The Birth of Kitty Litter

1954: Tidy Cat, the first mass-produced brand of kitty litter, arrives in supermarkets.
Courtesy YouTube

1954 Tidy Cat, the first mass-produced brand of kitty litter, arrives in supermarkets.

Ed Lowe was working at his father’s delivery business in southern Michigan when he had a brilliant idea: take some fuller’s earth (a type of clay) and sell it to local farmers for chickens to nest. He called it Chicken Litter.

It was 1947. The farmers weren’t interested—which is why Lowe had a big pile of it when a local woman came by. She’d brought her cat in from the January cold and needed some sand for her cat box. On an impulse, Lowe offered her some fuller’s earth instead.

The stuff turned out to absorb the ammonia smell of cat pee. The woman soon came back for more. So did her friends. After enough requests, Lowe put some fuller’s earth in bags, wrote KITTY LITTER on them, and dropped them off at a hardware store. The product sold, and it sold in supermarkets and pet stores. The market grew ever outward, from southern Michigan to the world.

The introduction of Kitty Litter meant that after millennia of scratching at the door cats could come indoors and stay there. They had long been visitors in American homes; now they were residents. In some ways it has been a hostile takeover: There are millions more cats than dogs in the U.S. This also means that Lowe is the indirect father of countless Internet cat memes. Anyone who sells recreational laser pointers, fuzzy mice, scratching posts, cat furniture, or electric-fountain cat water dishes should thank him, too.

Competitors appeared—after all, it was dirt in a bag—but Lowe kept expanding the business, struggling at first to break out of his Michigan market, ultimately building a vertically integrated mining, distribution, and marketing concern. The 1954 launch of Tidy Cat, specifically for supermarkets, meant the cat waste category belonged to him. “We aim to stay No. 1,” he said, “in a No. 2 business.”

A research facility was built in Michigan. Dozens of cats were housed there. They scampered, played, and—given their ultimate responsibilities—probably ate rather well. Lab-coated materials scientists watched them. Absorbency and granularity had to be understood. Alternate materials such as paper were considered. A cadre of sniff-testers periodically came to the facility to test the product’s quality and report on its effectiveness. Probably not the greatest job.

The beating heart of it all was Lowe. He looked like Kenny Rogers (they were friends) and had a manic entrepreneurial energy. He remembered your name if you worked for him and walked the floors of his factories and mines. “He called me one time,” says Michael McCuistion, who worked with Lowe and now works at Lowe’s foundation. “It was in the middle of the night. He found a ranch in Florida that he wanted to buy.” Lowe sent a Learjet for McCuistion so he could look at the property and weigh in.

Real estate was a special interest, and Lowe amassed about 3,000 acres in Michigan. But he never really made it past the cat business. An old-timey town with amusements failed, as did a line of pet stores and an experiment selling packaged firewood. He knew his own tendencies toward short attention and incredible enthusiasm and told his employees to keep him in line. They did, striking a deal: He could plow a steady percentage of revenue into new business as long as the bulk went back into the litter box. He agreed.

He left behind 93 short stories and 10 times as many poems, along with a play. In 1990, after more than 40 years in litter, Lowe sold the company to a group of investors for $200 million plus stock. According to McCuistion, it was an anguished decision. Lowe had been estranged from his family, distanced from the product he invented and the company he created, now called Golden Cat. In his last years he put his energy into a foundation dedicated to supporting “second-stage” entrepreneurs—chief executive officers who have found initial success with a handful of employees but face the challenges of large-scale growth. He felt that his greatest struggle was taking Kitty Litter and Tidy Cat national.

Lowe died in 1995. His family put aside differences and gathered around him as he passed. Golden Cat was absorbed by Ralston Purina in 1995. Today the Edward Lowe Foundation sprawls across thousands of acres of southern Michigan. On the grounds are many endangered species of plants and animals: The cerulean warbler sings there, the eastern box turtle swims, and the cut-leaved water parsnip grows. But there are no cats.

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