M. J. Breitenbach Co. + Martin H. Smith Co.






BreitenbachMJ-2-RB28-1899-1     BreitenbachMJ-2-RB28-1900-3


BreitenbachMJ-2-RB28-1900-5     BreitenbachMJ-2-RB28-1901-1


In virtually every grouping of proprietary battleship cancels, one finds a red two-and-one-half cent (RB28) cancelled with the initials “M J B Co.” None of the cancels are printed; all are hand stamped. While Mustacich and Giacomelli accord the company that produced it three separate listings and indicate that the cancel may appear on as many as three other values, the great variety of those cancels observed are RB28s with purple, sans-serif initials arranged in one line plus a year date line. Because all varieties feature the date expressed in year form only, it is interesting to note that these cancels do not even appear to have conformed to the very Treasury regulations that required their use, for as of January 1, 1899, the regulations pertaining to cancellation were broadened to require the month and day of use as well as the year. However, there is no indication that the Treasury Department ever took action against Breitenbach for its omission. Because of the neglect of both the government and collectors (since it lacks printed cancels), the lowly one line “M J B Co/yr date” cancel is the Rodney Dangerfield of battleship proprietaries: it gets no respect. Yet, its very survival in such great quantities indicates that the company behind the cancel, M J Breitenbach Company, had marketed an extremely successful product. Herein lies that tale, and within that story a much lesser known company’s cancel is also revealed.



Bearing in mind the generally low-level of nutrition in the late 19th Century for the great mass of people (think of Tevyah of Fiddler on the Roof dreaming of his wife Goldie’s having a “proper double chin” were he a wealthy man), and, at the other extreme, the imposing girth of the rich – now considered extremely unhealthy – and thought to have been brought about by the gluttony promoted by the sumptuous over-extravagance displayed at their banquets, it is no wonder that dietary supplements were an important medical consideration even in the Gilded Age. By 1850, the element iron had been identified as a significant factor in the maintenance of proper blood function. However, iron, particularly in an inorganic state, is extremely hard to digest and its ingestion has unpleasant side effects such as erosion of tooth enamel and constipation. The earliest attempt at a more palatable iron therapy focused on making iron available in organic form, from albuminates derived from the hemoglobin in beef blood. These organic compounds, however, tended to be defective in terms of form, taste and stability. Later sterile, stable forms of organic iron still tended to decompose improperly in the digestive process. In Leipzig, Germany around 1890, Dr. August Gude, managed to create a compound of iron; another metal, manganese; and peptones, a class of water soluable, partially hydrated proteins; that finally met the criteria of acceptable taste, stability and digestibility of the iron content to warrant production as a commercially viable blood supplement. Dr Gude chose to market his new blood invigorating wonder tonic under the name Pepto-Mangan. M J Breitenbach made his fortune importing Gude’s Pepto-Mangan, from Germany.



Max J Breitenbach (virtually universally referred to as M J Breitenbach) was born in Albany, GA in 1856, but received his schooling in Newark, NJ. He attended, and graduated, from the New York College of Pharmacy in 1877 and went to work for the drugstore partnership of Taheppe & Schur in New York City. In 1878, he shifted to a clerk’s position at the downtown New York City drugstore of Albert Dung. He became manager in 1881 and bought the store from the founder’s son, Albert C Dung, in 1883, when the older man died and the younger decided to move back to Germany. Entrusted by the younger Dung with his business affairs in the United States, Breitenbach prospered and opened a second store on the extremely fashionable Madison Avenue as well, bringing him a degree of prominence in the industry.



Emboldened by his success, Breitenbach decided to expand into the proprietary business, and in 1892, he formed the M J Breitenbach Company (“Company”) to sell Pepto-Mangan in the United States. The particulars of exactly how Gude and Breitenbach found each other and arranged a commercial alliance seem lost to posterity, since Breitenbach’s branching into the importing business seems both precocious and fortuitous. The entire licensing arrangement and corporate structure, at first, involved another specialty New York City drug firm, Eisner & Mendelson (soon to appear as the next “E” company in this study), along with Edward G Wells, from the C N Crittenton Co. The Crittenton Co (RS62-64, plus its own bevy of battleship handstamped cancels, which will be the next “C” company in this study, was among the wholesale drug trade industry heavyweights in New York City and across the nation. Because Breitenbach was going to require a distribution network for Pepto-Mangan, he needed to work out arrangements with a wholesaler so that Pepto-Mangan would be on store shelves as soon as he began importing it from Germany. In his discussions with the Crittenton Co, he became acquainted with its corporate vice-president and member of its Board of Directors, Edward G Wells.


1894 AD

Wells and Breitenbach made such a good team that Wells bought into Breitenbach’s deal, acted as one of the incorporators of the Company and soon after was serving as its secretary and treasurer, in addition to holding a special place at Crittenton Co, the first desk inside its door from which he greeted everyone entering the Crittenton Co and directed them to the right department. Wells and Breitenbach bought out Eisner & Mendelson’s share at the beginning of 1896, as the business was skyrocketing. The growth of the Company was so sudden and unexpected for Breitenbach, that in 1897, with his own health temporarily imperiled from the strain, he persuaded Wells to resign from Crittenton after seventeen years of service with that company to devote his entire energy to assisting Breitenbach to sell Pepto-Mangan. As a contemporary trade journal reported: “Mr. Breitenbach is to devote himself more particularly to the pharmaceutical aspects of the business, and Mr. Wells will manage the commercial side.”



Wells, born in New York City in 1846, brought his own extensive experience to Breitenbach’s operation. His father, F C Wells, had emigrated to the United States from England and operated a drug store in New York City. F C also brought with him the method for mass producing plasters (wound dressings that were the forerunners of bandages) by machine. Up until that point, plasters had to be individually prepared by pharmacists. He opened his own firm, F C Wells & Co, to exploit his process and his son began working with him at age 14. To gain wider knowledge of the trade, E G Wells became a drummer, or traveling salesman for a drug wholesaler at age 19. In 1872, he formed his own wholesale drug jobbing partnership, called Wells & Elliott. In 1880, Charles N Crittenton recognized Wells’ talent, bought him out, and brought him into his own operation. By 1897, as well as his positions with the Breitenbach and Crittenton companies, E G Wells also was president and general manager of the M A Wells Co, presumably the successor to his father’s firm, and was also a director of the Moses Dame Co, which marketed a product called Wine in the Woods. Even after Wells formally resigned from the Crittenton Co, he retained a monetary interest in the firm for the rest of his life. The New York Times, profiling the rich, glamorous and outsized personalities gathered in New York City for the 1894 meeting of the Proprietary Association of America, described Wells as “one of the most popular men in the trade, on account of his social qualities. He knows everybody, and is one of the brightest advertisers in the world.”

BreitenbachMJ-3-1aRV(GudePM)     BreitenbachMJ-3-1bRV(GudePM)


Under the joint leadership of Breitenbach and Wells, the Breitenbach Company continued to soar from triumph to triumph. In the period between 1898 and 1900, a cornucopia of medical journals published reports by doctors of favorable results in treating anemia obtained by using Pepto-Mangan. As will be discussed later, it is entirely possible that the Company underwrote the endeavors of these doctors by providing them with a monetary incentive. Late in 1900, Breitenbach and Wells also acted together with a pharmacist originally from Maryland, one Martin H Smith, to incorporate in New York State the Martin H Smith Co, capitalized at $10,000, with the declared purpose of manufacturing pharmaceutical products. That company’s history also will be discussed below. Even a disastrous fire on October 30, 1900, which completely destroyed the building occupied by Tarrant & Co (RS 241 and cancels on first issue revenues, plus first and second proprietary issues as well as the battleship revenues), where the Breitenbach Company had its offices and stock as well, did nothing to dampen its success. The Company immediately set up new headquarters and Wells boasted that another shipment of Pepto-Mangan was already waiting in New York City’s Customs House, so deliveries would continue without interruption. The Company’s rebound was so successful that in 1902 Breitenbach himself purchased the assets of the devastated Tarrant & Co for $51,150 after spirited bidding, which had begun at $4500. He immediately announced that the assets would be transferred to a new company that would be headed by E G Wells.

m737t 343573  07009   0000012301580158005403450000     BreitenbachMJ-10-1aRV(GudePM)     BreitenbachMJ-10-1bRV(GudePM)


From its very introduction of Pepto-Mangan into the American market, the Breitenbach Company strove to put its product on a higher level than the ordinary proprietary medicine. It issued a bulletin to the trade in 1897 pointing out that paragraph 9 of its agency agreement with Gude, provided that it would advertise only to the trade and never to the general public. This announcement drew high praise in the trade journals for setting forth this elevated approach to advertising, and it meant that Pepto-Mangan was considered to be an “ethical” drug, rather than merely a patent medicine.  Presently, an “ethical” drug is defined as a synonym of prescription drug, that is, one issued only upon presentation of a doctor’s written instruction.  In the Gilded Age, advertising only to the trade did not mean that a patient could only procure it by prescription.   Medicine was displayed at retail outlets and the patient needed only to request it.

BreitenbachMJ-5-1a(PeptoMangan)     BreitenbachMJ-5-1b(PeptoMangan)


The following year, IN 1898, when accused of pandering to the public, it issued a circular to the trade again stressing paragraph 9 and denouncing what it termed “malicious accusations” that it had paid sign painters to smother its name on every available surface, such as barns, trees and rocks, as other patent medicine companies did, claiming that the sign painting company itself was named Gude, and was just putting its own name about. The circular was duly reported in the trade journals thus again calling attention to (advertising) the company’s refusal to advertise in that low, common manner.Curiously, this “ethical” approach to advertising drew the Company into perhaps the earliest reported controversy over mis-reported research results, a controversy that sounds extremely modern even more than one hundred years later.  This dispute between a patent medicine manufacturer and the editorial board of a profession journal also marks one of the earliest occasions on which such a professional journal differentiated itself from the industry trade journals and the company catalogues, in advocating for proper medical treatment rather than indiscriminately pushing product. The controversy developed after the Company voluntarily supplied its Pepto-Mangan to an official US government “Commission for the Study and Treatment of Anemia in Porto Rico (“Commission”).” The patent medicine was employed, among other treatments, to combat the symptom of anemia which had recently been linked with the disease uncinariasis, commonly known in English as hookworm, which results from infection with one or more members of the genus of microscopic nematodes (worms) called uncinaria. In 1904, the Commission issued a report showing that the disease diminished significantly through the Commission’s efforts (“Report”). The Journal of the American Medical Association (“AMA Journal”) printed a favorable commentary on the report concluding that the disease, which had recently been thought untreatable, was largely preventable. The AMA Journal highlighted a number of useful anti-parasitic treatments, and mentioned, in passing, that old fashioned remedies, like blindly administering iron to correct the symptom of anemia – a result of the infection, not the cause of the disease – were now outmoded. A few weeks later, the Company circulated throughout the medical industry its own abstract, or summary of the report, stating that the report conclusively demonstrated that Pepto-Mangan was the “foremost hematinic,” or agent for increasing iron in the blood. The Company also addressed a pointed letter to the AMA Journal stating, in substance, that it ought to have known better than to bite the hand that fed it, since the Company was a sponsoring advertiser and the manufacturer found offensive the AMA Journal’s off-handed dismissal of iron supplements as an outmoded treatment, chiding that the` “editorial department … is at variance with the advertising pages,” and that the editors were making a “direct slap” at the company. However, the Company’s circular also prompted the Commission itself to write to the AMA Journal decrying the use that the Company was making of its Report, claiming the Company’s circular put the Commission “in a very unenviable and erroneous light before the medical profession generally,” and denouncing the Company’s implication that the Commission was endorsing Pepto-Mangan as treatment for the anemia that resulted from uncinariasis.

BreitenbachMJ-10-3aRV(GudePM)     BreitenbachMJ-10-3bRV(GudePM)     BreitenbachMJ-10-3cRV(GudePM)


With the Commission’s original Report and second letter in hand, together with the Company’s denunciation of it, the AMA Journal then printed a lengthy riposte, denouncing the Company’s tactic under the heading “Gude’s Pepto-Mangan: Scientific Work Misrepresented and Commercialized,” beginning with the following statement:

In pursuance of the deliberately assumed purpose to enlighten the physicians of the United States on all features of the traffic in proprietary remedies, there will be offered to our readers not only information regarding the composition of such remedies, but also facts concerning the methods of their advertising and sale, which come to light in such shape as to be of service to the profession. No firm or product will be subjected to attack, but publicity will be given to all facts obtainable. Having in mind this purpose the following recital of facts is offered to the profession as illustration of methods employed in the proprietary trade, and as a step in the era of pharmaceutical publicity.

Noting the number of favorable reports that appeared in various medical journals, the AMA Journal emphasized that the Company subsidized the “medical press … to an extent equaled by no other,” and, perhaps because of this enormous financial support, its circulars were generally reported as news items rather than treated as advertising. It began its serious analysis of the Report by pointing out once again that the Report’s real significance was demonstrating that removal of the parasite from the body was the appropriate treatment for the disease, not boosting iron in the system. Then it analyzed in detail the cases in the Report that were actually treated with iron supplements and showed that, after the removal of the parasite from the body, a common version of iron supplement, marketed under the generic name Blaud’s pill was just as effective, if not slightly more so than Pepto-Mangan, in bringing about restoration of the body’s proper iron level, hardly distinguishing Pepto-Mangan as the “foremost hematinic.” The California State Journal of Medicine, as well as reprinting the AMA Journal’s denunciation of the Company’s use of the Report bluntly editorialized: “The dirty money of the unscrupulous manufacturer will do almost anything: it will buy any amount of space in so-called medical journals, and it will enable the spender to present any-old-lies as plausible truth, to the medical profession.”

The AMA Journal itself proceeded with more discretion. A mere six months after it denounced the Company’s distortion of the Report, it investigated another company pamphlet bearing the name of a doctor at the Infant’s Hospital located on Randall’s Island in New York City, purporting to show Pepto-Mangan’s curative powers. The AMA Journal’s investigator quickly found that the doctor who had lent his name to the study had been associated with the hospital about five-year earlier, but had been located in South American since. Moreover, when the investigator reviewed the actual patient records at the Hospital, in a significant number of cases, he found no treatment files to correspond to the results recounted in the Company’s pamphlet, and, where the records could be compared, he noted significant discrepancies between the cases as reported in the pamphlet and the hospital records themselves. The article drew two morals from its investigation. First, it concluded that the integrity of a pamphlet purporting to be a “scientific report” was only as sound as the truthfulness of the study’s writer, and if the writer was tempted by the fees the proprietary houses offered for such favorable commentaries, then such reports would be tainted. Second, still treading slightly more gently than AMA Journal’s California counterpart, it deplored the ethics of the otherwise “personally honorable men” who would try to benefit from such “unjustifiable methods.” While the AMA Journal allowed that Breitenbach himself may not have checked the veracity of the pamphlet, it still held his firm responsible for issuing the misleading pamphlet.


1922 AD

Apparently the Company maintained its faith that its formulation should be considered a legitimate medical treatment, and continued to advertise Pepto-Mangan only in trade and medical journals. In 1914, the AMA’s Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry itself made another review of Pepto-Mangan, and published one further condemnation of the product. While the Council noted that the Company no longer circulated the pamphlets to which the AMA had earlier objected, it also was equally clear that the Company had never withdrawn them entirely, and that the Company’s latest pamphlet still made special claims for the easy absorption and special restorative powers of Pepto-Mangan that, in light of the present understanding of the biology of anemia, were simply false. On this occasion, the AMA Journal openly accused the Company of deliberately attempting to mislead doctors about the efficacy of Pepto-Mangan, and advised physicians that the Council would no longer include Pepto-Mangan on the “New and Unofficial Remedies List” (List) that the AMA maintained, thus implying that physicians should no longer even informally suggest its use.

It would be tempting to say that Pepto-Mangan stopped being sold shortly after the AMA’s condemnation in 1914, but such a statement is unsupportable.  The Company continued to prosper even after its founders passed from the scene.


1937 COVER




Wells retired in February, 1904, sold his interest in the Company back to Breitenbach, and announced he was going to “take life easy.” He and his wife first traveled to the South and then headed for Europe. When he died in 1911, he was remembered as a man who “traveled extensively,” as well as one “addicted to collecting postage stamps of which he had an unusually large and expensive assortment.” He was celebrated as a “well known club man, and held the championship in pool and billiards of the Harlem district of New York.” Breitenbach, a decade younger, died in 1920. According to one of the principal trade journals, “[h]e was greatly respected in business circles as a man whose word was his bond.” He and his wife were benefactors of the New York Times Neediest Fund, and Mrs. Breitenbach is still listed as a contributor of funds in 1938 toward the purchase of a French silk shawl for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Despite the personal respect accorded the individuals, the Companys trade practices continued to be questionable at best. Well into the 1920s, various journals, bearing such names as the Journal of the National Medical Association, continued to print helpful little paragraphs, often under the rubric of “Notes of Interest,” praising the virtues of Pepto-Mangan and directing further inquires to the Company. In 1944, the Company formally registered the Gude’s Pepto-Mangan trademark, albeit it claimed its first use dated all the way back to 1890. Eventually, the Pepto-Mangan brand passed into the hands of Natcon Chemical Co., but public interest in the product waned. While it is not clear when Natcon Chemical Co. stopped production of Pepto-Mangan, the trademark expired in 1986 without renewal. Even after the concoction disappeared from most druggists’ shelves, it lived on in memory. As recently as 1980, a letter in the magazine Canadian Farm Physician from a 74-year-old man living in Alberta recommended his physician fathers treatment regimen of milk, an iron supplement like the old Pepto-Mangan, (along with x-rays), as a remedy for Hodgkins Disease. Natcon Chemical Co., itself, was acquired by Luitpold Pharmaceuticals, a German company, in 1978. Luitpold Pharmaceuticals continues to do business in the United States, and claims on its website to be expanding its production facilities now located in Columbus, OH and Shirley, NY in Suffolk County.

BreitenbachMJ-10a-1b(laterNatconChemCo)     BreitenbachMJ-10a-1a(laterNatconChemCo)


© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2014


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