Monday, November 26, 2012

Ephemeral city: Lucky Tiger bottle

Lucky Tiger hair tonic was produced first at 544 Delaware and later at 29th and Fairmount.

If you search for "Lucky Tiger Mfg. Co. Kansas City, Mo." you'll probably come across a website for a company based in Milwaukee. There you'll find a page devoted to "The Lucky Tiger Heritage," which tells you that

Lucky Tiger's roots go back to 1927 when P.S. Harris, an amateur scientist and popular barber in Kansas City, Missouri, created a tonic for the hair and scalp in his basement. He called it Lucky Tiger Tonic. Everyone who visited P.S.'s barbershop would look forward to their shave, haircut and a generous splash of Lucky Tiger Tonic. It was different and better than other tonics used in those days, and customers from miles around would rave about its soothing effect. As the story goes, P.S. began to sell the tonic out of his shop, and a few years later a business associate convinced him that his special tonic would be a hit in barbershops across the country. So in 1935 Lucky Tiger was trademarked and a classic American brand was officially born.

This empty bottle probably dates to around that time, when the advertising looked like this:


The online history continues with cultural references from the 1950s, when "Lucky Tiger was there to give guys that sultry, just-right flip as dictated by the heroes of the day: Dean Martin, James Dean, Brando and Elvis."  By then the marketing had morphed into something a bit different –


The website claims "the barber industry was forever changed" by the long-haired Beatles and '60s pop culture, but "Lucky Tiger maintained a fiercely loyal following." And so the Milwaukee company still sells the stuff today as part of its line of "Barbershop Classics." Presumably a nod to that popular barbershop in 1927 Kansas City, where P.S. Harris snipped hair and massaged scalps with the soothing tonic he mixed up in his basement.

Nice story. Except the record shows that in 1927 Pleasant Stephen Harris was president of not only the Lucky Tiger Remedy Company, but also the more established Harris-Goar Company, jewelers and clothiers with stores in downtown Kansas City and several other midwest cities. He lived in a spacious prairie-style mansion in the Sunset Hill neighborhood, his wife was active in women's clubs and the Philharmonic, and they sent their kids to the finest private schools. He had a law degree from the University of Michigan and enjoyed golf and hunting and his membership in the Kansas City Club.

When he died in 1944, his Mr. Harris' obituary mentioned that Lucky Tiger manufactured and marketed cosmetics nationally. Nothing about dabbling in science, operating a barbershop or whipping up batches of hair tonic in his basement.

I guess it's possible. Just hard to imagine, maybe, unless you're trying to sell a line of "Barbershop Classics."