Monday, June 29, 2009

Earle Dickson

Many of the inventions, innovations, and discoveries made by the heroes to whom we pay daily tribute have folk origin stories. Whether they were truthful, fabricated for marketing purposes, or merely popular legends, the stories often resonated with buyers and readers because they told of everyday limitations that were overcome by the new idea or product. Housewife stories are common, for example, not only because of the endearing subject matter, but because many Heroes of Capitalism have, through various contributions to society, made life easier for housewives. Ultimately, theirs has become a diminished role to be shared by both partners in a household. Social changes share the credit for this with technological change, generated by the productive powers of capitalism.

I thought of this while reading about the background of Band-Aid brand adhesive bandages. Not only the Johnson & Johnson website, but every history of Band-Aids mentions the housewife Josephine with her myriad cuts and scrapes. Her dutiful husband Earle, armed with gauze and tape, would bandage her wounds but the bandages were clumsy and prone to falling off her hands. Earle was inspired at some point to cut little gauze squares onto strips of tape, which Josephine could cut and apply herself. The tape was adhered to a similar-sized strip of crinoline, allowing it to be rolled into a spiral for future use.

Earle Dickson (1892 - 1961) happened to be a cotton buyer for the popular medical supplies manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, where he advocated his invention to management in the early 1920's. The company began hand-producing a crude sticky bandage that was 18 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide. There weren't many early sales, but after automating the process and creating bandages of varying sizes, J&J had a wild commercial success on their hands (pun not intended). Adding to the folklore, the sales of Band-Aids were supposedly kick-started after a free sample campaign with the Boy Scouts. Ironically, Boy Scouts are among the few children these days who still know what to do with the old gauze and tape.

Band-Aids became so successful that Johnson & Johnson's marketing label for the product is by far the most popular term used by the general public. I confess to not realizing the brand-distinction myself. Important improvements to the Band-Aid brand include sterilization in 1939 and vinyl tape in the late 1950's. Then there is, of course, the introduction of decorative Band-Aids and the Band-Aid as fashion statement (see below). While Dickson certainly had no idea what the Band-Aid would become, his early invention and entrepreneurial spirit started it all. Whether the story about his wife was true or mythical, he is a genuine Hero of Capitalism.




About.com: History of the Band-Aid
Wikipedia: Band-Aid
Lemelson-MIT: Inventor of the Week: Earle Dickson
Money.CNN.com: Story about entrepreneurialism at Johnson & Johnson
75 Years of Band-Aid


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