Biographies & Memoirs

3.

THE WORLD’S FIRST BRAND-NAME CONDOMS

IN LATE 1906, Julius and his fiancée, Selma Lieders, the daughter of a shoemaker, took a rather hurried trip to London. They got married there on December 27. The twenty-three-year-old listed his profession as “cigarette maker” and his bride’s as “cap maker.” Julius’s brother Salomon was the best man. Salomon had emigrated to the British capital some time earlier—in part as protest against his mother’s religious strictness. Now going by the name Sally, he worked in the cigarette business and also became editor of a Yiddish-language newspaper.

The crucial factor in Julius’s decision to get married far from home was Selma’s pregnancy. Their son Max was born in Berlin just four months after the marriage ceremony. Five years later, they had a second child, Herbert, after which a full seven years passed until Edgar was born in 1919. Although Julius’s parents do not appear to have practiced birth control, contraception was evidently of personal as well as professional interest to Julius Fromm.

“He did not suffer fools gladly,” says the London textile agent Raymond Fromm about his grandfather Julius. Julius Fromm was purposeful and meticulous, and he expected the same level of professionalism and devotion from his staff. If people let him down, he could become quite merciless.

Julius Fromm comes across as an enormously diligent man whose world revolved around work and his company. In the few remaining photographs of Fromm, he seems serious and focused even at family gatherings. He read and spoke fluent Hebrew, but his education was otherwise minimal. In Berlin he had briefly attended the Eighth Community Elementary School. He acquired on his own the chemical and business skills he needed to establish his company, and he had no capital to invest. This modest foundation was all he had to build on when he went into business in 1914, the year the Great War began. The war increased the demand for condoms. Fromm hired several workers, and the business soon outgrew his shop-plus-apartment in the Bötzow area of Berlin. He then rented a new set of rooms in one of the standard industrial complexes at Elisabethstrasse 28/29, near the Spree River in the Berlin-Mitte district, where he manufactured his condoms from 1917 to 1922. The adjoining businesses included a corset factory, a children’s clothing maker named Cohn-Meiser, and Friedländer & Grunwald, a manufacturer of feather dusters.

Julius Fromm’s identity

card photograph, 1918

As the “widely known, well-established Fromms Act hygienic and surgical rubber goods” grew ever more popular, Fromm added more rooms at Landsberger Strasse 73, directly at Alexanderplatz. He proudly described his factory rooms, which were still modest in size at that time, as “workplaces adapted to the modern large firm.” He invited “prospective buyers in the rubber goods trade” to have a look at his “large permanent showcase.”16 To meet the growing demand, he occasionally produced additional inventory at Hatu Rubber Works in Erfurt.

It was in 1916 that the young entrepreneur chose the name “Fromms Act” for his company. Although there is no record of how he came to include the English spelling of the word “Act” in the company name, it seems likely that he got the idea from his older brother, Salomon, who had developed an eye for the international market while in London.

Julius Fromm tended to rely on Salomon for business advice. The two of them may have figured that “Fromms Act” sounded appealing, even a tad risqué, and that the cosmopolitan connotation would spark sales. In both German and English, the word “act” (Aktin German) means “action” as well as an “act” of a theatrical or sexual nature, and in German it also refers to the painted nude, and thus to the naked body. Moreover, the German word suggests the seriousness of a near-homonym, Akte (dossier), and sounds like an abbreviation of Aktiengesellschaft (corporation), thereby conveying the impression of a well-established, prosperous enterprise. In reality, of course, Fromm was running a humble operation in Berlin, but in no time at all, Fromms Act became such a household name that when Ruth Fromm was a teenager, she turned bright red with embarrassment when asked about her uncle’s company.

One of the first advertisements in the trade journal

Der Drogenhändler, 1917

For the packaging, Fromm chose small striped cardboard boxes in his favorite colors, green and purple. Each box contained three condoms. At a price of seventy-two pfennigs per box, Fromm’s condoms were not inexpensive, but they offered better value and quality than any of his competitors’ products. “Attaching our own name to this article,” Edgar explained, “was my father’s bright idea.” It was a bold move for Fromm literally to put his name on the line for a product whose failure could be devastating. He inserted his full name, Julius Fromm, into the sweeping upstroke of the A in “Act,” which curled back onto the word “Fromms.”

Until that time, customers had only the foggiest notion of where their condoms had originated, and the quality of these condoms was abysmal. To get around having to provide warranties for these sought-after commodities, Fromm’s competitors used an ever-changing array of fancy names—such as Ramses, Mikado, Uncle Sam, Dingsda, Souvenir, Viola, and Venus—to market their condoms in Germany. This practice continued into the 1920s. The British company London Rubber did not introduce the brand name Durex—today the global leader—until 1929.

Max, Julius, Herbert, and Selma Fromm,

ca. 1916

Initially Fromm also had to contend with serious quality issues. There were “large numbers of rejects,” one worker recalled after the war, “and Herr Fromm quite often took whole sackfuls of them, called us in, and asked, ‘Would you want to buy these from me?’” The production process was soon refined, and a combination of relatively high retail prices, a marked increase in demand, and a switch to piecework wages soon resulted in sizable profits.

Glass cylinders served as molds for the condoms. They were mounted on carrier frames, then dipped into a vat containing a rubber solution liquefied with gasoline, benzene, and carbon tetrachloride. Experiments made it clear to Fromm that “Ceylon rubber is best suited to the manufacture of Fromms products.” After two dippings, a thin rubber skin adhered to the cylinders. This skin was then brushed to roll the open side into a bulging rim. Next, the condoms were vulcanized in special ovens using sulfur vapors. The key factors in making the little rubber skins sturdy yet elastic, and durable enough to be warehoused, were strictly calibrated ingredients, temperature, and timing. All this required, as Fromm said, “a very well-trained staff.”

The condoms were dusted with a lubricant to give them a “velvety surface,” then rolled off the glass cylinders, tested, inverted, and packaged. Using the technical principles still employed today, Fromm also manufactured surgical finger cots, rubber gloves, pacifiers, and nipples for baby bottles.

From the outset, he insisted on quality. In 1917 Fromm launched the advertising slogan “We guarantee our products—exchanges accepted at any time.”17 After a few years, he introduced a three-step inspection process. First, “each item, one by one [was] inflated with compressed air.” The condoms that passed this round then underwent a “second, even more rigorous test” and then a third in the rolling room, where “the tips of the items that proved satisfactory in the earlier tests are inflated to recheck their impermeability, sheerness, elasticity, and durability.”

According to a report by Magnus Hirschfeld, quality control was the reason Fromms products had attained an “international reputation”: “with unreliable brands, these tests are not rigorous or comprehensive… A good company is vigilant in rejecting all items that fall short of its high standards. One way to achieve this is to pay the testers according to the number of flawed items identified, which is the method used at Fromms Act.”

In 1931 Julius Fromm posted advertisements announcing “Fromms Act—Information” on advertising pillars in “numerous cities.” The text read:

Buy our popular select brand, Fromms Act, exclusively at these specialty stores: apothecaries, drugstores, rubber goods stores, first-aid shops, perfumeries, and barbershops. There you will be assured of purchasing fresh merchandise that has been properly stored and carefully handled. [There] you will obtain our select brand, Fromms Act, in our original packaging with our inspection numbers. These inspection numbers enable us to ensure that only fresh merchandise is sold. The proprietors at the specialty stores are aware of their responsibility to the public and understand the significance of our inspection numbers. If you should happen to be offered our select brand in packaging where the inspection numbers have been scratched off or erased, do not accept these items. This is for your own good! … Always make a point of demanding the genuine select brand, Fromms Act, so that you will not be disappointed.18

In 1919 Julius Fromm was able to buy a villa in Nikolassee for 95,000 Reichsmarks. The property was located near the Schlachtensee in an upscale section of Zehlendorf, a suburb in southwest Berlin, which is why its location is listed variously as Nikolassee, Zehlendorf, and Schlachtensee. Now the family of five could spread out in the villa’s eight rooms over two stories. There was also a maid’s room in the attic, a spacious kitchen, and a chauffeur’s apartment in the basement. The up-and-coming condom manufacturer felt that he could finally consider himself a German, and legal confirmation of his naturalization soon followed.

Julius Fromm had applied for Prussian citizenship back in September 1914. His stated reasons for wishing to become a German citizen are provided on his application form: “I came to Berlin as a very young child. The German language was not unfamiliar to me because my parents always spoke German, and in no time at all I had forgotten my previous place of residence. I am ardently devoted to my second homeland, and for me, a return to Russia would be worse than death.” The applicant indicated that his annual income fell between 3,000 and 3,500 marks, and that his assets came to 8,000 marks. Fromm explained that he did not want to be considered a Russian on account of the war; “enemy aliens” had to report to the police precinct on a regular basis: “I can no longer bear to carry around this stigma, and I would like to spare my children the disgrace of finding themselves in the same situation.”

Left to right: Julius Fromm’s three sons, Max, Edgar, and Herbert,

with an unknown business associate of their father’s, in the

garden of the family’s villa in Berlin-Schlachtensee, ca. 1922

He was not overly eager to join the war effort, however: “Unfortunately I cannot carry out my wish to fight in the war against Russia as a volunteer, because my health has been problematic for some time. It would be my greatest source of pride, though, if I should someday have the privilege of seeing my two sons as strapping Prussian soldiers.” Of course at this point they were still children, ages seven and three, and their physical appearance did not mark them as outsiders. Max, the older of the two, had blond hair. Indeed, Julius’s own identity card, issued in 1918, listed his hair as blond, and his eyes as grayish blue.

Even so, the Royal Police President of Berlin rejected the application. His official statement read: “Politically, Fromm is beyond reproach. Our misgivings about his naturalization are based on the fact that he has neither a secure livelihood nor assets to his name.” In a handwritten note in the margin, an administrator in the aliens’ division put the group’s objections more bluntly: “Russian Jew without a secure livelihood, who cannot or will not serve in the military.” In any event, he was exempted from the tiresome duty of reporting regularly to the police as a “Russian.”

In 1919, Fromm again applied for citizenship, this time with a lawyer at his side. He now had “a well-established business,” had proved to be “a good taxpayer,” and underscored his sincere German loyalty during the war. He had become a “member of several charitable organizations for soldiers and veterans … donating money to the Red Cross on many occasions, and collecting gold coins for the patriotic cause.” In the accompanying application, Fromm moved back the date of his family’s immigration by three years, most likely to make it appear that he had spent more time attending school in Berlin. As a precaution, he added: “I am unable to provide the exact date.” Apart from that, he filled out the form truthfully, stating: “I have not been supported by public welfare, I am a homeowner, and I support myself and my family as a self-sufficient businessman. My family’s annual income is about 25,000 marks.” In today’s terms, that would be about 250,000 euros.

Fromm’s business associates provided written character references. The Berlin branch manager of the Metzeler Rubber Factory stated, “I have come to know Mr. Fromm as a competent, prudent, and honest businessman, and I value his good patriotic attitude in particular, even though I know that he is a foreigner.” The business partners at Hatu Rubber Works in Erfurt supported him in similar language in 1920 and attested “that he promises to become a good German citizen.” The police voted in favor of naturalization and composed this statement: “The applicant has a rubber goods business at Lippehnerstrasse 23 and employs 12 people there. Moreover, he is the joint owner of an optician’s shop at Alexanderstrasse 71, with a staff of 6. On October 1 [1919], he moved his place of residence to Schlachtensee, Rolandstrasse 4, where he lives in a single-family dwelling with 10 rooms. His economic situation is thoroughly in order.”

Son Herbert in Julius Fromm’s automobile, ca. 1930

In July 1920, the chief administrative officer in Potsdam issued Fromm a certificate of naturalization. He was the first of his siblings to acquire German citizenship. This certificate read: “With the issuance of this document, the merchant Israel Fromm in Zehlendorf-West, born on March 4/February 20, 1893 in Konin (Russia), and his wife and children have acquired Prussian citizenship and have hence become German nationals.” Three years later, the district court of Berlin-Lichterfelde authorized him “to go by the first name ‘Julius’ instead of his original first name Israel.”19

In February 1922, Julius Fromm bought a larger lot for his business in the quiet suburb of Friedrichshagen at the extreme eastern end of Berlin. He wanted to expand production as quickly as possible, but lacking sufficient capital of his own, he mortgaged his residence to the allowable limit. Benefiting from the tremendous inflation in Germany, he was able to pay off his debt-secured mortgage in the amount of 200,000 Reichsmarks a mere ten months later.20

He submitted an application to renovate a small existing factory building and to construct a factory workroom in Friedrichshagen, thus adding a second location to the business. However, the site was zoned as Construction Category F, for which this standard regulation applied: “Factories that create a disturbance are forbidden in this location.” Despite this regulation, the building control authority issued him a building permit, provided certain conditions were met. This authority evidently gave precedence to potential economic benefits over safeguarding the rights of neighbors. The Industry Supervisory Board of Treptow-Köpenick ruled: “The gases and steam created by the vulcanization of rubber products have to be extracted and rendered harmless in a suitable manner at the point of origin. Under no circumstances can these processes create a nuisance for the workers or the neighbors.” Enforcement of this regulation was only partly successful in defusing conflicts, however. Right from the start, Fromm was besieged with complaints from the neighbors. Solutions of natural rubber in a petroleum solvent posed an ongoing fire hazard. In May 1926, a local fire department reported: “When the fire broke out, three factory workers sustained slight injuries—burns and lacerations. They were treated by the Friedrichshagen volunteer first-aid crew and released.”21

Fromm commissioned the architects Arthur Korn and Siegfried Weitzmann, who subscribed to the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) style of architecture, to design the new factory floor and office wing (parts of which are still standing today). Now the neighbors complained not only about the noise and fumes but also about the aesthetics of the new building, which clashed with their gabled homes. A letter to the editor in a local newspaper, the Niederbarnimer Zeitung, argued that “the flat roof [of the new building is] an architectural impossibility.” Moreover, the angry neighbor who sent this letter warned “the highest authorities” that he and other established members of the community would “not put up with any further defacement of this area by buildings of this kind.”

Fromm had a series of slides made for promotional purposes in 1935. The

thirty-seven extant photographs document work routines in his factory—

such as the condom testing displayed here

“Complaints about the stench and racket emanating from the rubber factory,” reported the local paper in September 1928, “have not ceased since the day the factory began its operations.” The article went on to claim that adjacent properties were “subjected day and night to such powerful droning and thudding from the rolling mills and mixers as well as from the boiler plants and their steam exhaust pipes that heavy pieces of furniture in the neighbors’ rooms sometimes start shaking.” As a result, the residents were “robbed of sleep and unable to focus on their work.”

“Our factory,” Fromm retorted in the local newspaper, “employs the latest technology to prevent unpleasant odors and disturbing sounds to the greatest extent possible, and we have spared no expense in making our company a model company.”22

Fromm himself may have been quite unpopular with his neighbors, but the opposite was true of his leading product. In 1926 Fromms Act manufactured 24 million condoms. Two years later, the business had agencies in Bremen, Breslau, Cologne, Danzig (today Gdansk in Poland), Düsseldorf, Essen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanover, Kiel, Königsberg (today Kaliningrad in Russia), Leipzig, Munich, Rostock, and Würzburg. Exports were handled by branches in Antwerp, Constantinople, Czernowitz (today Chernivtsi in Ukraine), The Hague, Kattowitz (today Katowice in Poland), London, Riga, Reykjavík, Auckland, Budapest, and Zurich. By 1931 Fromms Act had undergone a major expansion. With added production plants in Köpenick and Danzig, the company produced more than 50 million condoms that year.

Even the world economic crisis did not cause a slump in sales at Fromms Act. “Business is brisk even now,” the German Credit Bureau ascertained in February 1933, about the company and about Fromm himself. “Sales are in the millions. The company’s products are well established… Our sources describe Fromm as an extremely competent and ambitious businessman who has worked his way up over the years to a position of wealth. We are aware of nothing negative of any sort.”23

Julius Fromm ate lunch with his staff in the cafeteria, and considered hard work the key to success. Every afternoon he rested on his office couch—for exactly twenty minutes. His motto was “Ever onward!”

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