Mr. Bubble bubble bath turns 50

Published 11:40 am Wednesday, August 31, 2011

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — For five decades, a North Dakota product has caused a splash around the world.

On Tuesday, the state honored the 50th birthday of a popular children’s bubble bath by declaring “Mr. Bubble Day.”

State officials and former employees of the Gold Seal Co. celebrated the product’s success with memorabilia, bubbles and a Mr. Bubble mascot at the state Capitol.

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“It’s a fun day in North Dakota,” said former Gov. Ed Schafer, whose father, Harold, launched the product. “All those years ago, Mr. Bubble was born and bred here in North Dakota.”

The product would go on to become the No. 1 selling bubble bath in the world — and it almost failed as soon as it began.

The idea for Mr. Bubble sprang from one of Harold Schafer’s favorite pastimes — helping his young children with their bath time. Harold Schafer’s widow, Sheila, said he spent a lot of time traveling for his company and looked forward to weekends with his children. At the time, bubble bath was sold in “fancy department stores,” she said, and he thought there should be a low-cost bubble bath for children.

Ed Schafer recalled how his father always had a small packet of bath powder to drop into the bath tub.

“He brought a lot of fun and joy into our home with his concept of fun in the tub for his children,” he said.

So Harold Schafer — who launched the Gold Seal Co. in 1942 by selling floor wax — started talking to his suppliers to see if they could manufacture a less-expensive bubble bath that could be sold in grocery stores.

Mr. Bubble debuted in the marketplace in 1961 and quickly failed.

“Mr. Bubble bombed. It tanked. It was a flop,” Ed Schafer said. “It didn’t do well enough to even keep it on the shelves.”

At 59 cents, the price was wrong, he said. The bubble bath didn’t fit into the household grocery budgets at the time. His father made a deal with a large grocery chain to sell Mr. Bubble at a lower price to get rid of it — and it flew off the shelves.

“But he couldn’t afford to sell it,” Ed Schafer said. “It was losing money on every little bubble.”

His father worked with a supplier to figure out how to make a high-quality product that could be sold at 39 cents “and the rest is history,” Ed Schafer said. Mr. Bubble became a worldwide hit from there and continues to be sold today by Minnesota-based The Village Co.

Sheila Schafer said her husband also had success with Glass Wax and Snowy Bleach, but he had the most fun with Mr. Bubble.

“He loved it so much that I think, if he could have, he would have given everybody their Mr. Bubble free,” she said.

In the late 1960s, the couple flew to Paris and stayed in a hotel. She walked into the bathroom to see a tub full of warm water with pink rose petals and a box of Mr. Bubble on the side of the tub.

“He had sent over to this fancy hotel a box of Mr. Bubble and said, ‘I want this scene to be there when my wife gets there,’ ” she said with a laugh.

Mr. Bubble’s legacy also lives on through the success of Medora. Profits from Mr. Bubble were invested in the small western North Dakota city, now the state’s top tourist attraction.

Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation President Randy Hatzenbuhler said Harold Schafer’s vision for Medora was similar to his vision for Mr. Bubble: clean, friendly, safe and fun.

Harold Schafer died in 2001, but his legacy continues at the Harold Schafer Heritage Center in Medora.

Sheila Schafer said his dedication to Mr. Bubble continued to the end.

“Before he died, the last year sitting in Medora, he would sit out on our porch for hours with boxes of Mr. Bubble on the side of his rocker,” she said. “He would call the kids in that walked by our house and say, ‘C’mon kids’ and ‘Where are you from?’ and all that. And then he would autograph a box of Mr. Bubble for every one of those kids.”

She said he never got over how popular the product was.

“He was Mr. Bubble himself,” she said. “He loved children.”