Fashionwise, facial hair comes and goes. Some specific beards have become iconic in the pop culture of their day: Abe Lincoln, Karl Marx, Ernest Hemingway, the guys from ZZ Top, Frank Zappa and so on. But for many decades, the most recognizable beards in America – the ones constantly referenced by vaudeville comedians and political cartoonists – belonged to a pair of brothers of Scots extraction who landed in Poughkeepsie and made their fortunes manufacturing cough drops. Their hirsute woodcut visages have adorned packages of the addictive little cough remedies almost continuously since 1872. And now they’re back.
The Smith Brothers claimed that their secret formula had been acquired by their father, confectioner James Smith, from a peddler with the dubious name of Sly Hawkins. But maybe the slyest part of the idea was to make the demulcent lozenges – domed on top, flat and stamped with a star design on the bottom – taste more like wild cherry than like medicine. They have not, to anyone’s knowledge, ever contained any controlled substance. They just taste soothing and stimulate salivation. Some people eat them like candy.
William and Andrew Smith – jocularly known even in their own lifetimes as “Trade” and “Mark” because that’s what it says under their portraits on the Smith Brothers Cough Drops boxes – were geniuses at marketing. They were among the first in this country (in 1877, only seven years after trademarking legislatively became a thing) to obtain a company logo trademark, largely in response to all the copycat products that sprang up after their flagship product became hugely successful. Before long, everyone in America knew who the owners of those magnificent sets of chin whiskers, one long, one short, were.
The last Smith great-grandson died in 1962; pharmaceutical giant Warner-Lambert bought the company in 1963; and the cough drop factory on North Hamilton Street in Poughkeepsie finally shut down in 1972, when F & F Foods purchased Smith Brothers and moved operations to their factories in Chicago. The line was rebranded and gradually began disappearing from store shelves. York Capital Management bought out the brand in 2010, with the intention of reviving Smith Brothers under the guiding eye of Clio Award-winning marketer Steven Silk. The product made a gradual comeback, but never quite reached the level of household name recognition that it had once enjoyed.
That may be about to change. Lanes Brands acquired Smith Brothers in 2016 and is now trying to rebrand America’s first cough drop as an herbal remedy. The black licorice variant remains long gone, but classic Wild Cherry is still available, along with two new flavors: Honey Lemon and Warm Apple Pie. They’re back on the shelves again – only in ziplock packets this time, instead of cellophane-wrapped cardboard boxes. And of course, at the top of each package loom the two familiar bearded faces of Poughkeepsie’s past, Trade and Mark.