After 99 years of making mouths tingle, New Orleans’ favorite mouthwash maker is going strong and branching out
In 1863, George Humphrey Tichenor had a brush with a minnie ball, a common Civil War bullet that left large, severe wounds on impact. As a commissioned surgeon in the Confederate Army, Tichenor knew that there was only one cure for his wounded and soon-to-be-infected leg — amputation.
But he wasn’t going to lose his leg lying down. Legend has it that under cover of darkness and with the help of friends, Tichenor escaped from the army hospital, found a secluded spot and treated his injury with an amber-colored antiseptic he had invented. The potion killed the bacteria and saved Tichenor’s leg.
Now, more than 250,000 bottles of Dr. Tichenor’s Antiseptic roll off of the production line each month. It has been a staple in Southern medicine cabinets since 1905, and under the stewardship of Parker LeCorgne,the fourth generation president of the family-owned, New Orleans-based business, the Dr. G.H. Tichenor Antiseptic Company is poised for another century of growth.
But 141 years after its invention, the same liquid that battled fatal infections on the Civil War front line is used to fight another formidable foe — bad breath. Straight out of the bottle, LeCorgne says, it is practically the same all-purpose first aid formula Tichenor used to fight infection; but when diluted with 5 parts water, it is the strongest peppermint mouthwash on the market.
It is a formula that has only has been altered once since the Civil War. "We added peppermint for flavor," LeCorgne says. "Other than that, it is the exactly the same."
And the simple mix of 70 percent denatured alcohol and a secret blend of herbal extracts made Tichenor a scientific pioneer. He was one of the first Civil War doctors to use antiseptics to heal wounds, several years before Sir Joseph Lister — the namesake of Listerine, Dr. Tichenor’s biggest competitor, as well as the "father of antiseptic surgery" — made his first foray into its use in 1865. At his post as a battlefield surgeon, Tichenor used his new medicine to fight common but deadly infections, saving many lives — and limbs — along the way.
In 1884, Tichenor moved to Baton Rouge, obtained a patent and began selling his antiseptic as Dr. Tichenor’s Patent Medicine. His sales languished until 1905, when he formed the Dr. G.H. Tichenor Antiseptic Company with Arthur D. Parker, LeCorgne’s great grandfather.
The first bottles to roll off of the new company’s assembly line were labeled Dr. Tichenor’s Antiseptic Refrigerant. "In the beginning, we marketed the product as something that was good for anything that ails you," LeCorgne says," And the truth is that it really is."
Early advertisements for Dr. Tichenor’s tout it as a remedy for "wounds, burns, bruises, scalds, colic, cramps, cholera, morbus and flux," as well as a cure for "botts and footevil in horses and mules."
LeCorgne says there weren’t as many consumer products on the shelves at the time, so people valued items that they could use for everything — including veterinary care. And the refrigerant? In the days before air conditioning, many people used it as a cooling body splash on hot summer days. Its multi-purpose reputation continued for decades and as late as the 1950s, Dr. Tichenor’s was advertised as an oral rinse, a salve for sunburn, insect bites and poison ivy, as well as a soothing rub for sore feet.
Although the concentrate was — and still is, according to LeCorgne—a medicine cabinet in a bottle, the company eventually downplayed its first aid applications. "Eventually, we concentrated on the mouthwash angle," he says with a laugh, "because we had a hard time convincing people that they could also use their mouthwash as a foot rub."
But he insists that the product is every bit as good for foot rubs and beyond, which is why they have morphed the classic Dr. Tichenor’s Antiseptic liquid into a handy gel. LeCorgne says the gel harks back to Dr. Tichenor’s roots as an all-purpose medicine, presenting their tried and true mixture in an easy-to-use tube. "That way, we can be in one part of the store as a mouthwash and another part of the store as an antiseptic."
Gel or liquid, LeCorgne has a stack of letters written by Dr. Tichenor’s devotees around the country, all testifying to the products many uses, from treating fungal infections to bee stings. He also gets a lot of inquiries from Southern expatriates who can’t find it on the shelf in their new hometown. "People email and fax us begging us to ship it to them directly if they can’t find it in stores," he says. "They want Dr. Tichenor’s, especially the toothpaste, in the worst way."
To meet the demand, LeCorgne created a web store at drtichenor.com. "We get more and more Internet orders every year," he says. "The sales have increased so much that we now consider the web store a key account."
LeCorgne says keeping Dr. Tichenor’s modern and in the eye of the consumer through the Web site is part of an insurance policy for success in the next century. "We are trying to keep a very old-world old-fashioned product from going to the old product graveyard," he says. The flashy, fun web site — where visitors can order products, download coupons and listen to vintage radio ads starring "Cajun Pete" — combined with the sassy "You kiss your mother with that mouth?" ad campaign, are designed to "show people that we are a fun old product that is also very hip."
There’s also more to the company these days than a fashionable campaign and an all-purpose antiseptic mouthwash. Through the years they have branched out, adding peppermint toothpaste in 1985 and the antiseptic gel in 2001. And thanks to a recent move from Baronne Street to a larger facility in New Orleans East — and their rating as a good manufacturing practice firm by the FDA — Dr. Tichenor’s now has the capacity to take on lucrative contracts to manufacture over-the-counter medicines for other companies. They are currently the primary maker of Boudreaux’s Butt Paste, the popular diaper rash and skin treatment invented by Covington pharmacist George Boudreaux.
The future looks bright for Dr. Tichenor’s: The company has been on solid financial footing since its inception, has national distribution through Walgreen’s stores and has just inked a deal to get its toothpaste on the shelves of 150 new Wal-Mart stores. But surviving as a 20-employee family-owned business is not easy. LeCorgne says it’s hard to convince mega-retailers to give shelf space to a small company, especially when their products are competing with those of large corporations like Procter & Gamble.
Competition is cutthroat, which may be one reason why LeCorgne never planned to take over the family business. "I was the first person in my family to pursue a career outside of the family’s business ventures," he says. LeCorgne had a successful career as a corporate lawyer before taking the helm of Dr. Tichenor’s in the late 1990s. "My father warned me that there were a lot of frustrations dealing with family businesses. People place intangible expectations on you and some are attainable, while others aren’t," he says. "There are many emotional issues that go way beyond the rudiments of business. He really encouraged me to seek a career outside of Dr. Tichenor’s."
He decided to weather the storm. "I didn’t want to take the path of least resistance and sell the company. So many of our counterparts haven’t survived, and I really wanted to see Dr. Tichenor’s stay in the family," LeCorgne says. "I view this as a calling."
It looks like a corporate growth spurt is on the horizon. In addition to Dr. Tichenor’s fan base throughout the South, pockets of dedicated fans are sprouting in Chicago, St. Louis and on the West Coast. But LeCorgne says he will not stop until Dr. Tichenor’s is not only a Southern phenomenon, but an international one, too. "After all," he says, " there’s nothing regional about bad breath."
By Denise Trowbridge, New Orleans CityLife, March 2004