Liniment and Vanilla

Dad settled in New Haven, where his sponsor, Siegfried Herrmann, ran a successful tailoring business. He lived with Herrmann and his family until he got a job and could support himself. One of his first jobs was working as a night clerk at the Hotel York, a residential hotel in a sketchy neighborhood near the railroad station. He earned $10 a week, which even in those days was a paltry sum. (The average weekly salary in the United States in 1937 was $32.)

            In January 1939 he took a job as a salesman for the J.R. Watkins Company, a Minnesota-based maker of soaps, spices, extracts, and other household products. The company, which is still in business today, was founded by Joseph Ray Watkins, who started out selling liniment door to door in 1868. By the 1940s, J.R. Watkins was the largest direct-sales company in the world. 

Dad apparently did well. Within a few months he was earning an average of about $30 a week, and within a year he was promoted to district sales manager, responsible for managing a team of 15 salesmen in southwestern Connecticut. 

Seventeen dealers qualified for the free Petro-Carbo Salve in the first week, and this is really something!
— A.F. Newman, Eastern Division Sales Manager, J.R. Watkins Co.

            In January 1941 he moved 20 miles down the coast to Bridgeport, where Watkins’ district office was located. In a letter in early October, Eastern Division Sales Manager A.F. Newman commended him for the success of his sales team in a liniment promotion:

Of all the reports coming in over this desk on Monday morning, none gave us any bigger kick than the one coming from Bridgeport with a total sales of $314.20, and 245 Liniment Combinations. Congratulations! … Seventeen dealers qualified for the free Petro-Carbo Salve in the first week, and this is really something! It is apparent that the Liniment Offer is finding favor with practically all dealers in Bridgeport and New Haven, and we are certainly going to look forward confidentially each week to seeing your organization hold first position in the district.  

A few weeks later Dad received another letter from Newman praising him for setting a sales record for the Bridgeport district: “$357.14 sets up a new all-time record at Bridgeport and we certainly want to take this opportunity to say, ‘congratulations on a fine job.’” He received a similar commendatory note from A.A. Muller,the New England supervisor, who urged Dad to continue his success with a new vanilla promotion: “Now with the outstanding Vanilla offer for November — and the fine line-up of prizes, more new records will be established in November.”

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Despite his modest beginnings in the United States, with little money and few contacts, Dad didn’t waste any time climbing the Jewish social ladder in Connecticut.

Despite his modest beginnings in the United States, with little money and few contacts, Dad didn’t waste any time climbing the Jewish social ladder in Connecticut. In a 1941 letter to Albert Herrmann, he wrote: “I have been frequently invited to Judge Shapiro’s and I have always had a good time there.” He was no doubt referring to Louis Shapiro, who at the time was a judge in the affluent Hartford suburb of Farmington. Shapiro was later elected to the state House of Representatives, where he served two years as majority leader, and went on to become the chief judge of the state Superior Court and an associate justice of the state Supreme Court. 

At another party, Dad continued in the same letter, “I met Sam Freedman (defender of Spell) just at a time when the trial was pending and it was very interesting to get somebody’s opinion about a trial in which he himself (played) a pretty prominent part.” He was referring to Samuel Friedman, a young Jewish attorney who, along with Thurgood Marshall, then the NAACP’s top lawyer, was the defense counsel in one of the most sensational criminal cases of the day. Friedman and Marshall were representing Joseph Spell, a black chauffeur who was accused of raping the wife of a wealthy Greenwich advertising executive and throwing her off a bridge in what newspaper headlines trumpeted as a “lurid orgy” and "night of horror." Spell was eventually acquitted and Friedman went on to a long and distinguished career in jurisprudence. Marshall, of course, became the first African American justice on the Supreme Court. Dad said he had also been invited to Friedman’s house in Southport, an affluent Fairfield County suburb, and was looking forward to the occasion “as both he and his wife are very nice people.”

Top: Bottle of J.R. Watkins imitation vanilla. Auckland Muuseum.