At the turn of the 20th century, the jan/san industry was in its infancy. Until that time, people got by primarily with soapy water for cleaning and oil for maintaining hardwood floors. As the industry grew, most manufacturers and distributors still carried just one or a few products.

“My dad started with one product,” says Dix Jarden, chairman of the Bullen Companies, Folcroft, Pa. The Great Depression ruined the lumber business, for which Jarden’s father had been a salesman. To put food on the table, the elder Jarden started Franklin Research Company, which manufactured a solvent wax for wood and linoleum floors. “Now as a manufacturer you can’t get away with one product.”

In just 60 years, distributors have gone from carrying perhaps three floor finishes, three cleaning products, four aerosols, and one bowl cleaner to selling more than 20 varieties of each. The swell of products represents the industry’s evolution, as products have come, gone, or been modified to meet ever-changing customer needs.

Humble Beginnings
When the industry started in the late 1800s, the world looked much different.

Carpets were not popular because cleaning them was a time-consuming chore. Before vacuums became widely available, rugs had to be rolled up, hung on a line, and beat clean. Hardwood floors were the norm but were not well maintained. They were either oiled to keep down the dust or, like linoleum floors, were maintained with carnauba wax. Taken from Brazilian palm tree leaves, this wax was hard and tended to yellow with age.

“Back in those days, ammonia was the greatest thing since peanut butter for removing wax,” says Frank Ridge, a salesman for Action Chemical Co. and Gateway Chemical Co. and past International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA) president. “If you’ve ever smelled ammonia, it will knock your head off.”

Even public restrooms were much different. They offered patrons very little — just an unsanitary bar of soap and a towel to wash up.

The industry didn’t change significantly in its early years. In fact, the first wave of remarkable changes did not hit until the mid-1900s.

“Until the end of WWII, the jan/san industry was very small, not very sophisticated, and not really dominated by anybody. Cleaning products and methods were in their infancy,” says Jack Ramaley, ISSA’s executive director from 1975 to 1990.

The Power of Plastics
There is probably nothing that affected the jan/san industry as profoundly as the invention of plastic. Although plastics emerged in the prewar period (dating back to the late 1800s), their full potential was not discovered until World War II, when they were tapped to help with the war effort.

Following the war, new manufacturing methods allowed companies to churn plastic products out in vast quantities. The new plastics entered the consumer mainstream in a flood. Americans loved the colorful, cheap, and durable products and their use became widespread.

Scientists transformed plastics into vinyl floors, synthetic carpets, laminate countertops and cabinets, trash bags and much more. Each new use for plastic led to change in the jan/san industry.

“In this industry, we have always had entrepreneurs who saw a need and then created something to fulfill that need,” says Ramaley.

Unlimited Choices
The segment of the industry most affected by plastics was flooring. Before the war, flooring choices were limited. Carpet was an expensive and impractical option. Hardwood, linoleum, and rubber required extensive maintenance and stained easily. Cork tile, popular in the 1920s, was available only in limited colors and designs and was expensive and porous.

Seemingly overnight, however, new options were available that were inexpensive, durable, and easy to maintain.

Between the 1930s and 1950s, asphalt tile was the most widely used floor tile on the market, fueled by low initial cost and easy installation. These tiles were water- and fire-resistant, but styles and patterns were limited. Not long after the war, vinyl became the flooring of choice for just about any hard-surface application.

In the 1950s, demand for resilient flooring grew. Its manmade composition, however, required all-new cleaning products.

Keeping it Clean
For awhile, consumers continued to use carnauba wax. They grew unhappy, however, with the yellowing and lack of shine. For awhile, the jan/san industry offered a liquid wax as a better alternative. When customers began to complain and war created a shortage of wax, manufacturers began searching for better options.

Ironically, the best solution for plastic-based flooring was found in (what else?) plastics. In the 1960s, chemists tapped into the power of plastic to create synthetic, or polymer, finishes.

People were thrilled with “no-wax” resilient floors. The spray-application technique quickly replaced the wax applicator. To revive the floor’s luster, a diluted floor finish was sprayed on and then buffed out with a 175-rpm machine.

“You didn’t think it could be done but a chemist developed a floor finish that you could spray and it would level out and look bright and shiny,” says Ridge.

To make spray buffing possible, steel wool had to go. It was replaced (also thanks to plastic) by 3M’s synthetic pad.

“That was something brand new on the market,” says Jack Woodhouse, chairman of the board at Standard Paper, in Asheville, N.C. “You had to go out and sell that because people weren’t used to it, but it was an innovation and a great step in the industry.”

Over time, however, people grew dissatisfied with their slow buffing machines.

“Then they came out with different gear systems, belts, and magnetic motors for creating higher speeds,” says Ramaley. “Gradually, they have created high-speed machines that are now 1,500 and 2,000 rpm.”

At each rpm, scientists had to create new finishes (burnishing compounds) that could withstand the heat of the higher speed.

Recent Changes
In the past 20 years, polymer chemistry has greatly improved. Today’s flooring and finishes offer more gloss, more durability, and less re-coating. Specialty resilient floors provide enhanced slip resistance.

“Everybody is constantly trying to improve products, both flooring and floor finishes,” says Jarden. “A lot of the flooring changes seem to be aesthetic — prettier, better-looking floors. Everything now is lighter in color. So you have to have lighter floor finishes that don’t get darker with age.”

Jarden anticipates a future trend will be finishes that leave thicker coats, which better protect floors. Most floor finishes are between 15 and 25 percent solids. Higher than that and the finish wouldn’t be stable in the container or it would be too heavy to go on the floor. Bullen is introducing a new product that uses a larger-molecule polymer to create a thicker coating without added heft.

Today, resilient flooring is second only to carpet in floor covering sales in the United States. Not surprisingly, carpet cleaning has also seen dramatic change in the last 60 years.

Although vacuums were available in the United States by 1910, they were expensive and bulky, weighing about 90 pounds. The 1920s brought the first disposable vacuum bag. The first plastic vacuum was introduced in the 1930s and the first convertible upright vacuums hit stores in the 1950s.

Since then, vacuums have become self-propelled, feature higher-speed motors, and many double as wet/dry vacuums.

Private Spaces
Another area of the industry that has seen significant change in the past 60 years is washroom care.

At the beginning of the last century, restroom users had to touch everything from the door handle and toilet flush lever to the bar of soap and used hand towel. The trashcans had no liners and the rooms reeked of pine (as that was one of the only chemical scents available).

Since the 1950s, however, every can has had a liner thanks to Union Carbide’s invention of a simple, green plastic trash bag. They are now available in myriad sizes and colors.

Another great innovation of the mid-1900s was disinfectant cleaners. Before that, janitors had to put down a cleaner, rinse it off, and then put down a disinfectant. Along with disinfectants came more attention to odor control.

“Everybody is odor conscious,” says Ramaley. “The organic chemistry that has been developed for odor combatants is tremendous.”

Fragrances have evolved from pine to fruity scents to today’s wide selection of floral, woodsy, and “ozone” (non-discernible) scents. Chemical additions (or “enzymes”) have also helped eliminate odors, including those associated with grease, fat and oil.

Systems for releasing the fragrances have also changed. The first metered dispensers released spray every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. Now there are many types of metered dispensers that allow more control over spray intervals. There’s even a model that comes with its own remote control.

Healthy Bathrooms
Today’s restrooms are high-tech and hands-free. There are paper towel dispensers, electric hand dryers, soap dispensers and paper seat covers. There are often no doors and when there are they can typically be pushed without the use of hands.

Of all of these significant changes, one really stands out.

“Soap dispensers just changed everything. People wanted to wash their hands,” says Ramaley.

The most important dispenser was soap in a box, created by Sanifresh in the 1980s. Instead of having to pour a gallon jug of soap into a small dispenser, you could now just slap the box in and go. It saved employees time, reduced mess and delivered the same amount of soap each time.

“For one small, little item, soap in a box really changed the industry,” says Woodhouse. “That was a whale of a change. It was the first new innovation in the industry. It was the easiest thing in the world to sell.”

All of the hands-free and disinfectant products have shifted the public’s and the janitor’s focus. Restrooms were once cleaned primarily for appearance’s sake whereas health is now the top concern.

Right Tools for the Job
“I think the biggest change in washroom care is in the tools we use to clean with,” says Grant Watkinson, president of Coastwide Laboratories, in Wilsonville, Ore. “It used to be just a mop and a bucket, a spray bottle and rag. Today it’s equipment that’s actually designed for restroom use.”

Gentler chemicals that don’t burn, but are still quite effective, replaced the hydrochloric acid bowl cleaners of yesteryear. Sulfuric drain openers became popular less than 20 years ago and have grown to include different types and scents.

With all of these chemicals, it’s no surprise that sales of rubber gloves have skyrocketed in recent years.

“Forty or 50 years ago we didn’t sell that many rubber gloves,” says Ridge. “Now it’s almost like a toothbrush. You have to have one.”

Even mops have been revolutionized. Simple cotton versions gave way to easy-rinse synthetics in a rainbow of colors. They even come with a built-in pan so you can just put water in and go.

“It’s amazing how a simple old mop can change over the years,” Ridge notes.

Mergers and Acquisitions
The evolution of products in this industry has been overwhelming, to be sure. But the most profound change has nothing to do with a floor finish or can liner. It is the industry’s metamorphosis in just 60 years from a landscape of mom-and-pop shops to big-gun corporations.

This industry has been the victim or benefactor (depending on your background) of mergers and acquisitions, which has led to the death of many small distributors and manufacturers and has created a few high-volume giants.

The change is evidenced in every product line — perhaps nowhere more than in the area of can liners.

Can liners were introduced less than 60 years ago. In that short time, every major player either no longer exists in the same form (Union Carbide) or no longer makes the product (Rubbermaid).

“When my father started his business there were three or four people in Philadelphia all making the same kind of product,” says Jarden. “All of those people have drifted away or gotten acquired. Most of them were acquired and have been reacquired and reacquired.”

The biggest bout of acquisitions in the manufacturing world happened about 20 years ago, Jarden says. Now it’s happening among distributor businesses.

“Before there was a load of small distributors,” Watkinson says. “All of a sudden you’ve got people buying up and they’ve got these monster firms.”

Today, some big distributors have the power to sell $4 million worth of just one particular item in a month. A few years ago, just an eighth of that was enough to make a distributor a big hit with a manufacturer.

There has been another big change in the way business is done in this industry. When Donald Lees got into the business in the early 1980s, the channels of distribution were cut and dried. A paper distributor sold paper, an industrial business sold industrial, and never did the two mix.

“That channel has switched to where they have all become involved with cross-product offerings,” says Lees, president of Big D Industries, in Oklahoma City. “All that has changed the way people go to market. The food service guy wants to sell everything that a restaurant buys. A lot of companies have expanded horizontally instead of vertically. They have products that they offer that is not their core competence, they are just add-on products that they try to offer.”

Some in the industry blame these changes in business philosophy for a lack of trust and allegiance among customers, which seemed to grow in the 1990s.

“One thing that is true in the industry as a whole—and it’s true in almost any industry these days — is that you don’t have loyalty with your customers,” says Woodhouse.

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Fresh Thinking

75 Years of Aerosol Innovation

How do you get in on the ground floor of the aerosol market? C.W. Svendsen did it with a reliable formula for roach powder, permission to market it under the name of Chase (the previous owner of the formula), and a pressing customer need for a new technology.

In 1927, Svendsen started by learning the insecticide business, and then developed two products: Chase’s Ant Killer and Chase’s Rat Kisses. At night, he and his son, R.W. (Bob), packaged Chase’s pest control products in the basement of their Oak Park, Ill., home. The ant killer was mixed in large batches, and filled in 10-, 20- and 30-cent bottles. The Rat Kisses were made by packaging the formula (which contained arsenic) in small, tightly wrapped twists, similar to the way salt-water taffy is packaged. Rat Kisses sold for 25 cents a bag. During the day, C.W. Svendsen called on hardware stores personally, selling the products and learning the needs of his retail customers. He was well-positioned to take advantage of the aerosol opportunity when it became available.

The opportunity presented itself shortly after World War II. During the War, GIs in the Pacific theater had to fight off battalions of mosquitoes as well as enemy troops. They were issued small canisters, each with a wing-nut device on the top. When the wing nut was twisted, a propellant expelled a pressurized insecticide in small droplets, killing the malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The technology became available to the public when the war ended. On April 6, 1948, the Department of Agriculture awarded Chase Products Co. a license to manufacture insecticide in these pressurized containers, making Chase one of the first three manufacturers to be so licensed.

One year later, in 1949, R.W. Svendsen returned to the family business after being discharged from the Navy. The company soon expanded into other pest-control formulas, filling aerosols under the name of Chase’s Chase-MM®. Working together, father and son spent the next several years fine-tuning the production process and considering other aerosol products that would fit easily into the existing production capabilities.

The company remains family-owned, with C.W.’s grandson, R.W. (Robb) Svendsen Jr., as president and chief operating officer. The headquarters, in Broadview, Ill., is just a few miles from the original family home in Oak Park, preparing for the next 75 years and the next aerosol.