Charles N. Crittenton Co.

Charles N. Crittenton Co.

Wholesaler, Manufacturer

From the tale of M J Breitenbach Co. – which recounted some facets of the life of Edward G. Wells, the outgoing and colorful Vice-President of Charles N. Crittenton Co., who ultimately brought his expertise to the Breitenbach Company’s adroit, if slightly unscrupulous, management – it is natural to progress to an examination of the Crittenton Co. itself, and to its founder, Charles N. Crittenton (1833-1909).



The Crittenton Co.’s “C. N. C. & Co.” handstamp is reasonably frequently found in two different type configurations on almost all of the values of the battleship proprietary issue.

CrittentonCN-2-RB20-1-1898-1RV     CrittentonCN-2-RB21-1-1898-2

CrittentonCN-2-RB22     CrittentonCN-2-RB23-1-1898-2RV

CrittentonCN-2-RB24-1-1u     CrittentonCN-2-RB27-1-1898-1

CrittentonCN-2-RB28-1-1898-1     CrittentonCN-2-RB31-1-1898-1




CrittentonCN-2-RB28-2-1899-1     CrittentonCN-2-RB28-1901RV


With this column, this series engages fully (perhaps for the first time) its central mission to clothe one of Henry Holcombe’s original bare bones, but ever fascinating, accounts of the locations and products of the proprietary medicine company (always combined with a meticulous recounting of the colors, paper variations, and printing runs of their 1863-1883 issue proprietary stamps) with the accoutrements of circumstance and anecdote that make the Patent Medicine Era milieu, its proprietors and their products real.  It also attempts to add information to the spectacular full color pictures of the original RS issues and thumbnail sketches of the sponsoring companies posted on line by Robert Hohertz (rhinstal.com), who has also contributed to the 1898battleshiprevenue.com website. Crittenton’s life happily lends itself to this kind of elucidation, for he was yet another 19th Century captain of industry who ultimately found a passion beyond patent medicines and devoted his fortune to pursuing that goal.

CrittentonRS62     CrittentonRS63

Scott RS 62a     Scott RS 63d

CrittentonCN-1-RS64c     CrittentonRS64

Scott RS 64c     Scott RS 64d


(Capital Letters and Numbers are Scott Catalogue Listing; Small Letters denote paper sub-varieties)

Crittenton was born in the remote village of Henderson in Jefferson County, New York on February 20, 1833. At age 18, like many young men of his time, he journeyed to New York City to find his fortune.  He began as an office assistant in a funeral parlor, and trained to become an accountant. By 1860, according to Holcombe, he was working with his brother William M. Crittenton, as a wholesaler and agent for several different proprietary medicines. He himself later said that when he had saved sixty dollars, he struck out on his own as a wholesaler of druggists’ supplies, an event which occurred approximately in 1862. After five years in business, he reckoned his accumulated wealth at $25,000. According to Holcombe, in or around 1876, Crittenton entered into an agreement with John F. Henry, a prominent and already established patent medicine producer (RS 112-116), to manufacture certain patent medicines which prompted him to order his own RS issues, RS 62-64. Among the colorfully named products of which Crittenton was the proprietor were Glenn’s Sulphur Soap, Hale’s Honey of Horehound and Tar, Japanese Corn File, Hill’s Hair Dye and Revivum, and Pike’s Toothache Drops.


CrittentonCN-5-1aRV(GlennsSulpherSoap)     CrittentonCN-5-5aRV

CrittentonCN-5-7aRV     CrittentonCN-5-3aRV



Crittenton was also agent for a variety of other preparations such as Dr. Decker’s Shake No More, manufactured by Dr. W. F. Decker of Paterson, N.J.; the remedies of Dr. Josiah Briggs of Newark, N.J.; the malaria cure of Dr. James of New York City; Ficus Carica, a laxative manufactured by Brighton Pharmaceutical Co of New York City; Eradico manufactured by Eradico Mfg. Co. of New York City; and Vinolia manufactured by Vinolia Co. Ltd. of London. By 1880, Crittenton had located his business in an enormous warehouse building at 115-117 Fulton Street which was the largest depot for proprietary medicines and druggist supplies in New York City and possibly in the entire world.

CrittentonCN-5a-2aRV(DrDecker)     CrittentonCN-5a-2cRV(DrDecker)


CrittentonCN-5a-1bRV(DrBriggs)     CrittentonCN-5a-3RV(DrJames)

CrittentonCN-5a-4aRV(FicusCarica)     CrittentonCN-5a-4bRV(FicusCarica)

    His own trademarked symbol was the beehive and his motto was “Nothing Without Labor.” These devices appear prominently on the Crittenton Company’s mailing envelopes.

CrittentonCN-3-1889b     CrittentonCN-3-1889a

CrittentonCN-3-1893RV     CrittentonCN-3-1898a


Always a staunch prohibitionist, Crittenton was the one of the earliest supporters and distributors of Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, which was advertised as a non-alcoholic medicinal remedy particularly suited for women. Pinkham’s Compound was a great financial success for both Pinkham and Crittenton, and the battleship cancels associated with it, mostly printed, are commonly and most frequently seen on RB28. The complete story of its founder, her company and its history, already the subject of numerous discrete books, looms like Mt. Everest over that of the other companies to be chronicled in this series, and will be taken up at another time. However, Crittenton’s support of Pinkham can be used as a sound measure both of his business acumen and his teetotaling convictions.


CrittentonCN-20-1879-1aRV     CrittentonCN-20-1879-1dRV


In 1892, the business was incorporated as a privately held corporation with capital of $800,000, an extremely large number for that time. The New York Times columnist who reported the event harrumphed that if Crittenton had intended it to be a publically held corporation, it would have been capitalized at a much larger sum, for its accounts were ample enough to warrant a much larger capitalization. However, by then Crittenton had removed himself entirely from the day-to-day operations of the company to follow a more compelling calling. In 1882, his four year old daughter Florence died of scarlet fever. Shaken by this tragedy, Crittenton embarked on a completely different path with the same vigor that he had pursued his patent medicine business. An Evangelical Christian, he plunged into missionary work, and began to concern himself with the plight of prostitutes, apparently taking to the streets of New York at night to try to persuade them to give up their trade. While this kind of behavior in our time of politically correct sensitivities seems almost pathological, the Victorian world seemed to take this kind of behavior in stride. At almost the same time in England, Prime Minister William Gladstone of England indulged the same passion and no one seems to have thought it more than a mildly strange eccentricity. Certainly it never interfered with Gladstone’s political career, and, likewise, no one at the time seems to have considered Crittenton’s motivation as anything other than heaven directed.

 CrittentonCN-6-1RVA(HalesHoneyofHorehound)(1887)      CrittentonCN-6-3a(Svapnia)(1914)

1887 AD     1914 AD

The first solid achievement of Crittenton’s new pursuit was his establishment of the Florence Crittenton Mission on Bleeker Street in New York City in 1883. Its charter was to provide a home for “lost and fallen women,” meaning prostitutes and unmarried, pregnant women. By 1886, it became clear that Crittenton could not sustain this crusade and keep track of his business, so he turned the business decisions over to his highly devoted and trusted staff, among them Edward G. Wells. Crittenton, meanwhile, had overworked himself to such a degree that his physicians ordered him to go abroad to regain his strength. He heeded their advice, but gave the trip his own orientation, using it as a reason to visit the Holy Lands, and then to continue all the way around the world to China, at each place documenting the conditions of the woman he observed. After two years, he landed back in the United States at San Francisco and promptly endowed a mission in that city as well as in Los Angeles, San Jose and Sacramento. He gradually molded his work into the National Florence Crittenton Mission and centered his philanthropic operations on the West Coast for three years to oversee these endeavors.



In 1892, Kate Waller Barrett, a thirty-five year old minister’s wife, who had recently received her M.D. from the Woman’s Medical College of Georgia, in between raising the six surviving of her seven children, contacted Crittenton for a donation to support her project to build a home for unwed mothers in Atlanta, GA. Crittenton immediately dedicated $5000 to the project, and it soon opened its doors as the latest Florence Crittenton Mission. After her husband’s death soon after the family relocated to Alexandria, VA, where Barrett became Vice-President and General Superintendent of Crittenton’s rapidly expanding Mission. By 1898, Crittenton had obtained a charter from Congress to build these homes where ever he sought fit. A biographical sketch of Barrett explains that while Crittenton was the President and source of the funds for the Mission, “he was [so] completely committed to evangelism, that it fell to Mrs. Barrett … to supervise and guide the movement, now numbering some fifty homes across the country.”


“Though these institutions were largely autonomous, Mrs. Barrett’s national office was the heart of the undertaking, offering the homes, not only financial aid, but moral support, advice and a sense of continuity in times of difficulty.” She also began to publish a national Crittenton magazine, held an annual conference, set up training sessions for workers in Washington, and in 1903 published a book on how to manage a rescue home. Her biographical sketch credits her with gradually softening the focus of the organization from saving prostitutes to offering care, guidance and vocational training for young, unwed mothers. Crittenton kept plunging ahead with his efforts to create new missions, and eventually set up his own train to travel across the country at will no less than twice a year, visiting and prodding his homes to do more and better work. At the time of his death in 1909, he had “established seventy-four rescue homes for girls in the United States” and several in “France, Japan and the City of Mexico, all of which are named in memory of his daughter Florence.”   Crittenton’s autobiography titled “The Brother of Girls” was published posthumously in 1910 and can still be purchased on the internet. The formidable Mrs. Barrett succeeded Crittenton as President of the Mission and served until her own death in 1925. She became a social and political power in her own right, becoming President of the National Council of Women in 1911, acting as a Virginia regent for the Daughters of the American Revolution, a vice-president of the Virginia League for Equal Suffrage, President of the National Woman’s Auxiliary to the American Legion, a delegate to the 1924 Democratic Party convention, and a member of the board of visitors at William and Mary College, where a women’s dormitory was named in her memory in 1927. Her son, Robert South Barrett, succeeded her as President of the Crittenton Mission and served in that capacity until his own death in 1959.


At his death, Crittenton left an estate estimated at between $3 and $5 million dollars. Half went directly to the Crittenton Mission. The remainder of his estate was divided among his family, with the holdings ultimately rapidly devolving upon his five grandchildren, although a pool of his most loyal executives and workers were also rewarded with some small interest in the company to incentivize their continued imaginative interest in the company. The grandchildren and the Mission, through their control of the majority of the corporation’s stock, ultimately forced Crittenton’s drug business itself to close in 1916, apparently over the objection of the management which had hoped to reorganize and carry on by itself. Reporting the closure, one of the trade papers boldly claimed: “The liquidation of the company has been brought about purely for internal reasons and has no significance from a trade point of view. It is merely a coincidence that it has come about during the controversy with the board of health with the City of New York regarding the publication of the formulas of proprietary remedies. The principal business transacted by the company was in the sale of proprietary medicines, though it owned outright a number of popular remedies.” It was true, however, that in 1915, the year before the dissolution, the government had prosecuted and fined the Crittenton Co. for the fraudulent misbranding of one of the proprietary products,  Green Mountain Oil or Magic Pain Destroyer, that it had shipped from New York to Maryland. Perhaps the Crittenton heirs and the Mission had the right idea when they decided to wind up and sever the direct connection with the patent medicine business itself.  The patent medicine products themselves, however, lived on, for the brands were sold to the Century National Chemical Co. which was still producing some of them as late as the mid twentieth century.

CrittentonCN-6b-1aRV(succCenNatChemCo)     CrittentonCN-6b-1cRV(succCenNatChemCo)



A number of the Crittenton homes for unwed mothers survived to celebrate their hundred year anniversaries and may still exist today, although they no longer operate under the more stridently evangelical name of “missions” but rather the gentler more generic term, “social service agencies.” A New York Times article in December, 2012 noted that the The National Crittenton Foundation, now headquartered in Portland, OR, still exists, maintains a website, and acts as an advocacy and support group for young women “on the margins.” The Foundation itself numbers twenty-seven separate groups of social agencies working in a loose net across thirty-one states providing services to abused young women. The Times article pointed out that the number of homes themselves has dropped significantly because of “the introduction of the birth control pill, the legalization of abortion and the lessening of the stigma of unwed motherhood.” While that particular issue may have become less a point of contention, and the origins of the original funding are long-lost in time, when illuminated, the arc of Charles N. Crittenton’s life demonstrates the truly bizarre, ambiguous and uncomfortable contradiction between the sordid “snake oil” world foundation of his wealth and his later munificence and charity in trying to provide succor to a group of women about whom controversy still swirls today.

© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2014


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s