The history of Q-Tips – and their original name (which would never ever work today)

Vintage Q-Tips (1)

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Q-Tips, the world’s largest manufacturer of cotton applicators… has had a corporate history no less fascinating and varied than that of its founder, the late Leo Gerstenzang.

As a young man Mr. Gerstenzang, who was born in Warsaw, Poland, visited the United States, liked what he saw, and decided to become a US citizen. After serving in the trenches with the US Army during World War I, he became associated with the then-fledgling Red Cross Organization.

Later, because of his fluency in languages and first-hand knowledge of Europe, Mr. Gerstenzang was called upon by ex-President Herbert Hoover, then Relief Administrator, to assist in the Relief Administration’s rehabilitation activities.

In 1922, after service in other war rehabilitation agencies and a brief period spent in the banking business, Mr. Gerstenzang, with his wife, returned to the United States, and founded the Leo Gerstenzang Infant Novelty Co., a firm dealing in accessories essential to baby care.

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It is here that the story of Q-Tips begins.

Vintage Q-Tips (3)

The history of Q-Tips: The beginning, as told in 1962

Leo Gerstenzang happened to be watching his baby daughter go through her daily bath routine. Laughingly, he told his wife she ought to have an extra pair of hands as he saw her struggle to hold the lively infant, and at the same time work a wad of absorbent cotton onto the end of a toothpick.

This particular day, the cotton fell off. He began to imagine things. The cotton might get stuck in the baby’s nose or ear; the toothpick might have a rough or sharp edge; or, if the baby suddenly moved her head, the end of the toothpick might injure her seriously when her eyes were being cleaned.

Perhaps, thought Gertenzang, there was a ready-made swab, tightly wound on a smooth stick. He investigated, and found that none existed. Here was a universal need about which nothing was being done.

Vintage Q-Tips (2)

He decided to buy a machine and make a business of fabricating a fine ready-to-use cotton swab. Easier said than done. No existing machine could be adapted to perform the operation. 

Being mechanically-minded and a man who loved to “make things,” he conceived the idea of manufacturing a ready-to-use cotton swab by automatic machine.

The labor pains of bringing Q-Tips into the world were long and severe. At last, after several years’ time, intensive experimentation, and the expenditure of all the money he could raise, he developed a machine.

It would take a stick of carefully selected and cured non-splintering birchwood with blunt ends, and do the intricate job of winding cotton on both ends of the smooth stick.

1957 Vintage Q-Tips uses

The swabs were then packaged in a sliding tray type of box, enabling the consumer to open the box and extract a single swab with one hand.

To ensure the utmost in protection, the boxes were then sterilized and sealed with an outer wrapping of glassine. (This was later changed to cellophane.)

The entire operation was accomplished entirely by machine, so that the phrase “untouched by human hands” became widely known in the production of cotton swabs from manufacturing to packaging.

Today, the little blue box of Q-Tips is standard equipment wherever there is a baby. And Leo Gertenzang has a Number One rating with Dun and Bradstreet. The uses of the product have also increased.

1960s Q Tip dispenser

The original name was…

The product, however, still required a name. After several were considered and discarded, the applicators were ultimately called “Baby Gays.” In 1926, the labels were changed to read “Q-Tips Baby Gays.”

Vintage Q-Tips Baby Gays - at Click Americana com

Later on, the name Baby Gays was also discarded and Q-Tips became the identifying mark for its brand of cotton swabs.

Almost immediately, the product caught on, and sales began to show a steady increase.

Although Q-Tips Cotton Swabs originally were designed for baby care — such as cleaning of baby’s ears, nose, and mouth, oiling of the infant’s tender skin, and as an applicator for baby lotions — consumers found literally hundreds of other uses for the handy little swabs.

In the workshop, they were used for applying liquid cement or glue in small, hard-to-get-at places, and to oil parts of tools and machines needing only a small amount of lubrication. Sportsmen were using the swabs to oil rifles and to clean fishing reels and guns.

Q-Tips ad - 1950s

Homemakers were finding them handy for touching up furniture scratches. Cotton swabs were even being used for coloring portraits by applying paint with one end of the swab and blending in color with the other end.

The use of cotton swabs by doctors, hospitals, in first aid treatment, by consumers as beauty and grooming aids, and by pet owners is staggering. All over the world people found — and are finding — new uses for Q-Tips Cotton Swabs.

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As sales grew, the Company eventually introduced a new product, the now-famous Q-Tips Cotton Balls, which not only afford the opportunity of cleansing a greater surface area, but are also being put to hundreds of household uses.

1957 Uses for Q Tips

Through the years, Q-Tips, Inc. continued to expand its manufacturing operations. In 1946, Mr. Gerstenzang formed Q-Tips S.A. in Paris and shortly thereafter, Q-Tips (Canada) Ltd.

The year 1958 saw the purchase of Papersticks Ltd. of England, a company that manufactured paper sticks for the confectionary trade. Its machinery was subsequently brought to this country, and adapted to the manufacture of paper stick swabs in the U.S.

This made Q-Tips Cotton Swabs available with both wooden and paper sticks. Today, the demand for Q-Tips cotton products continues to grow, not only in the United States, but in Western Europe and North Africa, as well.

The principal manufacturing plant in Long Island City, New York, produces these products on a ’round-the-clock, three-shift basis in order to meet this demand.

Vintage Q-Tips (1)

Making Q-Tips

From the 1950s: A giant carding machine processes raw baled cotton into ribbon form to be used for Q-Tips Cotton Swabs and Cotton Balls.

Making vintage Q-Tips swabs

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Comments on this story

4 Responses

  1. The “Q” in Q-Tips stands for “Quality”. Therefore, Q-Tips were called, “Quality Tips” and then shortened to “Q-Tips” later on.

    1. The internet notwithstanding, they’re called Q-tips because the tips look like the letter Q — an oval (the swab) intersected by a line (the shaft).

  2. Thanks so the interesting article. I use Q-Tips every day, have a travel pack in my luggage and a pack in my desk at work.

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