Monday, July 4, 2011

Occupations of my ancestors - James Pyle & Sons

My great great grandfather, James Pyle, was born in Nova Scotia on August 16, 1823, to a father who fled to Nova Scotia as a Loyalist in the Revolutionary War.

He immigrated to New York City in the 1840's, but I haven't found a record of that immigration. I also haven't found James Pyle in the 1850 U.S. Census, but he is in New York City in the 1860 U.S. Census. He is married (to Esther Abigail Whitman) and has three young sons: James, William and Charles., database online. Year: 1860; Census Place: New York Ward 5 District 1, New York, New York; Roll: M653_790; Page: 385. Record for James Pyle.
His occupation is Salaeratus Mfr. (This is not a typo - keep reading...)

I looked in for city directories for New York and found him in the 1857 directory, listed as "agent" at 114 Warren Street. It looks like he is living in Hoboken at this time.

In the 1859 New York City directory, James Pyle is listed under Saleratus at 313 Washington Street.

A side note: Writing this blog has been beneficial, as I am looking more closely at documents that I've had for years and taking the time to look up individual ancestors in different databases (i.e. city directories). When I found James Pyle under Salaeratus, I then looked to see if I could find anything online telling me what it is, and, sure enough, I found the definition of saleratus [salaeratus is an alternative/older spelling] as: sodium of potassium bicarbonate used as a leavening agent; baking soda.

In 1870, James Pyle is doing quite well and living in New York City. It looks like the valuation of his real estate is $10,000, his personal estate is $2,000, and he has three servants living in his household, which is pretty good for 1870! In addition to his three sons (my great grandfather, James T., William S., and Charles L.), he has a daughter, Sarah C. He is listed here as manufacturer of soap., database online. Year: 1870; Census Place: New York Ward 20 District 11, New York, New York; Roll: M593_1007; Page: 321. Record for James Pyle.
In New York City directories in the 1870's, Pyle, James, is listed as having the occupation "soap."

Here he is in the 1880 U.S. Federal census, living at 337 West 29th Street, as Soap Manufacturer, with wife Hester, and sons James T. and William F. [sic], also in the soap business. (His third son, Charles Sumner Pyle, died in December 1873, at the age of 16.) His daughter, Sarah, is listed under her nickname of Sadie and is attending school., database online. Year: 1880; Census Place: New York (Manhattan), New York City-Greater, New York; Roll: T9_884; Page: 14B; Enumeration District: 353; Record for James Pyle

By the time of the 1884 New York City directory, the business was known as James Pyle & Sons at 350 Washington Street. In the directory listing at right, James Pyle is listed as "soap" at 350 Washn, and his home is 215 W. 45th Street. His son, James T. Pyle has the same listing. (James T. Pyle married in February 1884; perhaps this listing was as of the new year, before his wedding.) His second son, William Scott is listed with his home at 9 W. 49th Street. (He married in 1882.) By the time of the 1886 Trow's New York City Directory, James Pyle & Sons had moved its office to 436 Greenwich Street, where it remained for over 25 years.

I was also able to find information about the patents obtained for the term "O.K." and for "Pearline" at the Search Trademark page of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website.

Pyle initially called his soap "O.K. Soap" and placed an ad in the New York Times, October 23, 1862, which refers to James Pyle's O.K. Soap. The New York Times obituary of James Pyle says "Brought O.K. Into Popularity." It also states "He was the first to utilize in advertisements the letters 'OK' in their business significance of 'all correct'."

It looks like this document indicates that the O.K. Patent was renewed by the Procter & Gamble Company in 1947 and again in 1953.

There are different searches to be made at this website. I was able to find that the "Word Mark" of "Pearline" was used for "washing compounds and soap powder" and was first used in August 1877, though the filing date for the trademark wasn't made until November 21, 1899. It looks like the Pearline trademark was renewed by the Procter & Gamble Co. in 1946, and by the Hewitt Soap Company in 1983.

Partial section of James Pyle's obituary
James Pyle died on January 20, 1900, at his home at 215 West 45th Street, New York City. In his obituary, which was distributed far and wide via the wire services, I found the story of his initial use of advertising with Horace Greeley in the New York Daily Tribune. (The story is also in the New York Times obituary.)

The extract below is from the obituary of James Pyle, on page 5 of the January 21, 1900, issue of the New York Daily Tribune.

His two sons took over the business. However, it was not to last much longer. William Scott Pyle died at the age of 49 on January 1, 1906.

In 1907, the company built a new factory on the New Jersey side of the Hudson  River, opposite 98th Street, New York. Four large buildings, connected with covered passageways were built on four acres of land. The advertisement to the left shows the confidence that the company had in its future:
"Capacity Increased 10 Times"
"Made NECESSARY to supply the steadily increasing demand"
and the cursive on the left of the drawing reads "third time we've had to do this"

From the 1870's until about 1907, Pyle's Pearline was widely advertised. About this time, it was decided that the name of Pearline was well known enough that advertising could be discontinued for a time. (Perhaps the cost of the new manufacturing plant in addition to the cost of advertising was too much?) However, about two years after the second son, James Tolman Pyle died (at the age of 56 on February 8, 1912, in his office), Procter & Gamble bought the rights to Pyle's Pearline, supposedly saving the company from bankruptcy. In 1917, there was mention of this decision written up in a business book of the time, Advertising Campaigns, Volume 13 of Modern Business, which can be found in Google Books.

What remains are the postcard, poster, and newspaper advertisements which can be found all over the Internet, if you search for "Pyle's Pearline". Some samples that are in my family's collection are interspersed throughout this posting.

The big marketing push was that Pyle's Pearline would make a woman's work easier and that smart women knew this and should buy Pyle's Pearline.

Thank you to my husband for taking photographs of these Pyle's Pearline ephemera in our collection.

Advertising cards were very popular in the 19th century. I include the fronts and backs of two that I have in my collection. (Thank you to my brother who gave these to me as a gift several years ago).

If you have additional information to share about the business, please let me know by posting a comment below.

My descent from James Pyle > James Tolman Pyle > Charles McAlpin Pyle > Charles McAlpin Pyle, Jr. > me. 


  1. Very interesting! I too have a Loyalist who went to Nova Scotia, and then the family went to RI in the 1880. I look forward to reading more!

  2. Elizabeth,
    This is a wonderful post. Congratulations on the hard work you put into it. I loved reading all the details that you dug up on James Pyle and his soap companies. As it turns out, I have come across one of the many Victorian trade cards that Pearline issued in that period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's quite a beauty. I referenced and linked to this blog entry (and did a few short excerpts) in this post on my Papergreat ephemera/history blog: ... All the best!

    1. Chris, thanks for reading and sharing the link to your blog post here. Yes, there are a lot of Pyle Pearline advertisements, of many sizes, to be found. Members of my family and I each have a few.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Elizabeth, I came across your blog while researching an antique for my Etsy shop and thought you’d enjoy seeing this old soap box:

    1. Interestingly, my brother gave me one as a Christmas gift. It's amazing to me that there are a few of these old soap boxes around. Thanks for sharing.

  4. My great grandmother is Sara McAlpin Pyle who married Paul Smart. My mom Sally Smart recently gave me a framed advertisement of of Pearline Soaps from 1895. My name is Hope Curtis and I would love to know more about what the family.

    1. Please contact me at my elizhandler @ gmail address - I would love to compare notes! By searching my blog for Pyle and McAlpin, you will find out quite a bit about our common ancestors!

  5. Hello Elizabeth,

    You have done an amazing job of researching and putting all this information together about your relative James Pyle.

    My mother was a Pyle and she was related to James Pyle. I live in Nova Scotia about five minutes from where the original Pyle homestead is located.

    Just wanted to say hello from your distant relative in Nova Scotia!! :)