History is littered with inventors who saw opportunity even in the face of ridicule. Few believed Thomas Edison’s light bulb would have any enduring appeal; the Wright Brothers were scorned for their passion for air travel, with critics believing it was a playful pursuit at best or that they hadn't even flown at all; Alexander Graham Bell was said to be wasting his time with the telephone, with transmitted voices too weak and indistinct to be useful.
Ed Lowe found this out in 1947. The reception to his great breakthrough was tepid at best. To most people, Lowe was selling dirt in a bag. While technically true, it was the purpose of this clay dirt that was the point: Lowe had invented kitty litter, and the relationship between humans and their pet cats would never be the same.
A Catty Strategy
To describe Lowe’s origins as humble doesn’t quite do them justice. He was born on July 10, 1920, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Henry and Lulu Lowe. The family eventually settled in Marcellus, Michigan. As a teen, Lowe was a worker, selling Saturday Evening Post magazine subscriptions, scrap metal, and corn cobs. For 10 cents, he would even trap rats for customers.
In 1946, after serving in the Navy, 27-year-old Lowe began working for his father, who sold sawdust and other industrial absorbents as well as blocks of ice to people in and around Cassopolis, Michigan. The business became known as Lowe & Lowe. One day, he was approached by a neighbor named Kay Draper who wanted to know if Lowe had any ashes she could use for her cat box.
This was common for the time. Cat owners who allowed their pets to defecate indoors typically filled up boxes with ashes, sawdust, or anything that could make the act slightly less unseemly. Even then, a bowel movement in an open box still led to an extremely unpleasant odor, and their concentrated urine was even worse. For the most part, cat enthusiasts tried to keep their pets outdoors at night rather than have them as permanent indoor roommates. In addition to weakening the emotional connection between pets and people, it also led to some pets getting into fights or being struck by cars.
Lowe didn’t have any ashes, but he wasn’t really inclined to give the woman any. Ashes or sawdust meant the cat would simply track the particles all over the house. Instead, Lowe suggested the woman take ground clay, which was gaining in popularity as a fire-resistant option instead of the flammable sawdust used in industrial spills. Lowe knew the clay was very absorbent. In fact, he had tried marketing it as chicken litter in the hopes people who kept chickens might consider it a more sanitary alternative. Made of fuller’s earth, the clay contained positive ions that attract water, absorbing waste and odor.
Lowe handed her the bag he had in his trunk. (“More to get rid of her than anything else,” he later recalled.) When she returned asking for more, Lowe decided to broaden his horizons. He took 10 bags of the clay, dubbed them Kitty Litter, and took them to a nearby store. The owner wasn’t interested. The 5-pound bags of litter cost 65 cents, a fortune compared to the cheap sawdust that cost 1 cent per pound. To combat their skepticism, Lowe told them to give the bags away. When people saw how well it worked, he knew they'd come back, happy to pay for more.
He was right. The customers returned, eager to replenish their supply of Kitty Litter. But getting that message across on a large scale was difficult for Lowe, who was essentially bagging and commercializing dirt. It took him eight years before his Kitty Litter broke the $1 million mark in sales. After that, there was no turning back.
On the Prowl
During those early years, Lowe became a litter evangelist, canvassing the country to attend pet shows and drop in on pet specialty stores. At the shows, he scooped out free Kitty Litter to purebred cats in exchange for being given a sales booth to make his pitch. In stores, he hauled out bags of the litter and insisted store owners were missing out on a huge untapped market—cat owners who loved their cats but hated the smell.
He also left his imprint in local markets. Before going on to the next territory, Lowe recruited local wholesalers who could continue supplying stores with the Kitty Litter.
Though Lowe was successful—Kitty Litter was even featured in a 1952 Life magazine article—this was a glacial approach to marketing. Then Lowe got a break. In the mid-1950s, Kitty Litter started appearing in supermarkets under the brand name Tidy Cat, where people doing their regular grocery shopping were intrigued by the idea of making their home cat-friendly. (Not everyone totally grasped the concept. One woman wrote to Lowe to complain, saying that, despite various ways of preparing it, her cat absolutely refused to eat the litter.)
Lowe also pursued advertising. One early print ad read:
“Put 2 inches of Kitty Litter in the bottom of your Kitty Box at end of every other day. You will see that the heavy droppings have dried to such an extent that they can be removed with a piece of tissue and be disposed of. Then with a sanitary screen move and stir the remaining Kitty Litter several times so as to distribute the small damp spots so they can be absorbed. By following these directions Kitty Litter can be used over and over.”
This exponential growth was a boon to Edward Lowe Industries and the rash of copycat litter products that followed in its wake. In the 1970s, Clorox entered the market and nearly toppled Lowe with an exorbitantly priced product named Litter Green that sold for over double his retail price and promised to control odors more effectively. But Lowe held firm, and so did cats—they didn’t appear to like the Clorox product.
By 1989, the kitty litter market was topping $500 million annually, with Lowe’s products—which included the original Kitty Litter as well as the Tidy Cat and Sophisticat brands—making up nearly half of it. Some bags even sported a picture of Lowe, smiling broadly and holding a cat. Clever TV ad campaigns showed a black cat with a skunk-like stripe. After using Lowe’s litter, the stripe disappeared.
To keep innovating, Lowe developed the Cattery in Cassopolis, a feline laboratory in which a number of Lowe’s own cats as well as strays were enlisted to live the ultimate in cat luxury—they simply had to eat and poop. The brood eventually grew to 120 subjects, which were monitored via video surveillance. Their contributions led to Lowe introducing a dust-free kitty litter in 1985.
Lowe enjoyed the spoils of his hard work. Kitty litter had made him a millionaire many times over, and his holdings grew to include 22 homes, including several on a 300-acre estate in Michigan, one in Chicago, winter retreats in Florida, and locations adjacent to clay mines that were harvested for his litter. His wife, Darlene, an interior decorator, fashioned their homes with antiques. A yacht, the Golden Cat, got him on the water.
There was little the profits of kitty litter could not do for him. Once, Lowe treasured a number of 1000-pound slabs left over from an old Cassopolis jail. When he couldn’t figure out how to move them, Lowe just bought the land they rested on.
But an empire built on kitty litter can be treacherous ground indeed.
Stepping In It
In 1984, Clorox was back, now with Fresh Step, a litter that released a minty fragrance to help disguise smells. It was the most serious threat to Lowe's litter empire yet. Having deferred to his board of directors, Lowe once again took on an active role.
A feisty Lowe fended off Clorox for a second time, urging retailers to consider that Fresh Step was only 7 pounds compared to Tidy Cat’s 10-pound bag, and that the scented granules were being triggered during shipping rather than during cat business. He also added an odor killer of his own.
Lowe's tenaciousness paid off. The company was later sold to an investment group for $200 million and became the Golden Cat Corporation in 1990 before being put in the fold of the Ralston Purina Company. Eventually, it wound up as part of Nestlé.
Lowe’s acknowledgment that entrepreneurship changed his life never ebbed. In 1985, he and Darlene created the Edward Lowe Foundation, which provides assistance and education to small business owners.
By the time Lowe passed away in 1995 at the age of 75, he was arguably the main factor behind the 20th century’s rise of domesticated cats. Once considered noxious burdens, cats became more popular pets than dogs for the first time in 1985. And while there’s considerable environmental concern over kitty litter—unable to be flushed, it’s typically dumped in landfills—it's unquestionably one of the biggest pet innovations ever developed. If there’s one individual to credit for that fluffy friend dozing on your lap without stinking up your house, it’s Ed Lowe.