How Q-Tips began as boric-tipped Baby Gays

Q-Tips are in every medicine cabinet, though perhaps they shouldn’t be. Doctors recommend you never put them in your ears, and even manufacturer Unilever puts a warning on every box. But that’s today. In 1923, they were cutting edge medical technology. And they were called Baby Gays.

The invention of Baby Gays

A Polish immigrant named Leo Gerstenzang came up with the idea. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know what inspired him (there are many competing Q-Tip myths). The official explanation? He came up with the idea when he saw his wife wrap cotton around a toothpick.

Whatever the inspiration, he began doing business in New York. The product was quickly successful and sold as Baby Gays. They made cranky babies happy.

A Baby Gay swab was practically different from the Q-Tip we know today. For one, each swab was made by hand. Workers wrapped cotton around a wood stick (usually one side) and moved on to the next one. After that, the cotton was sanitized in a small amount of boric acid. As an ad from 1927 brags, the “boric tipped” swabs were great for babies’ ears, noses, and nostrils.

Q-Tips are added and manufacturing advances

By that time, the name had slightly changed as well, to Q-Tips Baby Gays. For the record, the Q stands for Quality. Presumably, Gerstenzang wanted to diversify from his baby base. That was paired with advances in manufacturing.

Vintage Q-Tip BoxThe days of hand-made, artisanal Q-Tips were over. Gerstenzang applied for a patent for his “Process And Apparatus For Manufacturing Medical Swabs.” The final product was a double-swabbed boric-tipped Q-Tip, relatively similar to what we know today (though the materials were different, with sticks made of wood instead of paper).

Getting out of the ear and into the makeup case

Baby Gays was soon dropped from the name, probably to continue the trend toward multiple Q-Tip applications. Throughout the next few decades, Q-Tips recommended varied uses in the home and with makeup, along with ear cleaning for wax and “water in the ear.” The box promoted Q-Tips for “adult ear care” well into the 60s.

A few corporate changeovers happened (leading to ownership by Unilever) and, over time, doctors unanimously agreed that Q-Tips in the ears cause more harm than good. The company followed along.

Today, each box has a warning against using Q-Tips in the way that made Baby Gays a hit.

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