McHistory: George Hoagland’s 'Oil of Gladness'
Coming from nothing, an illiterate Black man from Bloomington-Normal, long before the civil rights movement, found a niche in the national market for cleaning products. In this episode of the WGLT's series McHistory, hear about a popular floor polish and the man who invented and sold it.
“Hoagland’s Oil of Gladness! Positively the best finish preserver on the market,” said an advertisement for the product marketed from Bloomington during the early 20th century.
George Hoagland was a Black entrepreneur. He was born in Bullitt County, Kentucky, to an enslaved mother during the Civil War. As a young man, he worked on steamboats and railroads on the Ohio River Valley and Kentucky. For a time, he lived in St. Louis, and by 1888 Hoagland and his wife, Rosa, had settled in Normal.
“Now used by 20-million housewives. Hoagland’s Sanitary Furniture Preserver. A strictly sanitary polish for cleaning furniture, hardwood floors, pianos, organs, automobiles, buggies, and etc. Bringing back the original luster of the finish.” No odor, strictly free from sticky substance apply with cheesecloth. A trial will convince.”
“His life in the Twin Cities really speaks to the Black experience in the latter half of the 19th and to the 20th century,” said McLean County Museum of History Librarian Bill Kemp.
By the 1890 census, there were almost 300 African Americans living in Normal and Normal Township. It had become an attractive place for formerly enslaved people. Jesse Fell, one of the town founders, had an interest in establishing at least a modicum of an integrated community, said Kemp. It was a remarkable circumstance considering the prejudice of the era.
“We have a have a small but, relative to the size of Normal, sizable population of working class and middle class Black residents, some of them even homeowners. This was at a time when few white residents would sell to Blacks,” said Kemp.
Even so, employment for African Americans was limited for even somebody who Kemp said was as dynamic and entrepreneurial minded as George Hoagland. He was a janitor. He was a porter. He was a day laborer. He was a carpet laborer and during these jobs he experimented with cleaning solutions.
“In the proper cleaning of the buildings entrusted to his care, he felt keenly in need of an oil to preserve the texture of linoleum, an oil that would renew the original finish without leaving an oily film on the surface,” said advertisements of the day. “So, with an idea in mind of supplying this need, he began numerous experiments with all kinds of products. For 20, long years after this event, the Oil of Gladness lay in obscurity. These many years the inventor worked on it, changing it, making it better.”
“Oil of Gladness is a term you see in the Bible. It's generally a metaphor for spiritual contentment,” said Kemp.
Hoagland opened a factory in the 1000 block of West Washington Street (the building is still there.) where a dozen or more Black men and women manufactured and packaged cleaning supplies.
“Today 2,000 dealers and 1,500 agents supply an international demand in 20 million homes,” advertised Hoagland.
“This is the period of the early automobile, so they were even selling Oil of Gladness to clean automobiles like a polish, if you will,” said Kemp.
“It is the housewife’s chiefest aid, helping to lessen labor and lighten housework, showing how to enjoy cleaning instead of dreading it.”
Hoagland viewed his business success as an expression of Christian faith, said Kemp.
“He believed he was spreading the gospel. He helped organize the third Christian Church in Bloomington, a Black Disciples of Christ congregation in Bloomington. He became the regular pastor,” said Kemp.
In 1911-1912, the congregation erected a church on South Western Avenue in Bloomington.
“The fact that Reverend George Hoagland who at the age of 23, was illiterate, unable to say the alphabet or write his name is now a minister in the highest standing in every evangelistic or religious organization of which he is a member, proves that those who back there ‘I will,’ with earnest determination and persistent effort can succeed, even in the face of what appears to be very discouraging circumstances,” said stories of the era.
Hoagland retired to Detroit where some family members still live.
“The most significant thing about his success is that a humble beginning does not mean an inglorious ending,” according to a biographical statement.
“Oil of gladness, no sweeping floors, no washing with soap and water. Less work, less worry, less time by using Hoagland oil of gladness mop, for sale by prominent merchants in the city. George Hoagland 903 West Jefferson Street.” “A sanitary modern, scientific, dustless easy method.”
Bill Kemp and Terrence Mayfield from the McLean County Museum of History helped voice the episode of McHistory, a partnership between the museum and WGLT, bringing you the voices and words of people in central Illinois from long ago.