where they are packed in specially made tins and shipped to Woodsboro.

78 years on the job

A quick tour of the shop includes a visit with Ethel Cutshall, 91, who has more seniority than anyone at Rosebud -- if not anyone on the planet. Cutshall has worked there 78 years and keeps busy these days packing tins into boxes and banging out address labels on a manual typewriter.

"I'll be here as long as my health holds out," she said. "We have a good time here."

Cutshall has earned her own room at the shop, an airy office with a big desk that dwarfs her tiny frame. She also appears in the 1920s-era photograph on an office wall, standing alongside a dozen relatives who worked with her at the time.

Working near Cutshall is her daughter, Ida C. Lee.

The company has made a few concessions to modern times: an answering machine and a fax machine to help handle orders.

Lee, who types address labels and bills for wholesale orders, said that when she was hired 12 years ago, she insisted on one other modern convenience: an electric typewriter.

"I wasn't about to try to bang stuff out on one of those old manuals," she said.

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