The Spice Boys
Schilling & Volkmann

By George Rathmell

The Nob Hill Gazette, September 2001

Although they haven’t been produced for many years, those distinctive dark red Schilling cans and boxes are familiar to anyone who was ever in a grocery store anywhere between San Francisco and the Mississippi River. Schilling spices and extracts were there in every pantry in the west, their old-fashioned gold lettering announcing their contents against a background so unique it’s known in the printing trade as "Schilling red."

The company was formed by two German immigrants in 1881, August Schilling and George F. Volkmann. Schilling had come to San Francisco in 1870 at the age of 16 and had gone to work for J.A Folger & Co., a producer of coffee, teas, and spices. His ambition and business acumen were such that, five years later he was made a partner in the company and the firm name was changed to Folger, Schilling & Co.

Four years after that, Volkman went to work as a shipping clerk for Folger Schilling and later discovered that he and Schilling were from the same town, Bremen—Ach, du bist auch von Bremen!? The two men became friends and in 1881, when both of them were just 27, they left Folger Schilling and formed a new firm, A. Schilling & Co., with August Schilling owning a two-thirds interest.

In a building at 122 Davis Street the two young men hired 50 employees and began processing coffee, tea, baking powder, extracts, and spices. It was common practice for food companies in those days to adulterate their products: coffee was mixed with chicory and rice, tea was dyed green, cinnamon was stretched with ground almond shells, and so on. Schilling’s baking powder, however, was pure bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar, and they were proud of its purity, advertising it as Pioneer Baking Powder using a logo of a ‘49er miner with a pickaxe on his shoulder.

The success of their baking powder led the partners to develop a line of products with no additives or dyes. These were labeled "Schilling’s Best." The items became so popular that the company dropped all other grades and sold only unadulterated ones. Schilling erected billboards all over the city advertising "Schilling’s Best" with the slogan, "Would you paint your potatoes green? Then why should your tea be painted green?"

All this took place well before the government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act requiring that the contents of all packaged foods be listed on the label. Quality paid off; the company prospered and moved to new rented quarters, a four-story building and basement at 108 Market. August Schilling, ever eager to attract attention to his company, had a 30-foot pole installed in front of his building and topped it with a gigantic copper teapot. Then he piped steam from the basement factory to the pole, creating a steaming teapot that became a Market Street landmark until city authorities declared its potential hazard to pedestrians and made him remove it.

Fair and honest treatment of employees helped to build worker morale and loyalty that paid off in the long run. Every workday at noon the factory and office were closed and a sign was placed on the door that read:
"A time to work,
A time to rest,
A time to eat your meal with zest.
This office is closed between 12 Noon and 1 PM"

When John Wanamaker, the New York and Philadelphia department store merchant inaugurated a "money-back guarantee" on his products, Schilling and Vollkmann decided that was a good way to convince the public of the quality of their goods. They began advertising, "Your money back if you don’t like Schilling’s Best. Just tell your grocer who will refund your money. You keep the goods." For many years slips were enclosed in all shipping containers for the convenience of grocers in obtaining money-back payments.

Also, the Schilling Company developed a prototype of trading stamps. In their products they placed coupons which customers could collect and redeem, for cards, booklets, and photo albums inscribed with sentimental verses. This practice made the company the recipient of the largest volume of mail in San Francisco at the time.

August Schilling was the innovator and "idea man" of the partnership, always looking for creative ways to accomplish goals. For example, when his doctor told him that he was gaining too much weight and needed exercise, the doctor recommended a daily ride on horseback to jiggle off some excess fat. Schilling decided that that would take him away from the office too long, so he invented and patented the familiar vibrating belt reducing machine to duplicate the effect of bouncing in the saddle.

New Quarters

In 1903 the company left its rented building and moved into office and factory quarters constructed for them on the corner of Second and Folsom Streets, considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. English ivy climbed its brick walls, and a miniature Japanese tea garden with an arched bridge and a goldfish pool was created by Schilling, a flower fancier, between the office building and the factory.

From the ceiling of the cobblestone courtyard hung four immense cages of canaries. Schilling ordered geraniums planted on a bare hill that rose behind the plant and had a conservatory built at the top of the hill. Over the factory doors two mottoes intended so inspire and motivate the workers were painted in traditional Schilling colors: "The world makes way for the man who knows where he is going," and, "Nothing great is achieved without enthusiasm." At this time a second generation, Rudolph Schilling and William and Daniel G. Volkman joined the firm.

The new headquarters was less than three years old when the earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed it. Schilling was in New York that April and remained there and rented a factory to keep the company going. Volkmann set up company offices in the basement of his Broadway Street home and immediately began to supervise the reconstruction of the Schilling Company building. As soon as the surviving walls had cooled and were cleaned, half the factory was covered with a temporary metal roof to provide an area where employees could go back to work while new buildings were erected on the rest of the site. Rebuilding took about a year after which all Schilling products were again processed in San Francisco.

In January, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution made the manufacturing, sale, and transportation of liquor illegal in the United States. Shortly after that, Schilling and Volkmann realized that the sales of their flavoring extracts had increased remarkably. The cause was obvious — flavoring extracts were as high as 84 percent alcohol. The company required each of its retailers to sign a pledge to sell extracts for culinary purposes exclusively. Nonetheless, extract sales were extraordinarily high for the next 13 years until Prohibition was repealed.

August Schilling died in 1934 at the age of 80, ending his remarkable 53-year partnership with George Vollkmann. The two men had lunched together daily, discussing their business and resolving problems with mutual respect and trust. To the end they addressed one another as "Mr. Schilling" and "Mr. Volkmann." Forty per cent of August Schilling’s stock was purchased by employees, and the rest by members of the Volkmann family.

World War II brought shortages that affected the company’s progress. Metal cans were replaced by glass jars. Many spices, especially black pepper, were difficult if not impossible to obtain, and the company, in an effort to ration them, sold them in
small, two-ounce packages only. Once the war was over, trade with India and Southeast Asia resumed, and the company went into full-production again. Records show that in 1946 Schilling sold 12,000,000 pounds of coffee, half a million pounds of tea, and two-and-a-half million pounds of spices.

At the end of that year the company was sold to McCormick & Co. of Baltimore, Maryland. McCormick, realizing the value of the public’s trust in the name Schilling, continued the brand name and still uses it today.

A New Season

August H. Schilling, grandson of the founder *, who lived in San Fran-cisco and Woodside, was not active in the business but served as president of the Schilling Estate Company. He was convinced that San Francisco would some day become a major international port that would rival New York. Its anticipation be bought up large tracts of bayshore land and held on to them, awaiting port development. To pay the taxes on this land, he had a series of earthen evaporation dikes constructed, and he formed the Leslie Salt Company.

When oil was discovered at Signal Hill in Los Angeles, the prospects of San Francisco Bay becoming the west coast’s principal port dissolved. The oil boom would make Long Beach the second largest U.S. port, leaving Schilling holding the bag. Fortunately, the bag was full of salt, and while salt is not exactly a spice, it is a valuable commodity. His grandfather would have been proud of him.

George F. Volkmann passed away in 1945. His son, Daniel G. Volkmann was chairman of the board of Schilling until it was sold to McCormick & Co. Later he became VP of Pacific Lighting Corporation.

"Dad was also a great golfer," says his son, retired architect Daniel G. Volkmann, Jr. Daniel Jr.’s sister, Virginia Bosché, lives in Piedmont and is active in volunteer work.

* This is not correct. Leslie Salt Co. was founded by the first August Schilling. August Schilling, the grandson, was President of Leslie Salt Co. and the Estate company at a later time.