Brands Shine On: Reckitt & Colman

In Benckiser NV, Brasso Polish, Cleaning Products, Colman's Mustard, Colman's Self-Saucing Spongy Puds, Dome Polish, Goya International Perfumes, household cleaners, J & J Colman, Janola, Jif Lemon Juice, Keen's Mustard, Laundry, Nugget shoe polish, Polishes, Reckitt and Colman, Reckitt Benckiser, Reckitt's starch and bag blue, Red Band Biscottes, Robinson's Lemon Barley Water, Silvo Polish, Unilever, Zebo Polish, Zebra Polish on February 26, 2012 at 10.46

I was cleaning out  the cupboard the other day and I came across this old lid  carefully packed away, which I’ve had since I was around 12 years old.  I found this half -buried under a Victorian villa  in Newton Gully, where my aunt  lived in  the early 1980s  in an apartment underneath the building.  The thing I remember most about it was that it was quite close to the Lion Breweries on Khyber Pass, Newmarket –  and the smells wafting as the beer fermented in various stages ranged from amazing (apple pie) to absolutely sickening (foot odour).  It was also was the first time I had seen cockroaches as we generally didn’t have them in New Zealand and at night they would swarm over the footpaths like a sign of the apocalypse – I suppose attracted by the ingredients like  malt and hops, combined with the heat generated by its maturation in the gigantic vats nearby. Anyway the couple who owned the house were  quite happy for me to climb underneath with a torch and fossick around and over time I found a number of things including this polish tin which I have kept packed away until now.

Dome Boot Polish, the Northern Advocate , 1 November 1910.


Brasso liquid polish can, circa 1920s-1930s 

I’ve found references to Dome polish  in New Zealand only between 1909 and 1912 so I feel fairly confident it is that old. I’ve always liked it  because the radiating stripes reminded me of  the old Brasso polish tins, and just recently I found out exactly why this is – because both products were produced by Reckitt & Colman at the same time and used elements of  the same bold design. R & C  also made Zebra (solid stove paste) and Zebo liquid polish (often advertised together), aforementioned Brasso (liquid metal polish ) as well as Reckitt’s Blue for laundry, Colman’s (starch, flour, laundry blue, mustard),  and Keen’s (curry powder, laundry blue), Silvo liquid silver polish and Rinso laundry powder also  came along in the 1920s.

Brasso newspaper advertisement, 1915


I don’t know how long Dome lasted but I only find this one simple advert, and a fun reference to it around the same couple of years in South Africa -from newspaper The Herald in 1909, where the article recalls the success of a local advertising firm in a novel publicity crusade:
” Dome Boot Polish, the latest product of Reckitt and Sons Ltd, have undertaken a successful advertising campaign, just as the streets were filling with business men on Saturday, led by a youth carrying a large poster announcing that “Your boots will be polished free today by the Dome Polishing Brigade”. Then came a string of neat boys, dressed in red and blue jerseys with red caps, each carrying a Dome polishing outfit, this brigade slowly paraded the main streets of the town drawing the attention of every passer-by. Shortly after nine o’clock each boy dropped out of the line at his appointed station, where ’til 12.30 he was busily engaged in polishing boots free”.
Perhaps as attention-grabbing as the drive was, it may not have worked long term for Dome doesn’t appear again that I can find.

J&J Colman began with mustard in 1814; and Reckitt & Sons started manufacturing starch in 1840 and quickly diversified into cleaning products. Both were established in Britain and merged in 1938 to form Reckitt & Colman Ltd. Colman’s Mustard was being sold in NZ as early as the 1850s, and the company’s laundry blue and starch from at least the 1860s. Flour and cornflour followed, and Colman’s Breakfast Semolina seems to have been short-lived attempt at breaking into the burgeoning breakfast cereals market in the1910s as it moved from your standard oatmeals to more specific consumer-driven “instants”.

Colman’s Starch advertisement, Otago Witness, 22 November, 1905.


Never mind a couple of failures: they had acquired Robinson’s Barley, Groats, and associated products in the deal with the Keen’s brand some time back and were doing great business. The war of the 1940s did nothing to quash their boom years and in 1940 the company changed names from Colman-Keen (NZ) Ltd to Reckitt-Colman (NZ) Ltd; by this time they had added Robinson’s Lemon Barley Water crystals, and they were marketing several new products in the Antipodes like Steradent (false teeth cleaner), Dettol and Sanpic (disinfectants) and Steelo (steel wool scourers and aluminium cleaner).

Three-in-one advertising for a trio of Reckitt & Colman’s most popular and enduring products, Evening Post, 1931.


By the early 1960s they had really branched out with many products which were handled by Dormer-Beck, and I name-checked some in my post on the advertising agency  here:


These included cleaning, food and toiletry items such as  Boon and Twin Cleaners, Airwick freshener, French’s Mustard and Hamburger Seasoning , Goya Perfume,  Cedarwood Men’s Toiletries,  Janola, Plush Carpet Cleaner, and Robin Starch just  to name some.  Most eventually came and went  (Goya International lasted well into the 1980s when they still had enough business to maintain a separate factory premises in Mount Roskill). Out of the lot, Janola is the brand that has gone on to become a household name.

Zebra polish tin, circa  late 1930s


Reckitt & Colman’s Zebra Polish ad, Evening Post, 2 November 1938


Robert Scelly remembers working in the bakery division on the biscottes line, but doesn’t specify what brand (I wonder if this is the answer to the Red Band mystery? https://longwhitekid.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/band-of-old/ ). A report from the UK of 1961 mentions acquisition of “Biscottes ( New Zealand) Ltd, a small company making Dutch rusks”, and this date matches the year Red Band was registered as a trademark.

At this point the company had been re-jigged to Reckitt, Colman, Nugget (New Zealand) Ltd.
In the early 1960s they were producing Nulon hand cream. Shirley Gussey also remembers biscottes as well as pretzels by the late 1960s (but unfortunately she can’t remember the name either, I’d say it was Slim Janes – which were produced in  plain salted, onion, cheese, and celery flavours into the 1970s), along with cordials, lemon barley water, soaps, talcums and perfumes, various condiments, Nugget brand solid and liquid polishes, Disprin and other pain relief brands, antacid, and baby food – this she recalls was all being produced out of “massive premises in Rosebank Road, Avondale”.

By the late 1970s- early 1980s R & C had added Lucozade, a firelighter line, aerosol products like Mortein insect spray, and a fruit juices division – in particular Jif (reconstituted lemon juice which came in a yellow plastic fruit shaped bottle. Remember them? ) as well as Colman’s Self-saucing Sponge Puddings or “spongy pud” as they were called in the quirky ad, which is now considered a classic:


Zebo and Zebra polishes advert, October 1932


As the 1980s rolled on they were also churning out dozens of lines including Harpic toilet cleaner, Finish dishwasher detergent, a spice range ,powdered drinks, and a line of Gale canned fruits  (boysenberries, feijoas, kiwifruit, strawberries, whole plums, tomatoes, blackberries, and golden tamarillos).

In 1995 the Colman’s brand was demerged from R & C and sold off to Unilever (UK) Ltd.
In 1999 the company merged with Benckiser NV to become Reckitt Benckiser which is now the largest supplier of cleaning products worldwide. Today they still produce many of the products that have lasted through the decades to become the firm household faithfuls and favourites we are all so familiar with.

  1. The Rosebank Road Reckitt and Colman Warehouse and Office complex was later used for the filming and production of the Xena and Hercules TV Series!

  2. Thanks Mike. I had heard hat it was some kind of film studio now, but I wasn’t sure what exactly.

  3. I worked at Reckitt and Colman in Rosebank Road Avondale, cannot remember the for the pretzels they were called slim jane pretzels. flavours were onion, cheese, salted. and celery very yummy

  4. Thanks Margaret! I’ll add it to my list. Bah! Nobody I have spoken to can remember the name of the biscottes.

    • I know and my mother used to work in the bakery part. They look and tasted before being baked like a very thin muffin, not the cake muffin. I will try and find out for you Thank you

      • That would be great – and if either of you remember any other things you saw being made that I haven’t mentioned, I will add them in…Cheers!

  5. Were those canned fruits called Fruit Delight? Think so. I worked at R&C Rosebank Road in the 70s. Took home many reject Self-saucing Puds! Delicious!

  6. Hi Rick, thanks for reading. These ones according to my records were branded “Gale” as stated. They may have been sub-branded as “Gale’s Fruit Delight”, “Fruit Delight”, by Gale’s. I can’t say for sure. What I am sure of is I would love to get some of your memories of what other products/brands were coming out of the factory at that time. Cheers

  7. I worked in the cost accounting department during 1967 -68- and 69. For some unknown reason I still have some Cedar Wood Talc For Men – a Goya International product. It’s around 45 years old and still has a scent.. I loved the Biscottes when they had gone thru the oven for the first time – before that got dry and crusty. I would grab one when they were hot and put honey on it. I even had some disprine at one point. Do you remember the rosehip syrup? I recall the rosehips were picked in the South Island. They were also making Cheese Puffs but stopped when the machine was sent over to Aussie. I also remember the factory across the street exploding and blowing out most of the windows of the Rickett offices. Thank God it occurred at night or early morning!

  8. Hi John, thanks for your memories. Now that you mention it, I am pretty sure I remember the explosion being a family story. My grandparents had a house nearby at the time, an old kauri villa at 403 Rosebank Road on a remaining patch of citrus orchard that had been sold off to build factories on. Of course it is long gone now. Even by then I think there were few houses left due to encroaching industry. I would love to see a photo of the Cedar Wood container. I just got an advertisement for aftershave last week, but I was aware that R&C produced it. And yes I remember rose hip syrup, I think it was under the Robinson’s brand.

  9. […] Brands Shine On: Reckitt & Colman […]

  10. Hey, in the UK near London my mother used ‘Zebra’ polish on our ugly cast-iron stove. But why did it have that strong tangy smell like masseurs’ linament?

  11. Hi, I was in charge of food product development and Quality Assurance for two and a half years from December 1974. This was when there was a lot of activity in the the foods division of the business; Spongey puds had been launched just prior to my starting there, and we developed and launched the Fruit delight range. (Colmans Brand, I think). Gales was the brand used for the various fruits and vegetables that we began canning to provide work for the cannery in Mt Maunganui. This cannery had been bought in 1974 soon after the self-saucing puddings’ launch (Prior to this they were contract-manufactured).
    I revamped the manufacturing procedures for the Robinsons Blackcurrant Honeyglow and Rosehip Syrup to improve efficiencies and quality. The Robinsons Lemon and Barley water was also a good product. The Robinsons dried baby foods were also quite a good line, but in 1965 I think it was, I had the formulations changed to removed almost all of the salt and sugar to reduce the likelihood of babies developing a taste for sweet and salty foods.
    The biscottes were discontinued (in 1976 I think), despite their making a good gross profit. The accountants in their wisdom, changed their costing rules and apportioned a very high proportion of fixed costs to the biscottes. The net profit then fell below the required minimum so the product was dropped from the range. Daft; the net effect was to reduce the overall profit which was crazy.
    While the company was very staid and very “English” (the executive directors had a silver service lunch in the boardroom each day), the marketing team under Joe Mathias was very adventurous. The whole business culture was very pleasant to be a part of.
    The Meal Maker range went really well, but that growth did not last long. The sales forecasts were extremely optimistic. Based on the rapid volume explosion that this category initially enjoyed, the high capital expenditure on additional equipment and factory space was far in excess of actual requirements.
    The cannery at Mt Maunganui also suffered as a result of some over-enthusiastic sales projections and this, combined with the grocery lines underperformance, caused the food division to be wound down.
    Another thing that is interesting to look back on- Reckitt and Colman in Australia had some great products that would have been excellent in the NZ sales team’s order books. Import restrictions prevented our selling these; if we wanted to sell them we had to manufacture them in NZ. Different times.

    • Hi Terry, thanks for your memories and all of this information. It’s always super-interesting for me to hear from people who actually worked at a company. Since this article I’ve added many more brands to the seemingly ever-growing list of R&C products.

      • My late daughter Lerato Dulcia Maluleka was once one of your billhoards advertiser national for cobra mirror mirror on the wall it will be a great honour if i could get that picture if maybe Reckett & Coleman do have it on archive

      • Hi Jane,
        I’m not Reckitt & Colman so your best bet is contacting them and see if they have someone who handles archive materials. If it was a TV ad try NZ on Screen or Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. I have no idea what product Cobra was.

      • My sincere apologies

        Thank you kindly

        [Email signature 2018]


    • Oops, it would have been 1975, not 1965 that we reformulated the dried baby food to cut the sugar and salt. This detail is not all that important, but we might as well be as accurate as possible!

  12. Thanks Terry. Great, informative comments. I just re-read and that solved a long-standing mystery regarding Cedarwood products. I’ve never seen an advert which says who made them to date which is unusual as in those times they almost always included details like manufacturer and distributor.

    • When I was with R&C , the Goya International factory was in Mt Roskill. They had some manufacturing lines there such as for filling aerosol cans and bottles, etc. A lot of the products that were marketed by Goya (and sold by the R&C sales force) such as soap-on-a-rope were contract-packed by third-party suppliers. Much of the Mt Roskill operation was just packing from bulk into retail packs and putting together fancy gift-packs. I was only responsible for the development of the food division (in Avondale and Mt Maunganui) and had no direct responsibility for the toiletries, hence my lack of specific detailed knowledge.

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