The Strange Early Names of 11 Common Products
Branding is everything. It’s why we refer to most tissues as Kleenex even though we might be picking up a box of Puffs, and why we call a duplicate of something a Xerox even if it hasn’t come out of that company's copy machines.
Those two products may have gotten their name right on the first try, but not all companies are so lucky. Take a look at 11 popular brands that started out with far less effective labels.
1. KOOL-AID // FRUIT SMACK
In the 20th century, Edwin Perkins owned a successful family mail-order business. As with the Tupperware™ and Avon models, Perkins enlisted regional sales representatives to peddle his products, which ranged from home goods to food flavorings. One popular item was Fruit Smack, a highly concentrated juice that came in 4-ounce corked bottles and could be mixed with a pitcher of water. Owing to shipping hassles—the glass bottle would sometimes break or leak—Perkins came up with a powdered version. With the change from liquid to solid came a name change: Kool-Ade was introduced in six flavors (raspberry, cherry, grape, lemon, orange, and root beer) in 1928. The current spelling was introduced in 1934.
2. WATER BED // PLEASURE PIT
It’s easy to understand how a more luxurious bed was conceived at the height of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. San Francisco State University graduate student Charlie Hall created the water bed—a fluid-filled membrane that replaced a foam mattress—in a design class in 1968. Contrary to popular assumption, though, Hall wasn’t much of a hippie. He just wanted to make a more comfortable bed. The name he chose, however, was tawdry. Hall called it the "Pleasure Pit," but the subsequent knock-offs came to be known as "water beds." Even the more innocuous name was still paired with lurid advertising. One salesman told clients that the gyrating motion of the bed “creates the impression a third, warm body is participating.”
3. CHEERIOS // CHEERIOATS
This breakfast table staple was introduced in 1941, after food science innovator Lester Borchardt developed a way to puff up oats into the familiar “O” shape. For the first four years, the cereal was called Cheerioats to emphasize its whole-grain origins, and manufacturer General Mills even shipped the toasted oats to servicemen using the slogan “He’s feeling his CheeriOats.” But Quaker Oats wasn’t having it. They believed they had the corner on “oats” in the processed-food market. Rather than engage in a lengthy legal struggle, General Mills shortened the name to Cheerios in 1945.
4. VASELINE // WONDER JELLY
While visiting Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, chemist Robert Chesebrough became intrigued by the fact that the petroleum oil drillers there smeared the jelly-like residue of the drilling process over their burned or irritated skin. Sensing he had the next great home care product, he spent years developing a patented purification process to sell the petroleum goop commercially. In 1870, the product debuted under the name Wonder Jelly. Chesebrough travelled around New York demonstrating the product’s effectiveness by burning his skin with an open flame or acid and then soothing it with his concoction. While this undoubtedly made a name for Chesebrough, it may not have had the same effect on his creation. He changed the name to Vaseline (reportedly combining the German word for water, wasser, and the Greek word for oil, oleon), and registered it in 1872.
5. PAC-MAN // PUCK-MAN
At the height of coin-operated arcade machine mania in 1980, Japanese video game manufacturer Namco dropped a bombshell release. Their Pac-Man, which let players control a sentient yellow circle that gobbled up power pellets and ghosts, was a national phenomenon. But in Japan, it was known by another name: Creator Toru Iwatani dubbed the game Puckman (or Puck-Man). Accounts vary as to why he chose this name, but it may have had something to do with his protagonist's puck-shaped appearance, or a reference to the Japanese word paku, meaning "chomp." When Namco prepared the game for an American release, however, marketers worried that some teenagers might change the P in Puck-Man to an F. They wisely opted for Pac-Man instead.
6. Q-TIPS // BABY GAYS
After seeing his wife create a makeshift cotton swab by wrapping cotton balls around toothpicks to use on their baby, Leo Gerstenzang decided to mass-produce sterilized swabs. He formed the Leo Gerstenzang Infant Novelty Company in 1923 and named his leading product Baby Gays, presumably for the joy they would bring to children who weren’t being treated like pin cushions by toothpick-wielding mothers. In 1926, Gerstenzang altered the name to Q-Tips Baby Gays, and eventually just Q-Tips. The Q stands for quality.
7. BIG MAC // ARISTOCRAT
The signature burger at McDonald’s was concocted by local franchisee Jim Delligatti, who arranged the two beef patties drenched in a secret sauce in Pittsburgh in 1967. While Delligatti developed a tasty burger, the early names for it—the Aristocrat and the Blue Ribbon Burger—proved unpopular among corporate brass. An advertising executive named Esther Rose came up with “Big Mac” on the way to a product meeting; a colleague rejected it, believing the menu’s McDouble meant they couldn’t use another “Mac” burger product, but was overruled. The Big Mac rolled out nationally in 1968. It’s remained a fixture of their menu ever since. (Rose, incidentally, received no royalties for naming the burger, but the company did give her a nice plaque.)
8. COTTON CANDY // FAIRY FLOSS
The staple of carnivals everywhere, sugar-saturated cotton candy was developed by the unlikeliest of creators—a dentist. William Morrison conspired with confectioner John C. Wharton to develop and patent an electronic machine that spun the fiber-textured candy in 1897. (Melted sugar is forced through tiny holes using centrifugal force, solidifying into narrow strands.) Morrison and Wharton shopped their confection at world fairs under the name “fairy floss.” It was another somewhat irresponsible dentist, Josef Lascaux, who gave it the name cotton candy in the 1920s (although it reportedly retains the "fairy" moniker in Australia).
9. EGGO WAFFLES // FROFFLES
The Dorsa brothers—Frank, Anthony, and Sam—were an enterprising bunch. After coming up with a popular mayonnaise recipe in 1932—which they dubbed Eggo Mayonnaise after their egg-heavy ingredient list—the siblings turned their attention to waffle batter. When that became prohibitive to ship due to fear of spoilage, they created a dry mix, then decided to capitalize on the burgeoning frozen-food market by offering pre-cooked waffles they called Froffles (frozen waffles) beginning in 1953. The name didn’t stick, though: Consumers preferred the Eggo label, and so the brothers changed the name in 1955. In 1972, new Eggo owners Kellogg cemented the brand with the “Leggo my Eggo” ad campaign. “Unhand my Froffles” didn’t have the same ring to it.
10. FRISBEE // PLUTO PLATTER
When the Wham-O novelty toy company introduced a flying plastic disc in the 1950s intended for tossing, it was dubbed the Pluto Platter in order to capitalize on the nation’s flying saucer hysteria. The name came from inventor Walter Frederick Morrison, who originally considered calling it the Whirlo-Way and the Flyin-Saucer. Within months, Wham-O decided to rename it the Frisbee, though there’s some debate over what exactly inspired the new title. One story has students of a New England college tossing pie tins around from the Frisbie Baking Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Wham-O president Richard Knerr said the name came from a comic strip called "Mr. Frisbie."
Either way, Morrison—who reaped royalties from Frisbee sales—thought the new moniker was a terrible choice. “I thought it was insane,” he told The New York Times in 2007.
11. SCRABBLE // CRISS CROSS WORDS
The ubiquitous word game was invented by Alfred Mosher Butts, who was out of work during the Great Depression in 1933 and used his copious free time to work on his letter tiles. Through the product’s lengthy developmental stage in the 1930s and 1940s, Butts referred to it as Lexiko, It, and Criss Cross Words. It wasn’t until Butts teamed up with entrepreneur James Brunot that the two came up with the name Scrabble, which means to collect or hold on to something. They trademarked the title in 1948. By the early 1950s, the game was so popular that Butts and Brunot couldn't meet the demand even though they were producing 6000 sets a week.