Fresh ideas

Theresa Montgomery

Foam invented in Kent impacts floral design

Smithers-Oasis is a company whose North American operations is located in Kent and creates hundreds of floral foam products for florists worldwide. Prior to Smithers-Oasis invention, florists used chicken wire and newspaper, but since 1954 the water-absor

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Sprays of cut flowers, carefully arranged, shoot forth from a single container, seemingly defying gravity as they remain held at improbable angles.

Such intricate centerpieces are sustained by blocks of water-soaked foam in each base of a floral arrangement. The foam’s unique chemical structure ensures flowers will be able to absorb water evenly and stay where the florist places it.

This floral foam was invented in Kent.

A turning point in the history of centuries of flower arrangement, the foam is now used universally by florists. By allowing flowers to absorb water evenly, instead of the hit-or-miss methods used before its invention, floral foam radically impacted floral design.

At 919 Marvin St., Smithers-Oasis Company still runs its North American operations on the site where Vernon Smithers first invented what is now a staple in the floral industry.

Prior to 1954, the only way to make sure cut flowers stayed in place was to use chicken wire, newspaper, moss, clay or cedar greens.

This was a pretty expensive, laborious process, said Bob Williams, vice president of North American operations.

Florists working on arrangements could not be sure flowers would stay in place or that every flower was getting access to water to absorb into its stem.

That year Smithers, a researcher in the rubber industry, bought some foam technology from Union Carbide, his employer in Akron.

He had sunk part of their retirement savings into the purchase, but when his wife asked what he planned to do with it, Smithers didn’t really know, Williams said.

“So, to calm her down he bought her some flowers,” Williams said.

Looking at the floral arrangement he had given his wife, the idea occurred to Smithers there might be a way to use this foam technology to hold the flowers in place. He went downstairs into his lab and went to work.

“He could have grabbed any number of (chemicals), but he grabbed the right one, and it held water,” Williams said.

Smithers brought his new invention to Ahern’s Florists, in Akron, and learned it could be used in making floral arrangements that were not possible before.

“He revolutionized the industry,” Williams said.

Smithers changed the color of the pink foam, which he called Oasis, to light green, and cut it into rectangles.

“The reason it’s this size is because Vernon Smithers measured how large a brick could be and still have one stamp to fit in parcel post, 52 years ago,” he said.

The company Smithers launched became and has remained the world’s leading manufacturer of products used in floral arrangements.

Headquartered in Cuyahoga Falls, with locations in 17 countries, Smithers-Oasis still resides on the site owned by its original inventor.

The yellow buildings dotting the Marvin Street property quietly carry on the foam’s production, from its beginnings as a river of green liquid to its storage in ceiling-high boxes in the warehouse, awaiting shipment throughout the continent.

“We’re pretty persnickety,” Williams said. “If there’s a dry spot (in the foam) and you put a flower in it, that flower will die faster than the others.”

In a sunlit room in one of the yellow buildings, dozens of flowers appear identical as they fill parallel tabletops. But each stands in a block of green foam with different chemical properties.

Grown and maintained under the same conditions, a browning leaf on one flower and a healthy leaf on another flower lets researchers know what works and what doesn’t, as they continually develop new variations of floral foam.

Through its research, Smithers-Oasis has come up with more than 200 different forms of the foam first invented by Smithers, Williams said.

Variations of the foam also are used by medical professionals. Impressions taken in the foam from their patients are then made into molds for individualized prosthetic devices, Williams said.

Contact features correspondent Theresa Montgomery at [email protected].