And What Became of Maa?

     It is always an accident when this column is insightful.  (Who invented that word, by the by?  Was there really no other word that could fill that space?  We could use…no, we are NO going to use this space being insightful about insightful.  It seems rather insightless.)

     In any case, I was just thinking about how much our lives are tied in with advertising.  There was a time, centuries ago, when things didn’t have brand names.  Oh, maybe Otto the butcher put more bread in his sausages than Maxwell the butcher, but that was as far as it went.  And even that was dependent on whether you lived in a town big enough to have two butchers, or any butchers at all.  (You’d have to make your own sausage.)  But nowadays, we are fixed in our brands.  Certain brands bring nostalgic memories to certain generations: Keds, red Goose, Nike, Buster Brown…each type of shoes brings around different images for different ages.  But we are not here to be insightful about shoes.  (That word again!)

     No, what brought on these thoughts was an inquiry from a relative who remarked that it was funny how some brands were associated with just one product, and a seasonal one at that.  Specifically, she inquired, “Does Paas make anything besides Easter egg dye kits?”

     This was something I need to know, and since I spent all of five or sizx minutes on this, I wanted to pass along what I learned.  No.  Paas makes only Easter egg dyeing kits.  It is, of course, now a part of a larger company, but once upon a time….

     William Townley was one of THOSE guys: a tinkerer looking to invent something to make people’s lives easier generally, and his own easier by making him a bunch of money.  He was of a chemical turn of mind, and was interested in home dyeing kits, since making and dyeing your own clothes was a laborious process.  He figured out a way to compress dyes into tablets, which could be awakened and used with the proper mixture of water and vinegar (and probably  in the beginning, other things.)  For some reason, however, the most popular use for these dye tablets was Easter eggs.  Maybe it was the colors he could produce, maybe it was the size of the tablet needed to dye a few shirts—I couldn’t find that out—but eggs seemed to be the easiest things to dye using his kits.

     As it happens, William ran a drugstore in New Jersey easily accessible to immigrants who came from countries where easter eggs were highly traditional.  The name “Paas” came about because it is the first syllable in the word easter in a number of languages, though the Dutch immigrants who celebrated Pasen get direct credit for Townley’s trade name.  Within eight years, just after the turn of a new century. He had 27 full-time employees in his plant making his dye tablets and/or producing egg dyeing kits.  He was also good at inventing advertising campaigns, and is said to be a motivating force behind convincing Americans of every ethnicity that Easter eggs were fun and Eastery.  (I could explain why eggs are symbolic of Easter, but chances are you can figure this out by yourself and, anyway, I don’t want to be accused of being insightful again.)

     The Townley family ran the company for several decades, but I cannot find out whether they are still involved, now that it belongs to a conglomerate.  Whatever marketing mind is behind it, there are about two dozen different kits now (some involving shrinkwrap designs you microwave around your hardboiled eggs instead of those messy dyes.)  And some ten million kits are sold every spring.

     We never bought those, by the way.  We used the non-branded alternative, as many people did, using water, vinegar, and drops of the liquid food coloring our mother bought for year-round use.  AND a white crayon, since the wax from the crayon repelled the dye, allowing you to write and draw on the eggs (we were seldom trusted with that job.  I’m surprised we were trusted with the dyes, since we learned early how to mix the red, yellow, and blue to make purple, orange, green, or, by mixing, as we always did, all the colors together, a muddy grayish brown that someone—possibly my mother—dubbed “blar”.  If you NEED to know how this worked, we would leave the finished eggs in the refrigerator so the Easter Bunny could take them out again and hide them, after first setting up those baskets filled with Peeps, Palmer bunnies, and jelly bird eggs.  I WAS going to discuss a history of Palmer (and Frankfort) chocolate bunnies, Peeps, and why the heck were they “jelly bird eggs”, but I think this is enough holiday-specific brand insightfulness for one day.)

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