9 Things You Might Not Know About Folgers
By Jake Rossen
Despite appearances, not everyone heads to Starbucks for their morning caffeine fix. For well over 150 years, Folgers has been delivering ground, whole-bean, instant, and home-brew coffees to millions of sleepy consumers. Check out some facts on the company's history, from their origins in whaling to some unfortunate run-ins with Charles Manson and snapping turtles.
1. THE FAMILY WAS NAME-DROPPED IN MOBY-DICK.
For centuries, the Folger clan of Nantucket was renowned for their whaling efforts. (Oil from whale blubber was often used for lamps until kerosene grew in popularity.) They were so well known that author Herman Melville referred to "a long line of Folgers and harpooneers" in his classic Moby-Dick.
2. THE COMPANY WAS FOUNDED THANKS TO THE GOLD RUSH.
James Folger was just 15 years old when his parents dispatched him and two older brothers to San Francisco to mine for gold in 1849. As plans go, it wasn’t a great one: the Folger boys didn’t have enough money to travel to the mining areas, so James stayed behind to earn some cash. He wound up working for the Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mills company, which was marketing an early, commercially roasted ground coffee. Two decades later, James returned—this time with more cash—and bought the business, renaming it J.A. Folger & Co. in 1872.
3. MAXWELL HOUSE WAS AN EARLY NEMESIS.
After decades of being a regional favorite, Folgers was purchased by Procter & Gamble in 1963 and quickly became part of the national competition for store-bought coffee brands. Wary of giving up any ground, Maxwell House formed an in-house "Folgers Defense Team" in 1971. The result: Horizon, a coffee that came in a red can similar to Folgers, and a television commercial character named Aunt Cora (played by Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz). Cora was meant to be a take on Folgers’ Mrs. Olson (see below), with the hope that if Maxwell House ran the commercials in regions early enough, Olson would seem like a second-rate take-off. Folgers was forced to lower their price from $1.20 to 87 cents per can just to remain competitive. By 1979, however, they had taken over 26.5 percent of the market share, well ahead of Maxwell House’s 22.3 percent.
4. EARLY COMMERCIALS WERE NOT VERY PC.
While Folgers has a history of memorable television spots, their most enduring ad campaign revolved around a Swedish character named Mrs. Olson, who appeared to keep busy by introducing Folgers coffee to her overworked neighbors in a series of pretty sexist ads in the 1950s and 1960s. (Folgers conducted research into how petulant the onscreen husbands could get and found housewives considered any kind of verbal abuse so typical as to be acceptable.) Virginia Christine, who portrayed Olson for 21 years, was born in Stanton, Iowa in 1920. When the ads grew popular, the town renovated its trademark water tower so it resembled a coffee pot in her honor.
5. THEY HAVE A LINK TO THE MANSON MURDERS.
One of the 20th century’s most infamous crimes was the murder of Sharon Tate and four of her houseguests in 1969 by disciples of cult leader Charles Manson. Among the victims: Abigail Folger, the 25-year-old Folger fortune heiress, daughter of Peter Folger and great-granddaughter of founder James Folger. (Manson and his cohorts were convicted of first-degree murder in 1971.)
6. THE "PETER" COMMERCIAL RAN FOR OVER 17 YEARS.
You’ll know it when you see it: in the 1986 television spot, a college student named Peter gets dropped off at the family home in a Volkswagen Beetle and surreptitiously makes coffee for his sleeping parents with the help of his younger sister. It’s a cozy little bit, and consumers responded so strongly that Folgers ran the ad for 17 consecutive years. Greg Wrangler, who played the coffee-making intruder, told BrandLandUSA.com in 2008 that producers wanted it to be timeless. "I remember they were really concerned about the look of the spot," he said. "I’m referring to their choices on wardrobe … the Irish wool sweater, the VW Beetle that drops me off … they didn’t want it to be dated … which I think was a big factor in their ability to run it for so long."
7. A WOMAN FOUND A SNAPPING TURTLE IN ONE CAN.
A lot of coffee comes into the United States via New Orleans, which is why 2005’s Hurricane Katrina resulted in a marked disruption of supply. The natural disaster may have had other side effects: According to the Associated Press, Marjorie Morris of Ainsworth, Iowa found a dead baby snapping turtle in her can of Folgers. While no harm came to Morris, she was dismayed by her timing: the 77-year-old had been using the can for a month before spotting the added ingredient.
8. THEY CAME UP WITH SOME PRETTY CLEVER MANHOLE COVER ADS.
John Morton via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
In 2006, Folgers garnered some positive PR when they used foot-proof signage to cover manholes in New York City and made them resemble hot cups of coffee, complete with steam emitting from holes in the cover. While clever, the stunt had an unintended side effect: the aroma from the sewers was not what you’d normally associate with coffee.
9. THEY’RE PRETTY TIGHT WITH DUNKIN’.
Folgers was acquired by the J.M. Smucker company in 2008, putting it under the same corporate umbrella as the Dunkin' Donuts retail license. Together, the two home coffee brands made $577 million for the company in the second quarter of 2016 alone.