September 11, 2016

Cactus Needles for Toothpicks? (An Early Mayer Industry)


Anyone who has ever suffered the burn of being "bitten" by one of our local cacti will tell you that the last place you'd want a cactus needle is near your gums!

In spite of this, two Mayer, Arizona pioneers decided to start a business that produced toothpicks from cactus needles. They developed and patented a process that "skinned" the needle of its burning barbs and removed the surgically sharp point so it could be used as a toothpick.

They were called "Indian Souvenir Toothpicks" and were wildly popular...at first.

"In their natural state, with their external covering on, (cactus needles) are dull and unattractive, besides being too sharp to be serviceable." But when the skin is removed, "a beautiful variation of colors is obtained. (*1)

Of course, filing the point of a cactus needle and peeling its external skin off by hand takes a lot of effort for a toothpick. A manufacturing process needed to be perfected for the idea to become practical.

Joseph Mayer & Family
The scheme was the idea of E. S. Rogers who approached entrepreneur Joseph Mayer.--a mining man, who founded the namesake town. Mayer liked the idea and the colors of the toothpicks and decided to bankroll "a series of expensive experiments with chemicals for a method of treatment for (the) wholesale (market.)" (*1)

This took several months. A March, 1902 newspaper reported: "The toothpick experimental station (in Mayer) seems to keep its manager busy." (*2) A half-year later, a process was perfected and patented.

Still, manufacture was tedious, as the paper described:
"First, (Rogers) goes out and gathers a load, bringing them to his little workshop. With a pair of big shears, such as tinners use, he shears off the thorns. Then they are treated in various chemical baths, thousands of them at a time, from which they emerge brilliantly colored...yet rendered more pliable than before. The points are then slightly dulled by machinery and they are ready for boxing and sale." (*1)
The toothpicks were "two and a half inches long (with) an amber tip;" (*3) and were as durable "as a quill." (*1) "They can be sold almost as cheap as...wooden toothpicks...and (are) a genuine novelty." (*1)



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By September, 1902, Rogers and Mayer were "diligently employed in not only preparing the article they semi-manufacture, but in marketing the same." (*3)

They gave a complimentary box to the newspaper and readers were invited to take a sample.

Soon, they were "unable to supply the demand owing to the great number of orders received." (*3) But for some reason, at some time, the industry ceased to exist.

"When and why the company closed is unknown, since no records have been found." (*4) Still, a critical look at the business model might offer the answer.

Obviously, cacti are difficult to handle. No matter how carefully one was trying to avoid being stuck, it would inevitably happen--often! That work place hazard might eventually cause one to want to "stay in bed."

Additionally, cacti are slow growing. Once the first quarter-mile radius of cacti were exhausted, one would have to move on to the next quarter-mile and then, the next.

Time, labor, pain and bother would only increase, while there's only so much one could charge for a toothpick! Eventually, it simply would not be worth the trouble of manufacture.

The Indian Souvenir Toothpick Company was an interesting idea, but if Joseph Mayer broke even on the deal, he would have been fortunate.

Watch next Sunday, September 18th, for 
"Prescott's First Building"

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SOURCES:
(*1) Arizona Daily Journal-Miner. 8/26/1902; Pg. 1, Col. 2
(*2) Arizona Daily Journal-Miner. 3/12/1902; Pg. 4, Col. 5
(*3) Arizona Daily Journal-Miner. 9/12/1902; Pg. 1, Col. 4
(*4) Daily Courier. 11/17/1996; Pg. 6A, col. 1

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