Please rotate your deviceWe do not support in landscape mode, please use the app in portrait mode for the best experience

The First BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandage

A pair of clumsy newlyweds invented the Johnson & Johnson’s adhesive bandage. Their ready-made first aid supply became one of the company’s most iconic products.

The first BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandage hit the market in 1921. Johnson & Johnson cotton buyer Earle E. Dickson, came up with the idea for his young wife, Josephine, who was plagued by minor cuts and burns in her daily cooking. In 1920, he fashioned surgical tape and gauze into makeshift bandages, tenderly wrapping her wounds. But the process was cumbersome, and Dickson longed for a ready-made bandage Josephine could administer herself. From this need, the BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandage was born. Dickson took his idea to management, and Johnson & Johnson began manufacturing his design: an 18-by-2½-inch strip of sterile surgical tape with a strip of padded gauze lengthwise down the middle.

Earle Dickson, c. 1920.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Dickson’s ready-made bandage was a combination of two existing Johnson & Johnson products, surgical tape and gauze, with a removable sheet of crinoline (the same material used for petticoats) to protect its adhesive surface. Its introduction added to the company’s growing array of consumer products. Since its founding in 1886, Johnson & Johnson had made goods for consumers in addition to manufacturing sterile surgical supplies for hospitals. When World War I broke out in 1914, much of the company’s focus turned to military production, which only increased further once the United States entered the conflict in 1917. To keep up with wartime demand for bandages and dressings, the company expanded and acquired new cotton mills, revolutionizing its factories to speed up production. After the war ended in 1918, companies including Johnson & Johnson maintained their heightened output and searched for new markets for their goods—shifting their focus away from the military and hospitals towards civilian consumers. Because production was fast and mechanized, prices remained relatively low, allowing for mass consumption of an abundance of new goods.

Cotton mill employees stand in front of bandages and dressings produced to help injured soldiers, 1915.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

For the first time in history, many Americans could afford these new products. The increase in the standard of living across the country went hand-in-hand with higher wages and the beginning of disposable income, creating space in the average budget for innovations in first aid, including the BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandage. Literacy rates also climbed. More Americans were reading newspapers and journals, which were filled with advertisements for the latest products. So, consumers began hearing about the new goods in their daily lives.

During the 1920s, modern advertising made its debut. Ad agencies had learned from their successful enlistment campaigns of World War I. Through vibrant and evocative posters, they appealed to Americans’ patriotism and raised an effective call to arms. These advertising tactics were applied to the emerging civilian markets after the war. Women, and more specifically mothers, were the target for early BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandage sales. Just as they were called to help their sons “win the war,” women were now prompted to tend to their family’s first aid in the home.

American recruitment poster from World War I, 1917.

Image courtesy: R.H. Porteous, Library of Congress

The rise in quality of life also encouraged a new emphasis on hygiene and cleanliness. In terms of wound care, up until the 1920s, Americans had used whatever scraps of material or gauze that were lying around the house to wrap cuts. But, with the wide acceptance of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, they were increasingly aware that non-sterile wound treatment caused infection. This led to simple yet revolutionary changes like washing wounds with soap and covering cuts with sterile dressings. During the era, first aid manuals proliferated. Johnson & Johnson published its own in 1901 in addition to other guides teaching readers how to care for their bodies. One 1916 manual emphasized, “a stock of bandages and cloths for emergencies should be kept always on hand in every home,” illustrating a cultural push towards standardized first aid in the American home.

From this world, the BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandage was born. Within the first year, it was not a hit—only $3,000 worth were sold (about $40,000 today). The product was initially made by hand and, because it was so novel, demonstrations were required to show customers its use. True to Dickson’s original design, it was sold in sheets, requiring each strip to be cut by a consumer.

BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandage advertisement, 1923.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Mirroring popular first aid manuals, this 1921 advertisement doubled as a set of instructions.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

After several years of low sales, Johnson & Johnson went back to the drawing board. In 1924, it reengineered the product and released machine-made, pre-cut bandages in various sizes. Two years later, the company updated the product’s packaging, selling the first of its iconic metal tins in 1926. With the success of the product, the life of its creator was forever changed. During Earle Dickson’s long career at Johnson & Johnson, he was named a vice president and elected to the company’s board of directors. Today, nearly a century later, over 100 billion BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandages have been made, and the iconic product has been at the heart of home first aid for generations. 

A collection of early BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandages.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Add your comment here

Add new comment