Switzerland and Midwest Connections: Ovomaltine: Switzerland’s Iconic Malt Beverage
Welcome to the newly created History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.
In an episode of his TV Show, Jerry Seinfeld jokes «Why do they call it Ovaltine? The Mug is round… the jar is round…they should call it ‘Roundtine’.” Well, the original name is “Ovomaltine” and it was invented 1865 in a lab in Bern, Switzerland, by chemist Georg Wander. He was looking for a remedy to counteract the widespread phenomenon of malnutrition, especially among children, and the product was originally sold in pharmacies.
Nomen est Omen
Georg Wander died in 1897, and his son Albert — also a chemist and pharmacist — further refined its taste and enriched it with egg, milk and cocoa. The name “Ovomaltine” comes from combining the latin name for egg (ovum) and ‘malt’. Ovomaltine was launched in Switzerland in 1904 and two years later was launched in Italy and in England. Due to a spelling error on the British trademark registration, it was called “Ovaltine”. The name stuck and remains in use today in the UK, the United States and in Australia. Interestingly, in England the product was promoted as the World’s best nightcap, whereas in Switzerland Ovomaltine was promoted as an energy booster.
The company continued to create innovative products and in 1937 Switzerland’s Military asked the Wander Company to develop a nutritious snack for the troops. The snack had to be suitable for storage in the field and used as an emergency food supply. The result was ‘Militär-Ovomaltine’, which was later marketed as Ovo Sport. Ovomaltine has been a partner at sports events since the 1930’s including at Summer and Winter Olympics.
Ovaltine in America
Global expansion began in 1919 with the opening of the first overseas factory in Villa Park, outside of Chicago. The Wander Company sent Gottlieb Steiner to set up an American factory and he chose the site in Illinois because of the good water, the availability of farm products used in the manufacturing process, and the excellent transportation system. Steiner’s temporary assignment turned into a thirty-seven year stay. He is remembered for his many civic interests, including as one of the founders of the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital and he was a leader in establishing the Villa Park Trust and Savings Bank.
Villa Park had incorporated only a year earlier, and the addition of such a major industry was a blessing for the community, providing work for many local residents. Ovaltine grew to be Villa Park’s largest industry and its greatest benefactor, especially during the Depression. During both World Wars its product was used in Allied hospitals to aid in the recuperation of soldiers suffering from combat fatigue. In the 1930s the company sponsored Little Orphan Annie programs on the radio. It sponsored Captain Midnight on the radio in the 1940s, and in the 1950s on TV. The company was also responsible for the construction of a first-class post office in 1935, a result of an over-saturation of mail from the company’s sponsorship of Little Orphan Annie and Captain Midnight promotions.
Villa Park was home to the Ovaltine factory until the company’s sale and withdrawal in 1988. The old factory was converted to loft apartments keeping the original floors and wall exposed, and is known today as Ovaltine Court. In 1992, the Himmel Group obtained the right to make and sell Ovaltine in the United States from Sandoz Nutrition Corporation. In 2002, Himmel sold their rights to Novartis. Since 2007 Nestlé has the rights to Ovaltine. Today, Ovaltine ranks among the top 20 non-alcoholic drink brands in the world,
For more on Ovomaltine, its products and recipes, visit www.ovomaltine.com. The Villa Park Historical Society maintains a permanent exhibit of Ovaltine advertising and memorabilia. It is located at 220 S Villa Ave, in Villa Park, Illinois. You can visit their website at www.vphistoricalsociety.com.