This brand’s sixth customer was George Washington. Founder Dr. William Hunter’s first invention was orange soda. His second novelty, a bar of soap, rode a wave of interest to colonial prominence thanks to Benjamin Franklin’s introduction of the bubble bath and the requisite tub to America’s privileged.
The passion that I have for American history is well-documented throughout my writings here. But over the previous several months I have taken things up a notch, devouring deep dives by T.J. Stiles and Ron Chernow to include biographies on “Commodore” Vanderbilt, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Alexander Hamilton, JP Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller as if these works were one anthology on the becoming of America. All this time, one brand, commonly used by the men above, was there: pre-revolution, revolution, the constructing of America, the deconstructing of America (by Civil War), its Gilded Age, and onward to the first half of the 20th century.
To be honest, I should have known everything about this brand. According to estimates, it does about $18 million online today through its Shopify site. This number should be far higher given the current emphasis on beauty and grooming and its historical stature. But this isn’t as much about the business itself, it’s about the history of a company that is older than Colgate, Macy’s, Pabst, Brooks Brothers, Citigroup, Dupont, J.P. Morgan Chase, or Cigna.
It was founded in a city that I hold dear (Newport, RI), a place that I shipped off to at 17 years old to unsuccessfully find myself. Just blocks away from where I slept, each night, stood the urban waterfront area that sold Caswell-Massey goods. And people sure bought them; it was used by a few of my most personally-cherished historical figures and even my father-in-law (who introduced the product to me) has been using it for years. As a gift, he left a bar of soap for me. He had to have known that this type of essay would follow.
Caswell-Massey is one of America’s oldest continuously operating companies and a storied beauty and fragrance brand with roots dating back to 1752. How it isn’t one of the most well-marketed and most relevant brands today is beyond my understanding.
The 1700s were foundational years for the retailer and its core products. From its beginnings as Dr. Hunter’s Dispensary, it established a reputation for quality and luxury, setting the stage for its later evolution into a respected and renowned beauty and fragrance brand. As the company grew and developed over the next centuries, it held onto its roots, remaining a trusted name in personal care. Today, the brand’s rich heritage continues to be a central part of its identity. Want an example of its legacy? Maybe famed playwright Lin Manuel-Miranda kept a bar of Caswell soap on stage for good luck.
Well ahead of its time, the original Rhode Island shop offered a range of remedies, personal care items, and even scented waters that were considered early forms of cologne. During the late 1700s, the store’s clientele included members of high society, as Newport was a popular summer destination for the wealthy. The product line included items like Dr. Hunter’s Original Number Six, a fragrance named after London’s famous Number Six Store, where it was sold.
This particular fragrance was later famously used by General and first President George Washington. In 1790, George Washington gave the Marquis de Lafayette a full supply of Dr. Hunter’s Original Number Six Cologne to show his gratitude for aiding his strained Revolutionary Army. In 1826, after finally earning his freedom from captivity in France, the Marquis de Lafayette returned to Rhode Island and bought boxes and boxes of Number Six.
Toward the end of the 18th century, the apothecary began transitioning towards more beauty-centric products. While it still offered health-related products and remedies, Dr. Hunter’s Dispensary increasingly began to carry items like perfumes and soaps, paving the way for its future status as a premier beauty and fragrance brand. It was a pharmacy selling remedies and personal care items.
Over the years, the company changed hands several times. In 1861, it was acquired (for the first time) by an employee, John Rose Caswell, who renamed the company to “Caswell-Massey” when he partnered with New York businessman William Massey in the 1870s. During this time, the brand gained fame for its luxury products, including fragrances, soaps, and grooming essentials. Caswell-Massey became known for its iconic products. For instance, their almond cold cream soap, first introduced in the early 20th century, remains a best-seller today. The brand was also patronized by several U.S. presidents beyond America’s first Commander and Chief. Even JFK was fond of their “Jockey Club” scent. If the brand had its own Mt. Rushmore, here is the proverbial Mount Rushmore of the products’ biggest fans:
George Washington: The first President of the United States; He is said to have been a fan of the brand’s “Number Six” fragrance, a blend of citrus and rosemary with 27 secret aromatics. The Number Six fragrance was formulated in 1780, and it remains a beloved product in the company’s lineup.
John F. Kennedy: The 35th U.S. President also had a fondness for Caswell-Massey’s products. He particularly liked the “Jockey Club” scent, which was considered the first “sport” scent in America. Jockey Club remains a favorite among the Caswell-Massey offerings today.
Jacqueline Onassis: The matriarch of Camelot and the devoted wife to John F. Kennedy loved buying avocado oil from the retailer.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: The 34th U.S. President; he reportedly loved the “Tricorn” cologne, a captivating and elegant fragrance with notes of citrus, sandalwood, and musk.
The Astor Family: The Astor family, one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were also patrons of Caswell-Massey. The family had a particular affinity for Caswell-Massey’s bath soaps.
In the 21st century, the brand experienced another rebirth. Under new ownership, Caswell-Massey has focused on upholding its historic legacy while modernizing to fit contemporary tastes. The brand reintroduced classic products, revamped its packaging, and committed to using clean, sustainable ingredients. Today, the company continues to manufacture a broad range of personal care products and is still recognized as a legacy in the American beauty industry.
In an era where consumers value authenticity, history, and quality, Caswell-Massey holds a unique advantage with its rich heritage and legacy of superior products. However, to address more of the market, the brand must adapt.
Digitally-native strategies: Caswell-Massey must harness digital marketing and eCommerce effectively. By telling their story through engaging content on social media platforms, they can reach a younger, digitally-native audience. Leveraging influencer partnerships could also help introduce the brand to new consumers.
Environmental standards: Sustainability and clean ingredients are paramount for modern consumers. Caswell-Massey should continue emphasizing and communicating its commitment to eco-friendly practices and natural ingredients.
Product-led marketing: Caswell-Massey should consider limited edition releases or collaborations, possibly inspired by their historical connections. Unique product offerings that tap into nostalgia while offering contemporary appeal can create buzz and rekindle interest in the brand.
By blending the old with the new and leveraging their historical strength, Caswell-Massey can heighten its relevance and continue to appeal to the discerning, modern customer who values quality, authenticity, and sustainability. Its history reflects the evolving landscape of the American beauty industry over the last three centuries. Its resilience and ability to adapt are central to its long-lasting success and enduring legacy.
By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy