The History of
Holcomb & Hoke Manufacturing Company
When James I. Holcomb considered going into business with Fred Hoke, he had only just met the gentleman. Holcomb, a furniture polish salesman simply passing through town, approached Hoke, a hardware store clerk, with the proposition mere moments of having attended a Sunday school class he was teaching one morning in 1894. Not knowing precisely what that business would be, Holcomb vowed to return to Sullivan, Indiana, when the right business opportunity arose.
He made good on his promise two years later. With little more than the clothes on his back, Holcomb reunited with Hoke to pitch his idea about purchasing a brush business in Lafayette, Indiana. Hoke took to the notion; and with the help of a loan from his uncle, joined his friend in forming Holcomb & Hoke Manufacturing Company in 1896.
A joint venture that goes on to span a lifetime is exceedingly rare, especially when the two partners are polar opposites. Born in Warren, Illinois, James Holcomb was a dynamo of energy and natural salesman who had earned his way through two years at the University of Michigan going door to door selling furniture polish. Fred Hoke, one of ten boys, was born in Jefferson, Kentucky. Though he had no formal education past the eighth grade, Hoke had a calming way with employees and was largely responsible for holding the operation together through rough times. Together, they founded a highly successful company—still in operation today—following two basic principles: the first being to personally supervise the selling of whatever they make; and, secondly, to always be looking ahead for new specialized products whose market is too small to interest big companies, yet large enough to bring Holcomb & Hoke growth and prosperity.
The brush business fit this philosophy well, and a small factory was built in Sullivan. Hoke remained on site, in charge of production, while Holcomb traveled as far as New York, hiring and training salesmen to take orders. Despite the success of the operation, however, it was not long before another enterprise caught the young entrepreneurs’ eyes.
Box ball was a modified version of bowling, using smaller balls in knocking down five pins set horizontally across a wooden alley. Lanes were portable and available in three sizes, providing for quick and easy installation in amusements parks, bars and other entertainment venues both big and small. Purchase of American Box Ball Company in 1903 prompted Holcomb & Hoke’s relocation to Indianapolis, Indiana. Fueled by the cross-country success of their fledgling business, the two men built their first manufacturing facility in 1906. Demand for the game remained steady for the next seven years, at which time they concluded that the box ball market was nearly saturated. And so began the next chapter in the company’s storied history, as it embarked on a venture that would make their brand name synonymous with America’s favorite snack.
Prior to 1913, popcorn was made in small handheld poppers over a kerosene burner and sold from carts along the street. Holcomb and Hoke, in collaboration with engineer and inventor Dan Talbert, changed all that with the introduction of an indoor/outdoor machine that would drop raw corn into the popping plate, pop the corn, discharge the popped kernels from the popper, sift out unpopped kernels while buttering those that had popped, then deposit the finished product in the bottom of the cabinet; all automatically and in full view of onlookers.
Butter-Kist popcorn machines—so named because every kernel was mechanically and uniformly “Kist” with pure creamery butter—became hugely popular in theaters, five-and-dime stores, hotel lobbies and numerous other local businesses. Customers were magnetized as much by the intricate mechanical motion of the machine as they were by the sensual aroma and fresh, buttery taste of the popcorn. Merchants embraced the minimal space requirements and 65- to 70-percent profit margin.
Machines came in a variety of sizes and types, many with optional features, in appealing to the full spectrum of business owners. Depending on money and space constraints, they could choose from a full-size, multi-function floor model with storage cabinet and elaborate display signage to a compact countertop model with small backlit nameplate. Other features included peanut roasters (marketed as peanut toasters); warming compartments for pre-roasted peanuts; mechanical vendors or compartments for shelled nuts; and containers for displaying candy, chewing gum and mints.
All Holcomb & Hoke machines were driven by a small electric motor and required electricity for lights, signs and smaller heating elements. Many came in several models, enabling merchants to choose between electricity, natural gas or manufactured gas in powering the popping plate and peanut toaster. A few, however, could be ordered with a generator to produce gas from gasoline in operating the popping plate. All-electric units were by far the most popular.
Holcomb & Hoke went on to sell some $20 million worth of Butter-Kist popcorn machines, peanut toasters and combination units during their 21-year production run. Similar products, including lunch wagons and sandwich warmers (Butter-Kistwich machines) were also marketed during this period. One reason for their success was the lack of competition. This did not deter the company, however, from producing what was nevertheless an attractive, well-made product. All exposed metal parts were of highly polished nickel plate. Cabinets of earlier models were made of solid wood, finished in rich mahogany, natural quarter-sawed oak or ivory white enamel; those of later models were constructed of steel and painted. Use of sturdy, rubber-tired casters enabled merchants to move large machines with ease, both inside and outside their place of business.
What remained constant over the years was the company’s heavy use of glass to expose the motion of the machines’ inner workings. Motion attracts the eye, J. I. Holcomb reasoned, and creates interest in the product. This interest would draw shoppers to the machine, at which time the aroma of the warm, buttered popcorn would compel them to buy. Profit on the sale of popcorn could be quite good in its day, especially for something that required only one operator. And the company continually promoted these figures—$7 to $16 daily, $107 in the first week, $1400 over the first three months—to generate sales.
Indeed, innovative marketing was largely responsible for Holcomb & Hoke’s success; in time, helping it become the number one manufacturer of popcorn machines and peanut roasters in the world. Advertisements in newspapers, consumer magazines and trade journals rarely stated price. Instead, they often featured testimonials by machine owners as to the profits they were making and to the spillover effect they were witnessing; namely, greater sales of other merchandise as a result of the increased store traffic from selling Butter-Kist popcorn and peanuts. The company was among the first to hold training schools for their salesmen and to promote installment selling, the practice whereby machine owners used profits in paying for machines over a period of time. Revered by many as a marketing genius, J. I. Holcomb implemented bonus plans for employees and offered spectacular prizes as incentives to work hard. His articles in the company newsletter focused not only on the many benefits to owning a Holcomb & Hoke machine, but on how profits could be spent, such as toward a child’s college tuition. Salesology, one of Holcomb’s best known literary works, is still referenced in business schools today.
Sales of Holcomb & Hoke’s popcorn machines and roasters began to dwindle with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. At the same time, many customers could no longer afford to make payments on machines they’d acquired using the installment plan. (Manufacturing of these units would cease completely in 1934.) Were it not for their multiple product lines and the ability to shift production with relative ease, Holcomb & Hoke Manufacturing might well have gone the way of so many others who were forced out of business.
Insufficient commercial refrigeration in the early 1920s proved a golden opportunity for the dynamic partnership. They initiated production of large ice tanks, units used in cooling glass meat cases, in 1921; but soon shifted focus to manufacturing freezer counters, refrigerated display cases commonly seen in butcher shops and grocery stores. Then in 1929, Holcomb & Hoke added stokers to its product line. Sold under the name Fire Tender, it was a mechanical device for feeding coal to a furnace. Both were largely seasonal products that balanced one another in demand, enabling the company to keep workers employed throughout the year. While production of Fire Tenders (15 models served both residential and commercial markets) would continue, production of refrigerated cases ended with the outbreak of World War II, as such products were not considered priority goods.
The United States’ entrance into WWII signaled dramatic changes in the manufacturing sector. Rationing and other government efforts to curb consumer spending stunted the growth of companies large and small. Many manufacturers were compelled to completely retool for the war effort. Seeing its production and sales numbers drop, Holcomb & Hoke hired an individual to find work for them. The man’s chance conversation with a fellow train commuter in 1942 landed a hefty contract to produce tank arms (the piece that joined the track rollers to the tank). Agreements with other companies to do similar work soon followed.
The 1950s marked the beginning of a new era for Holcomb & Hoke. Just as a government contract to fabricate expensive back wing hinges for Korean War (1950-1953) fighter planes was being set in motion, widespread replacement of coal by gas and oil for domestic heating was sounding the death knell for their stoker production business. The search for new products gave birth to the folding door.
The decision to make accordion partitions and, in 1962, operable flat walls, fit perfectly with Holcomb & Hoke’s long-time strategy of producing specialized products with considerable growth potential that can be sold through solid distribution channels across the country. Manufactured under the brand name FolDoor, they were designed to make the best use of available area while assuring sound and sight privacy. Space consciousness was on the rise, according to company research. The FolDoor product line provided maximum flexibility in schools, churches, hospitals, convention centers, office buildings, restaurants and the like in an imaginative yet cost-effective way.
Holcomb & Hoke’s capacity to anticipate changing times and readily adapt manufacturing operations to meet a foreseeable increasing demand—all the while maintaining set standards—are largely responsible for the growth and prosperity that spans three centuries. Not all product ideas, however, met with success. Interestingly, those that fell well short of expected sales were looked upon not as failures; but as costly lessons on the critical importance of good market research.
The Electramuse, “a continuously playing, coin-operated musical instrument,” was introduced by the company in 1928. Offered in several models, it was akin to an automatic jukebox and marketed to business owners in much the same manner as the popcorn machines. The units played any standard ten-inch record, but buyers were encouraged to obtain music through the Electramuse Record Exchange Service. Under this program, subscribers received a shipment of records every two weeks. While merchants were delighted with the opportunity to select the music of their liking at discounted prices, their patrons were anything but in having to settle for whatever song happened to be next up, rather than being able to choose. It wasn’t long before “selective” jukeboxes became available. In 1930, after having lost over half a million dollars, Holcomb & Hoke ceased production of the Electramuse.
At a time when automatic cooking utensils were unheard of, a man approached the founding partners with a self-regulating aluminum cooker. It featured three sections for food, was mounted on legs and equipped with a gas burner and thermostat. Thinking they had the world by the tail, Holcomb & Hoke manufactured thousands for distribution to department stores all across the country. When the cookers didn’t sell, they were baffled. An investigation by the advertising firm hired to help with marketing discovered that the problem was in the pricing. At $76.85, the product was too expensive for its intended buyer, the average American working family. Those that could afford it didn’t need it because they had domestic help to do the cooking. Needless to say, neglecting to understand the purchasing habits of the target market proved to be an expensive oversight.
Even prior to mechanical refrigeration, Holcomb & Hoke saw a future in machines that could dispense cold beverages into a cup. And so they fabricated one for buttermilk, which operated on roughly the same basic principles as modern-era soft drink vending machines. Within an hour of being put to the test in their factory one summer afternoon, however, the machine became engulfed in flies. Only a handful of units were ever sold, as the unforseen occurrence soon prompted the company to shelve the invention.
Holcomb & Hoke never seemed to run short on ideas for new products. There was the man-made pollenizer, essentially an eight-foot-wide brush on two large wagon wheels that did more or less the same thing bees do. Unfortunately, the pollenizer—much like their rope-drive, buggy-wheeled automobile with one-cylinder engine developed in 1906—couldn't be made to work as well as they felt it should. Further production of both was scrapped early on. The “two-minute jelly”—a fruit juice and pectin premix, to which water was added in making homemade jelly—and a line of attic fans met with a similar fate. Each became a stellar example of how the company ultimately could not manufacture the product and make it price competitive in the marketplace.
Despite its share of miscalculations, Holcomb & Hoke Manufacturing Company remained in continuous operation at 1545 Van Buren Street in Indianapolis, Indiana, for over 100 years. Sadly, sustained economic downturn in 2009 forced the business that had become synonymous with innovation to close its doors.
We'd like to think, however, that the founding partners' entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to excellence will live on for years to come at the J. H. Fentress Antique Popcorn Museum.