Before green was a product category
In the 1970s, plastics, artificial sweeteners and disposable goods were taking off in the American marketplace. Stronger chemicals showed up in American homes – for use in kitchens, bathrooms and elsewhere. These products were new and made life easier – or so the TV and radio announcers told them.
Amid the constant push for technological advance, we heard other voices. The letters finding their way to the Beaham family kitchen table expressed relief that Bon Ami was not part of this trend. They didn’t quite know if these voices added up to a choir, so they ran a few ads asking people to tell us how felt about Bon Ami. They got many more letters – some funny, some moving.
Some of the letters were from a group of people who were chemically sensitive – people whose bodies couldn’t tolerate the onslaught of new chemicals. They were just then becoming aware that they weren’t alone – that others had the same allergic reactions. They wanted products that were natural. Long before green became a marketing term or product category, they needed green products.
A Kansas City businessman and his hippie friends
They heard from other communities as well, for reasons that are obvious in hindsight. Gordon Beaham didn’t like paying the slotting fees charged by many grocery store chains, so Bon Ami showed up in hardware stores, odd specialty shops, natural food stores and co-ops. They found ourselves beloved by do-it-yourselfers, back-to-nature types, and others who weren’t thrilled by the technology bandwagon. They were a quirky bunch. From Kansas City, a lot of them looked like hippies.
One thing many of these communities had in common was the Whole Earth Catalog, which in the 1970s was a key communications vehicle for the counterculture. Its motto of “access to tools” referenced both the physical tools available by mail order and the ideological tools available in the articles, columns and letters. With many of his customers among its readers, Gordon Beaham gravitated to the Whole Earth Catalog. And so it was that a staid Kansas City company grew closer to those who could see early on that new wasn’t always improved.
The Whole Earth Catalog published a letter from Gordon Beaham in 1974. The tone was more formal than anything else appearing in the publication. But it showed clearly that the quirky communities had a good friend in Bon Ami – even if Gordon’s suit and tie made it look otherwise. In his letter, he said, “We live in a time, I believe, when many ‘old-fashioned’ old reliable products are about to become New Products, and Products of the Future, as we delicately restructure our priorities, re-direct technology toward what’s ecologically necessary and therefore beautiful, and redefine ‘progress’ so that its definition includes mankind’s finite economical survival on this beautiful finite Whole Earth"…
In describing the old cake form of Bon Ami, he said, “Its ingredients, soap and feldspar, merely make elbow grease more efficient, and elbow grease doesn’t pollute.” It was an elegant statement of purpose, then and now. The man in the photo may be the image of yesterday, but he somehow had a sense of what was to come.