When Myth Becomes Reality

My father, Morris Rouff, was the original inventor of Formula 409. He and his brothers owned a chemical plant in Detroit in the 1950s and serviced a number of accounts (mainly mortuaries and Chinese restaurants) that couldn’t cut through the grease and glop with any commercial product then on the market. (A nice visual, don’t you think?)

409 was formulated for that purpose; available exclusively as a heavy-duty industrial solvent and delivered to customers in 40-gallon drums. If you accidentally spilled some on your hand, a trip to the ER was not out of the question.

The reason I’m not rich is that my dad sold the company in 1960 to a company called Chemsol, which in turn sold it to Wilson Harrell, who sold it to Clorox in the mid-60s. While my dad walked away with a decent chunk of change (allowing us to move to California), it was by no means life-changing money. When I asked him about it in later years, he told me that it looked like a big score at the time and he was getting too old for the Michigan winters.

I mention all this because of the way the Clorox website tells the 409 story:

“Formula 409 didn’t get its name from the area code where it was developed. And it’s not the birth date of the creator’s daughter. Formula 409 got its name from perseverance. From the desire of two young scientists in Detroit to create the ultimate cleaner. A cleaner powerful enough to dissolve through grease and dirt on contact.

“A cleaner like that doesn’t get created on the first try. And in the eyes of these two persistent scientists, it doesn’t get created on the 101st, 201st, 301st or 401st try either. Only when they had created their 409th formula were these two young men satisfied they had created the ultimate cleaner.”

A nice yarn. Except it’s pure marketing bullshit. The only part they got right is the Detroit reference. Formula 409 got its name  because my mother Ruth was born on April 9. As in 4/09. That’s the truth, as Lily Tomlin used to say. The Clorox folks weren’t there. I was.

Yet, when I try to fix the entry on Wikipedia, someone keeps changing it back. And they use the Clorox website as proof.

I give up. The myth has officially become reality. History is written by the winners; in this case, a multinational corporation gets the final word. Let that be an object lesson for all of us. I’m pretty sure that everything we see, hear and read is wrong.

It’s going to take more than a cleaning product to set the record straight.