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Home / Collections / Podcast & Blog » Swee-Tone perfume: what does a gallon of perfume have to do with bootlegging?

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February 4, 2014

Swee-Tone perfume: what does a gallon of perfume have to do with bootlegging?

Filed under: What's New — Lori Williamson @ 5:07 pm

In the early 1960s Ancker Hospital was located at Jefferson Avenue and Colborne Street in St. Paul. The hospital was preparing to move to a new location and by 1967 the old campus was completely demolished. A local “chunker” or “picker” (antiquer) had a friend working on a demolition crew at the old campus. Behind a false wall in a warehouse building the men discovered a cache of 70 gallon bottles of perfume made by the Nipola Company of St. Paul. This perfume was manufactured in the late 1920s, during the Prohibition Era.

Throughout Prohibition (1920-1933), the United States government distributed denatured grain alcohol for industrial use. Denatured alcohol contained additives making it poisonous, though still useful for commercial purposes. Thousands died as a result of drinking denatured alcohol stolen and resold by bootleggers. Soon, chemists employed by bootleggers began to “renature” the industrial alcohol, redistilling it into drinkable liquor. One product targeted by bootleggers was commercial perfume, which had high alcohol content that could be chemically extracted for use in bootlegged liquor.

Scan from film: Feb 11 1930 St. Paul Pioneer Press front page “Nipola Co. …"

In February, 1930, thirty-one corporations across the country were indicted for illegally diverting 1,000,000 gallons of government alcohol from legitimate commercial uses to bootleggers, in violation of national Prohibition laws. These companies were accused of taking part in a nation-wide syndicate headquartered in Chicago. Among the businesses named in the indictment was Nipola Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, a perfume manufacturer.

Nipola produced a number of scents beginning in 1927, including Swee-Tone, Ramona, and Lucky Lindy (after Charles Lindbergh). Of these perfumes, at least Swee-Tone was distributed nationally. The label on the gallon jug reads: “SWEE-TONE gives a delightful odor, refreshes the premises, and is a deodorizer as well. It is a “Many-Purpose” perfume–a standard, high-grade product.” Whether officers of the company were active in bootlegging or its products were merely being used by bootleggers is unclear. Luckily for Nipola and the other companies named in the indictment, Prohibition was repealed before the case could come to trial.


Be sure to stop by the current Library exhibit Dry Times: Temperance, Prohibition, and Gangsters in Minnesota 1900 – 1933.

Learn More:

Sondra Reierson, Associate 3D Curator

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