The Rosebud Perfume Co. isn't worried about the Y2K problem. The 107-year-old purveyor of Smith's Rosebud Salve doesn't have a computer at its headquarters, an old three-story hotel. Rosebud Salve is a family-run business -- two granddaughters of pharmacist George F. Smith, who invented the salve in 1892, their second cousin and her daughter. "We don't have a big staff, but we're all related," said Vivian Smith Clipp, showing a visitor around. "You have to meet Ethel. She's a dear." This is an example of the old-style business, kept in a family for generations, that appears to be a throwback to a more Norman Rockwell-type America. But it is also a sign of changing times: The family's next generation has expressed interest in taking over the business, but so have outside buyers. And since the current generation is aging, a decision is probably on the horizon, they said.
On a recent day, "dear" cousin Ethel Cutshall, who started work when she was 13 and is still at it at age 91, is typing mailing labels on a manual Royal typewriter. Her daughter, Ida Lee, who is known as Sis, taps away at an electric typewriter in another room. It's early morning and label preparation is underway. Later, Vivian, Ethel and Sis will pack boxes full of Rosebud and other salves for customers as far away as London. Rosebud Salve may be an old product -- its red, white and blue tins decorated with a garland of rosebuds boast "New Package Adopted 1962." But the product has a distinctly modern buzz about it. Recently it has been touted in articles in magazines including Glamour, Allure, Woman's Day and Self, and it's set to appear in Cosmopolitan's new edition for teenagers, according to Clipp.
The founder, George C. Smith, or "Grandfather," grew up on a farm nearby but went to Virginia to earn a teaching certificate. When he came back, he taught school, married one of his students and ultimately earned a degree in pharmacy as well. "He was very small, but he was very, very brilliant," Clipp said.
Originally, the pharmacy was across the street from what is now headquarters. Now the vestiges of the pharmacy, including a prescription book and the mortar and pestle Smith used to mix remedies, are on display in the old hotel. "There's a lot of old stuff," said Ethel. "Me included."
The salve is no longer manufactured in the headquarters. It's made in Baltimore to Rosebud's specifications and shipped to them, where family members pack it and send it to their customers. Those sellers include beauty-salon chains in California, the herb shop at the Washington National Cathedral, a London-based concern known as Mister Mustache and individuals (many of them southern) in towns such as Harrison, Tenn.; Bastrop, Tex.; and Talkeetna, Ark. The family doesn't want to cut off these small sellers "if they've been with us, or their grandmothers sold it," said Clipp. But they make up only about 10 to 30 percent of the company's volume nowadays, she said.
While the company has experienced a recent increase in orders after the spate of mentions in national magazines, its heyday dates to before the Depression. A 1929 company calendar extols the salve "of which more than 2 million boxes are sold yearly." Clipp guards the family business's books closely, conceding only that revenue exceeds $100,000 and adding that sales volume has picked up with the recent spate of good publicity.
Before the Depression, the company sent out the product "on trust" and got paid after it was sold. Adults and children sold the product door-to-door for pay or premiums that included cameras, watches, rifles and lace curtains. But during the Depression, the system broke down, with sellers hanging on to the money to make ends meet instead of remitting the company's portion, Clipp said. Still, the company survived and today, regardless of what happens to the business, Clipp wants the salve to endure.
"This is the best seller of all," said Clipp, holding out a tin of Rosebud Salve. "It won't hurt you," she assures a visitor. "I've even eaten it.
"It really is good salve."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company
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