February 6, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Thomas Lipton

Many of the fortunes made in the 19th century were by European immigrants who applied Old World skills in their adopted land of America. Thomas Lipton was different. He came to America, looked around for a while, and took what he learned in the New World back to Scotland to make one of the greatest fortunes of all.

Lipton began work at the age of 10 in 1860 to help his family. He toiled as a stationer’s apprentice, a hosier’s helper and a cabin boy before scraping together $18 for steerage to New York City in the spring of 1865. He arrived with a mere $8 in his pocket but struck a deal at dockside to round up a dozen lodgers in exchange for free room to himself.

The post-Civil War South needed labor to rebuild and Lipton headed there for the next 40 months. He showed up in the South Carolina rice fields, on the New Orleans streets as a carman, in Charleston fighting fires and keeping books on a plantation. He finally returned to New York as a grocery clerk where he became entranced by the American way of merchandising - attractive displays, salesman interested in customers, and especially flamboyant promotions.

At a time when ambitious young men were exploiting the unlimited potential of America Lipton took the $500 he had saved and returned to Scotland. He opened his first shop in Glasgow on May 10, 1871. He bought directly from farmers and crofters in cash, never borrowed and lived for his work. But so did many others. What set Lipton apart was his flair for advertising and showmanship - techniques he had learned in the United States.

Lipton hired one of Scotland’s leading cartoonists to produce a fresh poster for his shop window each week. He employed an Irishman in knee breeches, cutaway coat and a cocked hat to promote his Irish bacon by driving two scrubbed and polished pigs named “Lipton’s Orphans” through the Glasgow streets to his shop - always by a different route.

He erected a pair of mirrors on the walk in front of the shop. One was concave producing an elongated body with a haggard face. That was “Going to Lipton’s.” The other was convex which caused a paunchy look and an inevitable smile. That was “Coming from Lipton’s.” He provided entertainment for children to free mothers to shop.

In six months he set up another shop - the forerunner of the food chains of today. By 1880 Lipton operated 20 shops with the goal of a new one every week. Each opening was preceded by an elaborate street parade and a blitz of posters and newspaper ads. Lipton would be on hand, donned in white apron and overalls, offering a prize to the first purchaser.

For Christmas 1881 Lipton became determined to bring Glasgow the largest cheese ever made. For six days 800 cows and 200 dairymaids gave all for the behemoth cheese - to the delight of townsfolk who were kept informed of every detail by Lipton. When the steamer carrying the cheese chugged into port crowds were waiting. They lined the streets to cheer the progress of the cheese on its trip to the store.

When it arrived Lipton ostentatiously inserted gold sovereigns into the cheese. It was on display all December in the shop window and when it was finally sliced up on Christmas Eve police had to be called in to control the crowds. Lipton sold every ounce of cheese in two hours.

Monster cheeses became a Lipton Christmas trademark. When police advised that the public might choke themselves by innocently swallowing coins Lipton gleefully advertised the “POLICE WARNING” that anybody buying a portion of Lipton’s Giant Cheese was in danger of being choked by one of the many gold sovereigns concealed in it. Lipton couldn’t sell the cheese fast enough.

Thomas Lipton was 40 years old before he sold an ounce of tea. In 1890 he sailed to Australia, ostensibly for rest, but stopped in Ceylon to investigate some supplies of tea. The British had been drinking tea for 200 years but it was expensive, sold from ornate chests and carefully weighed out. Lipton reasoned that he could attract business by packaging tea in tiny packets and create one brand, rather than a commodity. He sent some tea home with the slogan “Direct from the tea gardens to teapot.” By the time he returned to Scotland his 300 shops couldn’t handle the demand.

He bought a tea plantation in Ceylon to supply his stores directly. As his teas became known around the world he bought more and more tea and coffee plantations. The man who once opened every one of his stores personally never saw all of his world-wide properties.

His first recognition from the British Royal family came in 1898 when he was knighted for contributing $125,000 to supply the tea consumed by 300,000 poverty-stricken Londoners in the week of Queen Victoria’s jubilee. That same year Lipton sent his various businesses public; his fortune was estimated at $50,000,000.

For the final 33 years of his life Sir Thomas Lipton pursued yachting’s America’s Cup, which at that time had never left America. He made five challenges in all, building all contenders himself at a personal expense in excess of $5,000,000. Sir Thomas was never successful but gained an international reputation for sportsmanship.

He so endeared himself to Americans that on the occasion of the defeat of Shamrock V, his final challenger, money was raised to present Lipton with a golden loving cup, the symbol of his election by Americans as “the gamest loser in the world of sport.” Before he died the next year in 1931 at the age of 81 Sir Thomas stated, “My greatest regret is that I have never lifted the America’s Cup.”

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