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100 years ago this month, Mrs. Raymond Patterson Van Camp of 1309 Pennsylvania Street created quite a stir when she was spotted doing some last-minute Christmas shopping in nothing but a “stunning toilet.” While this might not be big news in today’s jaded society, apparently toilet garb was all the rage in Indianapolis during the 1912 holiday season.

According to The Indianapolis Star, the wife of Governor-elect Samuel Ralston attended a reception in her honor wearing a white toilet accented by a garnet necklace. A few days earlier, Miss Margaret Boomer went to a fundraiser for free kindergarten carrying a corsage of violets and orchids that matched her own toilet. And not to be topped, Mrs. Edwin Finney shone at the same event in a “charming toilet of white lace draped with tangerine charmeuse veiled with black net embroidered in jet.”

I realize that readers of Historic Indianapolis are unusually sophisticated, but since I still laugh at the word “toilet,” just try to channel your inner 4th grader for a minute and picture the “exquisite toilets” worn by the guests at Mr. and Mrs. George Snowden’s swanky New Year’s Day party in 1913.  As I see it, there was no need for the Snowdens to clutter up their fancy Meridian Street lawn with Port-o-Lets,  as this appeared to be a strictly B.Y.O.T. event.

The 1500 block of North Meridian around the time of the Snowden’s gala party, sans Port-o-Lets. The Snowdens lived at 1502 N. Meridian.

I’m not really sure what sort of the “toilets” the guests were actually wearing, but I’m fairly certain that none of their outfits were made of porcelain.  All I know is that somehow over the past 100 years, the fancy meaning of  “toilet” that once graced the Star’s society pages seems to have gone, well, down the toilet.

On its way down the drain, however, the word “toilet” enjoyed widespread usage in the 1920s and ’30s in advertisements for the burgeoning beauty industry. Indianapolis-based Boncilla Laboratories gained international success during those years with its four-step “Pack-o-Beauty” for “the daily facial toilet.”

Indianapolis businessman John M. Price built Boncilla Laboratories from a small manufacturer of laundry detergents to an international vendor of fancy beauty products endorsed by Joan Crawford and other Hollywood stars. A native of southern Indiana with a background in lumber mills and hardware, Price came to Indianapolis in 1900 at age 28 to manage the Crown Chemical Company. The fledgling company already was enjoying moderate success thanks to an innovative promotional program for its White Line Washing Powder.  Customers could send in six box tops and receive a pair of Japanese goldfish and a 7″ globe absolutely free.

It’s unclear how the goldfish were shipped to the customers, but the demand must have been strong, because in addition to raising its own goldfish, Crown also contracted with Grassyfork Fisheries in Martinsville to help supply fish for the popular promotion.

Although Grassyfork Fisheries briefly circled the drain after Crown decided to discontinue the popular goldfish premium, the Martinsville fish farm eventually grew into the world’s largest goldfish hatchery. The property was listed on the National Register of Historic Place and its long-shuttered sales building has been spared from demolition by Martinsville businessman Craig Fenneman, who is restoring the 80-year-old building for use as his office.

At the same time, the line of women’s beauty products manaufactured by Crown was also taking off.  Price had acquired the secret formula to a paste that when applied to the face would “clear the complexion, lift out lines and remove blackheads.”  The entire treatment could be completed in less than two minutes a day and was “not habit-forming” or “injurious to the health.” By the early 1920s, Crown was selling more than $1 million a year of its Boncilla Clasmic Beautifier and other cosmetic preparations.

After relocating four times over the course of less than a decade to accommodate its growing line of beauty products, Crown moved its headquarters in 1922 to a four-story building on the northwest corner of Pennsylvania and Georgia Streets.  The laundry detergent line was sold off, and the company’s name was changed to Boncilla Laboratories.

In 1922, Boncilla Laboratories purchased the 1889 Hurst Building at the northwest corner of Pennsylvania and Georgia streets. The company was still listed at this address in the 1960 city directory. The building was subsequently demolished and replaced with a parking lot.

But in 1923, a medical researcher exposed the dirty little secret behind Boncilla’s success.  An analysis of Boncilla’s Clasmic Pack and four other similar facial treatments published in the scientific journal Hygeia found that the highly touted preparations were basically nothing more dirt and water, with some perfume and chemicals thrown in for good measure. Titled “Money in Mud,” the article told women that instead of paying up to $10 for one of the commercial mixtures, they could buy a box of kaolin (powdered clay) from their neighborhood druggist for 20 cents and mix it with water to get the same beautifying power without the potentially harmful chemicals.

“The only thing you will lack,” said the article’s author, “is the mental uplift by reading the ineffable bosh published by the complexion clay exploiters.”

The negative review did little to deter sales of Boncilla’s popular “Package-o-Beauty”, however. Throughout the 1920s, advertisements ran in Photoplay and other magazines showing beautiful women and Hollywood starlets with mud smeared on their faces.  Boncilla’s “Clasmic Beautifier” had even managed to burrow into the unconscious mind of renowned psychic Edgar Cayce, who recommended it to clients in at least one reading.

Joan Crawford posed with mud on her face during the earliest days of her career when she still had wire coat hangers in her closet. Other 1920s starlets to shill for Boncilla included Estelle Taylor, the wife of heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, and Lois Moran, who had a brief affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald when he was married to Zelda and served as the inspiration for the character of Rosemary Hoyt in Fitzgerald’s novel “Tender is the Night.”

In 1934, Boncilla’s clasmic clay pack was finally unmasked to the general public by M.C. Phillips in her controversial book, “Skin Deep: The Truth about Beauty Aids.” Despite the negative publicity, strong sales continued for the company’s beauty products into the 1940s.

At its height, Boncilla manufactured a full line of beauty products, including vanishing creams, talcum powders, lipsticks, rouge and toilet water.  The products were sold throughout the world and featured locally at toilet counters in L.S. Ayres, the Wm. H. Block Co., H.P. Wasson and the New York Store.

Although Boncilla products have long vanished from the shelves, this unused tube of Vanishing Cream complete with a four-color advertising leaflet was recently offered on eBay for $19.99.   The auction closed last night at 10:30 p.m. without any bidders.  Sadly, I would have purchased the Boncilla Vanishing Cream had I not been so busy last night trying to finish the article about Boncilla.

The beautiful compact on the left was briefly offered with Boncilla pressed powder in the early 1920s. Later, Boncilla used less expensive designs, or as an alternative, women could transfer their powder to a decorative compact such as the one shown above on the right which recently sold on eBay for $16.

9 responses to “Indianapolis Collected: A Dirty Tale of Mudpack Marketing”

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    This type article is worth following!

  2. David Brewer says:

    I remember the Hurst building. I used to work in the Majestic just up the street. The Hurst burned around 1986-87 while it was being converted into apartments.

  3. Libby Cierzniak says:

    Thanks for the info, David. I didn’t know what happened to the building.

  4. Rachel says:

    According to the dictionary, toilet is a synonym for dress or costume. Isn’t it funny how language changes so quickly?! I would never be caught dead wearing a toilet these days. A turn-of-the-century frock, however, I’m all for! 🙂
    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/toilet

  5. Anna says:

    My guess is that it comes from the french word toilette (think Eau de Toilette). So perhaps these dresses were seen as fancy dressing gowns? I know that over the centuries the word toilette has changed meaning from simply referring to clothing in general (from toile – cloth), to the dressing table (draped in cloth) to the dressing room and the process of getting ready, to the modern usage of toilet.

  6. Anonymous says:

    4.5

  7. Debbie Rowe says:

    I was just looking on the internet for information on where exactly this was located, as my father owned this business for a period of time. By the time he was asked to take it on, it had already radically declined in popularity (late 1940’s I think)? and was ultimately sold sometime in the 1960’s. I think you know a great deal more about it than I do actually and it was fascinating to read about this! Thank you for providing such an interesting and factual explanation. It was my great grandfather who started this. Fascinating! Debbie Rowe

  8. Donna K. Hilt says:

    Hello! Thank you for sharing this information. John Milton Price (“J.M.”) was my mother’s paternal grandfather, and my great-grandfather. Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly in 1947, before I was born in1948., but I grew up hearing my mother’s memories of him and Boncilla. He and my mother, Alice R. Price, (married name Wade) were very close and she adored him. I have not been able to find a picture of him or of the Price family in general. His son, Harry (my grandfather) died before I was born as well. As I understand it, the Price family bought out my grandfather’s shares of Boncilla after he died and cut off all contact with Harry’s wife, Mary, and her children. If you know where I might find any pictures of J.M. or the Price family, please let me know. Thank you. Donna K. Hilt (Wade)

  9. Larry Engledow says:

    Donna my name is Larry Engledow my grandmother is Margaret Price Yohler sister to Harry I just saw your message and it’s a few years old Did you ever get pictures you were looking for I have a few including one of Harry as a boy Just let me know if you’re interested and I’ll be glad to send to you

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