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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Product developed during World War I became too popular for its own good

By Paul Niemann

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[April 23, 2009]  People often say there's a story behind everything. There used to be a TV segment in which the reporter would pick a name out of the phone book at random, and then go out to meet that person and do a story on him or her. Everyone, they say, has some sort of interesting story to tell.

The same could be said about a product that is the subject of today's story.

This product was developed at the beginning of World War I. Its purpose was to replace a material that was used as a surgical dressing but was in short supply. The material was harvested in the South, and the new finished product was originally designed to be a gas mask filter.

The material was cotton, and the material from which the invention is made was originally called "Cellucotton."

This Cellucotton invention has since gone on to become a successful product all over the world for the Kimberly-Clark Corp., but not as a surgical dressing.


It was invented in 1924 and was promoted by actresses Jean Harlow and Helen Hayes. Both of these actresses are long gone, but they were popular back in their day.

The product was originally marketed as a cleaning tissue to do such tasks as remove cold cream.

It is now manufactured in 19 countries, but not as a way of removing cold cream. The product's name is so good that there is even a band that copied the name. In its earliest years, it was marketed in Canada as a handkerchief replacement.

It is now sold in more than 150 countries, but not as a handkerchief replacement.

In the 1930s, customers started writing to the company to say that the product helped them cope with their hay fever and colds. But it didn't prevent hay fever or colds, nor did it cure them.

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Here's one more clue for you: In Dutch, its name is translated as "papieren zakdoekje." OK, I will admit that isn't much of a clue.

Its name is so well-known that it has become a generic name, kind of like how Xerox has been used as a generic name for a copying machine. Or how Coke has been used as a generic name for soda. Or how Kleenex has been used as a generic name for facial tissue.

That's right, the product originally known as "Cellucotton," which replaced the material that was used as a surgical dressing -- the one that was originally designed to serve as a gas mask filter -- became known as Kleenex.

It has remained the top-selling brand of facial tissue in the world since its launch in 1924. Despite Kimberly-Clark's efforts to prevent the Kleenex brand name from becoming a generic name, it seems that any kind of facial tissue is always going to be called a kleenex.


Paul Niemann's column has appeared in more than 75 newspapers and counting. He is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books and can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2009

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