The word “generic” comes from the same Latin root word “gene” which means “birth” or “beget” and gives us “genus” meaning race, class, or kind. It’s also the root of “general” meaning “affecting or involving all” as opposed to being specific. A general store sells all goods; a general hospital treats all ailments; a general in the army leads all men. The word “generic” refers to all members of a group. It also means “no longer protected by a specific trademark.”
Genericide is when a company’s protectable trademark morphs into a synonym for the entire product category. The name, once protected by trademark law, enters the public domain. Here are some samples.
In Connecticut in the 1870s, William Frisbie owned a pie company. All of the pies came with a returnable tin pie plate with the bakery’s name stamped on the bottom. The pies were popular at Yale University, and William noted that few of the pie tins were ever returned from there. He found that the students had discovered the pie tins would fly. Instead of demanding the return of the pie tins, he spread the word that they made a great toy, and it became a fad. Pie sales soared. In 1955, Wham-O bought the rights to the toy and made them out of plastic instead of tin, changing the spelling of the now-generic name to Frisbee.
Canadian physician and geologist Abraham Gesner developed a combustible hydrocarbon liquid made from coal tar and shale oils in the late 1840s and trademarked the substance as Kerosene in 1854. The name comes from the Greek “keros” meaning “wax” because of the waxy oils it came from. After the discovery of petroleum in 1859, Kerosene was made from that instead. The trademark held for several decades until it became popular across many countries for use in lamps, heaters, and stove.
Charles Seeberger invented the escalator in 1897 and patented the innovation in 1900. He named it the escalator after “scala” which is Latin for “steps” or “scale.” The word “escalate” came into vogue after Seeberger’s invention became popular. He sold the patent rights to Otis Elevator Company in 1910, and they held the trademark until 1950 when the U.S. Patent Office ruled that escalator had become a generic term for moving stairways.
George Dempster and his brothers started up a construction company that they named after themselves: The Dempster Construction Company. In 1935 they built and trademarked the Dempster-Dumpster, a garbage machine that could dump tons of refuse into the rear of the truck, and crushing it before unloading it. Soon, municipalities started putting in orders and it became so popular that the word “dumpster” entered the popular vernacular as a generic term.
Bubble Wrap was invented in 1957 by New Jersey engineers Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, who fused two shower curtains together in an attempt to make an unusual wallpaper. Later it was marketed as insulation for greenhouses. Originally called Air Cap, they later trademarked the name Bubble Wrap. It became popular after IBM started using it to protect computers being shipped and subsequently became generified.
The Thermos was invented by Scottish scientist James Dewar in 1892 when he joined two flasks, one inside the other and joined at the neck. The brand was named for “therme” which is the Greek word for heat. It first hit shelves in 1904, quickly becoming popular. Though a fight was put up, the name of “thermos” entered the public domain in 1963.
Charles Browne Fleet was a pharmacist who invented a variety of products still found in drug stores today. One of his more successful ideas was ChapStick, which he formulated in the 1890s. He was never able to find the right niche market for this product, and sold the formula and the trademark to John Morton for $5 in 1912. Morton and his wife made the emollient in their kitchen, but changed the packaging. Whereas Fleet had but the balm into small lengths that looked like small candles, then wrapped it in paper, Morton’s wife had the idea to package it in a tube. Today Americans spend over $200 million each year on the ubiquitous, and genericized, chapstick.
In 1905 a popular brand of soft drink came in powdered form and had to be mixed with water and stirred vigorously. Frank Epperson left his soft drink on the porch of his San Francisco home with a stir stick still in the glass. That night record low temperatures hit the area, and the next morning he found his leftover soda frozen solid to the straw. It was very tasty, like a frozen lollipop. He applied for a patent and named it the Eppsicle. However, his children called it the Popsicle, since it was manufactured by their dad, and the name stuck. When it debuted at a California amusement park in 1924 selling for a nickel, it was an instant hit. The product line was eventually bought out by Good Humor, by which time the popsicle was already well on its way to generification.
Harry Greenwald, an inventor from Brooklyn, came up with the concept for laundromats in the 1940s. He was inspired by a restaurant where he frequently purchased his weekday lunches. It was called The Automat, and it featured food served behind protective glass doors which would be lifted up when someone deposited the required coins. Greenwald showed Westinghouse how the same technology could be applied to washers and dryers. The Laundromat was born, and entered the public domain forthwith.
In 1917 Earle Dickson was working for Johnson & Johnson as a cotton buyer, because cotton was used in bandages. His wife was constantly nicking her fingers in the kitchen, but the only bandages that Johnson & Johnson produced were far too bulky to protect small cuts on fingers. One day Earle sat down and unrolled some surgical tape, then affixed small pads of sterile gauze to the center of the strip of tape. He re-rolled the tape and showed his wife how she could unroll just a little piece of tape, cut it off the roll, and center the pad of gauze over her wound. This way she could bandage her wounds on her own.
When Earle mentioned this invention to a fellow employee at Johnson & Johnson, he was encouraged to take the idea to management. Management agreed it was a good idea, but sales were slow at first and the product was nearly dropped. Then it was re-configured so that instead of being on a long continuous roll, the bandages were packaged individually. Then they offered these small bandages to Boy Scout troops across the nation free of charge. This resulted in a bandage boom, and Earle Dickson was promoted to vice-president of the company. By the time he died in 1961, Johnson & Johnson was selling $30 billion worth of his product annually, now generically known as the band-aid.