Perhaps “invention” is a strong word here. Edward Lowe (1920-1995) certainly revolutionized an important and undesirable component of cat ownership when he discovered the feline-oriented possibilities for absorbent clays.
Upon returning from his service in the Second World War, Lowe had been selling clay, sawdust, and sand to industrial customers in South Bend, Indiana with his father. An acquaintance or neighbor of Ed’s (depending on the story), Kaye Draper, came to him in need of a cat pan filler, and he recommended a bag of fuller’s earth clay that he had on hand. Unlike other fillers, this clay litter absorbed moisture and odor, and was less likely to be tracked all over the house.
This humble beginning in 1947 led to the world we now know today. The invention—or discovery—of clay pan filler has been so momentous that some suggest it has led to a steady uptick in cat ownership. Writer Jonathan Eig has even credited the increase in cat ownership rates—even higher than dogs, 71 million compared to 58 million in 2000—to Lowe’s groundbreaking cat litter: “It’s not that cats improved their personalities. It’s that owning a cat became more convenient,” a view supported by the previous section on “Cat-itudes.”
In the beginning…there was marketing
Although Kaye Draper, Edward Lowe’s first customer, was immediately sold on the clay litter, it took cat owners across the U.S., Canada, and even Europe longer to catch up.
From the photographic albums created by Ed Lowe’s wife Darlene, now held at the Hagley Museum & Library, I was provided a “front row seat” to Lowe’s steady rise to the throne of King of Cat Litter.
In the 1950s and 60s, Ed hit the road with his new invention. In order to get his product out and in the pans of cat owners, he provided pet stores with demonstrations and samples, attended trade shows and conventions, and networked with cat breeders and humane societies.
Lowe’s also advertised in women’s magazines. Lowe & Lowe Corp.’s early marketing included placing ads in Better Homes and Gardens, offering ten weeks (ten pounds) of Kitty LitterTM that “deodorizes” and “dries,” for one dollar.
Although precise numbers are not available, dozens of saved letters with requests from housewives across the country attest to the success of the ads for an eager and receptive market. Some cat owners wanted more than the standard bag. A Wadsworth, Ohio woman asked Lowe to “please quote prices on 50 lb & 100 lbs. of your Kitty Litter. Does the price include freight or not?” Another, a Mrs. Aguirre from California, felt it necessary to explain why she needed a bigger shipment: “advise on ordering larger quantities as I have four Siamese cats.”
One letter in the Edward Lowe Foundation Records stands out. Written on stationery for the Hotel Victoria on Seventh Avenue in New York City, one Mrs. Atkinson requested Lowe send a six-week supply to her home in California. While Mrs. Atkinson may easily have acquired the stationery otherwise, it is compelling to imagine that while on vacation in New York, at a hotel “Where Times Square Meets Radio City,” Mrs. Atkinson picked up an issue of House Beautiful, saw Lowe’s ad, and immediately penned a letter requesting the new product be sent across the country.
From the beginning, cat-loving customers scooped up Lowe’s lines of box filler, which, by the 1960s, included not only Lowe’s original Kitty LitterTM—“a boutique brand for pet stores and veterinarians”—but also Happy Pet Products’ supermarket lines of Tidy Cat (distributed by brokers) and Aristo Cat (later named Sophisticat, a lower-priced variety distributed by wagon jobbers).
The Man, the Myth, the King of Cat Litter
The success of Kitty LitterTM reflected Edward Lowe’s substantial skills as an entrepreneur. Over his career, Lowe obtained over 170 patents, copyrights, and trademarks. And cat litter was just the beginning. Although he certainly believed in the product, it was Lowe’s entrepreneurial talents that made cat litter the $2.9 billion industry what it is today. Notably, Ed is the only business owner to use his own image in marketing cat litter, solidifying his status as inventor, entrepreneur, and cat lover.
In the commercial above, Ed Lowe advertises his Kitty Litter by displaying his love of cats. This is one example of how Lowe, in marketing his litter, put his own image in his advertisements.
According to his wife Darlene, “‘Ed never stopped asking “why?”….Why are we doing something this particular way? How can it be done better?’” In 1985, well into the company’s success, Lowe continued to operate a “35-cat research ‘cattery’” to better serve and understand his feline consumers.
This information translated into more than just product development: Lowe’s deployed facts about cat behavior for advice-oriented advertisements (shown below, courtesy the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives).
Above: Two examples of Lowe’s advertisements that provided helpful hints for proper feline care. Courtesy the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives.
Ed’s sales instincts predated many marketing techniques considered commonplace today. For example, the Edward Lowe Foundation emphasizes the novelty of his idea to vary distribution of different product lines of Kitty LitterTM, Tidy Cat, and Aristo/Sophisticat (shown below, courtesy the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives): “although differentiating a core product through branding is now an accepted marketing practice, it was a novel approach at the time.”
Above: Lowe’s produced multiple types of cat litter that they marketed to different buyers: lower-priced Aristo-Cat, followed by Tidy Cat, which they sold in supermarkets. Courtesy the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives.
In the 1960s, Lowe’s inserted itself into everyday cat ownership by sponsoring cat beauty contests and producing calendars with images of irresistible felines to promote their product (courtesy the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives).
These examples illustrate some of the ways that Lowe’s marketed their brand. Above, Lowe’s sponsored a cat beauty contest; below, they produced desk calendars featuring irresistible kittens. Courtesy the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives.
In a humorous and shrewd move, Ed Lowe even inserted himself into a 1961 “labor dispute” in California.
Above: Newspaper clippings detailing Pacific Mercury Electronics Corporation’s attempt to remove Mister Tom the cat from their premises. Courtesy the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives.
According to newspaper reports, Pacific Mercury Electronics Corporation attempted to evict the feline “mascot” of the local carpenters’ union they had hired. Mister Tom, as he was called, was to be removed for being messy and untidy.
In response, Ed sent a bag of Kitty LitterTM and disposable trays to the corporation and the union, writing, “we are sending [these items] to provide the modern toilet facilities for your pet that he deserves.” In this example, we witness Lowe’s canny ability to combine opportunity, marketing, and the betterment of feline welfare.
Cox, Meg. “When Kitty Needs to Go Freshen Up, Technology is Ready.” Wall Street Journal (Feb. 15, 1983): 1.
Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives
Edward Lowe Foundation. Ed Lowe: An Entrepreneur’s Entrepreneur (Edward Lowe Foundation, 2017). Edward Lowe PDF.
Eig, Jonathan. “Behind the Tense Race to Create Dog Litter with the Right Stuff.” Wall Street Journal (Feb. 23, 2000): A1.
Gross, Daniel A. “How Kitty Litter Went from Happy Accident to $2 Billion Industry.” Washington Post (Feb. 2, 2015): Washington Post.
United Press International. “Ed Lowe Owes His Fortune to Kitty Litter.” Los Angeles Times (June 16, 1985). LA Times.