White Rock Beverages Still Thirsty After 140 Years | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
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White Rock Beverages Still Thirsty After 140 Years

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White Rock Beverages may not be a household name today, but it used to be. And so was the girl on its bottle.

The Greek goddess Psyche has appeared on millions of bottles and cans of White Rock sparkling water, tonic water and ginger ale. And on every one, she is topless, gazing at her own reflection in a crystal-clear pool of water.

White Rock President Larry Bodkin says there was nothing lewd or suggestive about that Psyche logo when it debuted around the turn of the 20th century.

"In those days, a bare breast was like almost the ultimate sign of purity," he says.

Naked From The Waist Up

White Rock was founded in Waukesha, Wis., in 1871, and moved its headquarters to New York City 35 years later. By 1930, the company dominated the U.S. sparkling water business, with a market share of 90 percent, according to Time magazine.

"It was a real upper-class type of an item," Bodkin says. "Used at the coronation of Queen Victoria, and Charles Lindbergh christened his plane ... with it, and Gloria Vanderbilt was baptized with it."

And, while Coca-Cola celebrated its 125th anniversary this year in grand fashion, the family-owned company in New York City is quietly toasting 140 years in the soft-drink business.

White Rock's products haven't changed too much over the years, and neither has Psyche. She's gotten a little skinnier and a little taller, but she's still naked from the waist up. That's attracted some unwanted attention for White Rock over the years.

"Of course I always got a lot of ribbing at school about the girl on the bottle," says Mimsy Morgan Bodkin, the daughter of Alfred Morgan Jr., who ran White Rock from the 1920s to 1970s. "People kept asking me, so I got sick of it. And said, 'It's not me on the bottle, it's my mother!' "

Healthy And Growing

At its height, White Rock employed hundreds of people, mostly at its factory in Brooklyn.

"When I started, there were so many small independent beverage companies. Every borough had two or three," says Bob Wodiska, who joined White Rock as a salesman in the 1950s and never left. "And then, you know, Pepsi and Coke sorta took over, like in so many industries. Fortunately we're one of the very few that's left. We're still here."

But just barely.

White Rock fell on hard times in the 1980s. Today it has just a dozen employees. About half of them work at a modest mid-rise office building near LaGuardia Airport in Queens.

Larry Bodkin says his family could have sold White Rock many times, and maybe should have. But having come this far, Bodkin hopes the brand can cash in on the growing demand for all things artisanal and old-fashioned.

"We've been around, but we're healthy and growing. It's kind of a combination of factors. And nobody can replicate our history," he says. "Even Coke and Pepsi, I think they go back to the 1890s, not as old as we are. So it's legitimate. We are the oldest beverage company."

If you need proof, you could even ask Santa Claus. St. Nick appeared in holiday ads for White Rock throughout the early 1900s — years before he went to work for Coca-Cola.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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