Although some of these are sort of cringe-inducing in their original applications, they found new life—and commercial popularity—in unintended ways.
During World War I, Kimberly-Clark produced wadding for surgical dressing made out of a relatively new material called Cellucotton. It worked just fine for treating battle wounds, but the Red Cross nurses found that the super absorbent material also had personal hygiene benefits. After the war, the market for surgical wadding dropped off, but the company found a new market for "sanitary napkins." The new product was given the name Kotex, short for "cotton texture," and was openly advertised as a re-purposing of the war material.
The public was slow to come around on the idea of disposable, publicly marketed sanitary pads, and while they waited for the tides to turn, Kimberly-Clark found another use for its supply of creped wadding. Scientists created the super thin, soft tissues we know today before they even knew what it would be used for. Initially, marketers promoted it as a replacement for "cold cream towels," which were used to apply skincare serums. Ads focusing on the cosmetic value—calling it "the new secret of keeping a pretty skin as used by famous movie stars"—sold Kleenex from its inception in 1924 until nose-needs were introduced into the marketing campaign in 1930.
3. Bubble Wrap
A bubble wrap-lined room seems like the sort of idea that would come about after people everywhere had become obsessed with the satisfying sensation of popping the bubbles that keep our fragile items safe in transit. And yet, wallpaper was actually the intent behind engineer Al Fielding and Swiss inventor Marc Chavannes' invention. Turns out, the market for textured wallpaper was not what they had hoped, and the pair struggled to find an alternate angle. Despite some viability, the plan to pitch the material as an insulator for greenhouses didn't pan out either. Then, in 1959, IBM had announced their new 1401 variable word length computer, and Fielding and Chavannes had an idea. They pitched bubble wrap as a packaging material for the fragile new technologies, and IBM agreed to give it a try. From there, bubble wrap found new purpose and people were left wishing they had whole rooms lined with the stuff. Probably.
The favorite water bottle of especially active outdoorsy folk can trace its history back to the laboratory. Nalge Company, in upstate New York, developed a line of polyethylene laboratory equipment that could withstand high temperatures and reactive chemicals, and, unlike glass containers, be virtually unbreakable. This worked wonderfully for centrifuge bottles, filter units, storage tanks, etc, but in the 1970s, Nalgene’s president Marsh Hyman heard that some of the scientists had found a second use for the containers out on the trails. To test the viability of this alternate application, he took an assortment of Nalgene products to a campout with his son’s Boy Scout troop. The containers were a hit with the campers. It took some more developments in the material before Nalgene would advertise water bottles but they held on to their laboratory roots.
OK, there's a lot to unpack here. Let's start with the basics: In the first half of the 20th century, Lysol was advertised as a "vaginal douche." At the time, birth control methods like condoms and diaphragms were expensive and difficult to come by. So the Lysol ads hinted at an additional benefit for their feminine hygiene product: contraception. Of course, not only did Lysol fail to prevent pregnancy, it was incredibly dangerous down there, despite marketing claims to the contrary. To add misogynistic insult to inflamed genital injury, the ads appealed to women's insecurities with thinly—or not at all—veiled implications that a husband's infidelity or marital displeasure was the direct result of his wife's, um, uncleanliness and rampant fertility.
Listerine was invented 135 years ago, first as a surgical antiseptic, but also as a cure for gonorrhea (don’t try that at home). An article from 1888 recommends Listerine "for sweaty feet, and soft corns, developing between the toes." Over the course of the next century, it was marketed as a refreshing additive to cigarettes, a cure for the common cold, and as a dandruff treatment. But it was in the 1920s that the powerful, germ-killing liquid finally landed on its most lucrative use as a magical cure for bad breath.
Propecia, that ubiquitous drug used to treat male-pattern baldness, was originally marketed as Proscar, a drug to treat the benign enlargement of the prostate. After five years on the market in the 1990s, it became clear that one of the side effects of Proscar was—you can practically see the money signs flashing in the pharmaceutical marketers’ eyes—hair growth on bald men. Cha-ching!
Viagra, or Sildenafil, as it's officially known, was originally conceived as a treatment for hypertension, angina, and other symptoms of heart disease. But Phase I clinical trials revealed that while the drug wasn’t great at treating what it was supposed to treat, male test subjects were experiencing a rather unexpected side effect: erections. A few years later, in 1998, the drug took U.S. markets by storm as a treatment for penile dysfunction and became an overnight success. It now rakes in an estimated $1.9 billion a year.
Brandy, that delightful, caramel-colored after dinner drink, started off as a byproduct of transporting wine. About 900 years ago, merchants would essentially boil the water off of large quantities of wine in order to both transport it more easily, and save on customs taxes, which were levied by volume. After a while, a few of these merchants, bored perhaps after a long day on the road, dipped into their inventory and discovered that the concentrated, or distilled, wine actually tasted pretty darn good. Voila! Brandy was born.
Coca-Cola, one of the world’s most famous brand names, was originally invented as an alternative to morphine addiction, and to treat headaches and relieve anxiety. Coke’s inventor, John Pemberton—a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who himself suffered from a morphine addiction—first invented a sweet, alcoholic drink infused with coca leaves for an extra kick. He called it Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. It would be another two decades before that recipe was honed, sweetened, carbonated and, eventually, marketed into what it is today: the most popular soda in the world.
Play-Doh, that strange, brightly colored, salty clay that all of us grew up molding and poking (and, occasionally, nibbling), was first invented in the 1930s by a soap manufacturer named Cleo McVickers, who thought he’d hit upon a fantastic wallpaper cleaner. It wasn’t for another 20 years that McVicker’s son, Joseph, repurposed the goop as clay for pre-schoolers and called it Play-Doh, a product that remains wildly popular among the under-5 crowd today.
And if you're searching for innovative gift ideas this holiday season, be sure to check out this roundup of the best Shark Tank products to grab now.
This article was originally published in 2015 and has been updated for 2022.