Meet Isaac E. Emerson. He earned a chemistry degree, then moved to Baltimore and opened up a pharmacy. Soon he had three pharmacies.
Emerson noticed that his customers were always complaining of headaches. The products he was selling weren’t doing the trick. He, being a chemist and all, decided to make a concoction that would cure what ailed them.
This is how we get Bromo Seltzer, which turned out to be a mild tranquilizer and was lethal in high doses. The FDA banned the product in the 1980s. But the company had almost a 100-year run and amassed millions before that happened.
But that’s not what we’re here to talk about.
Today, we’re going to learn about the Emerson Bromo Seltzer Clock Tower (1911, a Baltimore landmark. And how it came to be.
Mr. Emerson sells his Bromo Seltzer in blue glass bottles that are hard to come by because creating blue glass is expensive. But it’s his calling card and he’s committed to them. They’re easily identifiable, and his customers like the idea of using something that is exclusive. Makes them feel important. It’s beautiful branding/marketing.
Emerson is known for his marketing prowess. For instance, people are complaining left and right about the number of immigrants coming to America. Emerson is like, “yes, more clients!” He prints his advertisements in various languages and pins them up in areas immigrants frequent. They’re like “oh, Bromo Seltzer likes us and wants our money!” They and buy and buy just like the native English speakers do.
He has a good kind of problem now. Business is booming. People are buying so much Bromo Seltzer that he can’t keep up the production. He’s gonna have to expand the business.
But in the meantime, he’s taking a trip. He has this mistress, an Italian waitress at a bar he frequents. She’s sad because she hasn’t been back home in ten years. Sad mistress= bad, infrequent sex. He tells her he’ll take her home to see her family.
Now. This is the early 1900s. You don’t hop on a plane; you get on a boat. If you go to Europe, you’re out for at least a month. He tells wife he’s going away for a guy’s trip.
So. He takes his mistress to her hometown and while there he spots a clock tower with a one-handed clock in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. It moves him.
He gets the bright idea to build a clock tower back in Baltimore. And to boot, he’s going to put a clock (each with two hands) on each side of the tower and a big ass blue Bromo Seltzer bottle on top of it. And it’s gonna spin!
He gets back home and builds this bigger, better clock tower than the one he saw in Florence, Italy. It’s the tallest building in the city, and the spinning BromoSeltzer bottle on top glows blue at night and can be seen, reports say, from 20 miles away. It’s amazing marketing. And his mistress is super happy because this clock tower reminds her of home.
But the story isn’t over.
All goes well, until Emerson’s wife finds out that he took his mistress to Italy and then came back and constructed this building for her (under the guise of needing more office space and marketing). He’s made a fool of his wife and she’s divorcing him.
She gets the house, he gets the garden.
Now. Getting a divorce was a huge deall at the time. Wealthy people just did not do it. Or they did, but they were scandalized for it.
Emerson is pissed that his wife is screwing up his reputation. He wants revenge. So he gets rid of the garden adjacent to his old house, and builds a luxury apartment building that blocks his ex-wife’s light. He moves into the penthouse so he can have a clear view of the his beloved city and most important, look down on his ex-wife.
Unfortunately, this move surprises no one that knows Emerson well. This is how he moves. A few years prior, he was hanging out at The Belvedere hotel getting his drink on, on a hot summer day. He has his jacket off. A staff member swings by and tells him he’s looking too comfortable in public, and a jacket is required.
Emerson pulls a “don’t you know who I am?”
The staffer is like, “yeah, I do, and you got to put your coat on or leave.”
Emerson is all, “you didn't just lose a customer, you've gained a competitor!” and storms out. He goes home and sets in motion the plans for The Emerson hotel, so he can sit in the lobby on a hot day and have a cold drink without his jacket on whenever he wants.
The Emerson Hotel opened in 1911. It was one of Baltimore’s finest and had a Polynesian theme, electric fans and hot and cold water. It was razed in 1971.
If you’re interested in hearing this story first-hand from an Emerson historian, the Bromo Seltzer Clocktower is open for tours ($5) on Saturday afternoons. After a hilarious history lesson that includes stories of how when there was no FDA children’s medicine was laced with liquid weed, the historian takes you up into the clock tower for a look-see. There’s also a Bromo Seltzer museum room.
The building is now used for artist studios. After your tour, pop in one of the fifteen floors of art studios. Some nice art.