E. A. OSTERHOUT, MANUFACTURER
Chances are the hand-stamped initials “E.A.O.” appear, in one of several varieties, on at least one 5/8¢ blue, or RB23 as they are otherwise known, in any lot of battleship proprietary revenues offered for sale. The ubiquity of the cancel on the RB23 belies the scarcity of information concerning the owner of the initials.
REPRESENTATIVE 1898 PROPRIETARY REVENUE E. A. O. CANCEL VARIETIES
HORIZ. INITIALS AND YEAR DATE
HORIZ. INITIALS, MONTH, DAY, 4 DIGIT YEAR DATE
HORIZ. INITIALS, MONTH, DAY, 2 DIGIT YEAR DATE
One, and only one, significant fact emerges from countless searches seeking knowledge about this person: E. A. Osterhout was a woman.
VERT. INITIALS AND YEAR DATE
VERT. INITIALS, MONTH, DAY, 2 & 4 DIGIT YEAR DATE
VERT. & HORIZ. INITIALS AND DATES (ERROR?)
RB25, 1¼¢ VALUE (UNUSUAL FOR OSTERHOUT) – HORIZ. CANCEL AND YEAR DATE
While their presence in the patent medicine business was not entirely unknown, women were identified almost exclusively with products treating “female complaints.” The face of the most famous woman, Lydia Pinkham, actually served as the trademark image for her line of goods for more than one hundred years and appears at this distant remove on the watered-down version of the product bearing her name still sold today. On the other hand, Osterhout never attempted to use her own image to promote use of her products and they were not restricted to curing “female complaints.”
NOT E. A. OSTERHOUT (LYDIA PINKHAM)
Osterhout marketed soaps and products derived from the mineral waters of Medical Lake, Washington. In the male-dominated Nineteenth Century, she seems to have tried never to use her first name. Possibly she meant to leave her gender ambiguous. Even after she married, the only name she ever attached to her advertising was E. A. Osterhout. Even a personal letter from her to a member of another Osterhout family inquiring about possible kinship – the crucial link, which unambiguously establishes both E. A. Osterhout’s identity as well as her connection with the patent medicine business – is signed E. A. Osterhout. It now resides in the archives of that other Osterhout family (apparently notable in its own right in the Southwest), and is misidentified in that collection as written by a male because of her signature using initials in place of her first and middle names. In the ambiguous fashion of identifying herself as “E. A. Osterhout,” she managed to conduct her business in Chicago for a very long time.
E. A. OSTERHOUT’S 1890 LETTER
There are only two occasions when she may have permitted herself to be identified as Mrs. E. A. Osterhout. In the records of the Columbian Exhibition of 1892 and 1893 held in Chicago, the Osterhout exhibit of toilet soap is identified as being sponsored by Mrs. E. A. Osterhout. Although there was a separate Woman’s Exhibit at this World’s Fair (duly assembled by the wealthy wives of the worthies of Chicago), E.A. Osterhout’s soap display definitely was not part of the Women’s Exhibit. It stood in the manufacturing exhibition hall.
COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION LISTING
The only other extant possible evidence of E. A.’s femininity is a single 3/8¢ value, RB22, which appears to be cancelled “Mrs. E A O.” To be completely accurate, one is obliged mention its existence, but it proves nothing, since the “O” is cut off and there were other druggists whose names began “Mrs. E. A.” who might have used a 3/8 ¢ value, an RB22, to prove tax payment on a product sold in one of their drugstores.
MRS. E. A. OSTERHOUT (?)
The statistical record comprising E. A. Osterhout’s life is stark. It consists of three notations in her father’s census reports (two federal and one state) and one entry of her marriage. None of these documents registers identities consistently. Her father was William H. Osterhout who was born in “New York” in 1810 (or 1811). Her mother was Sarah A. Gardner, two (or three) years younger than her husband. William reported that he lived in Watervliet, N.Y. in the 1850 U.S. Census and the 1855 New York State Census and in Cohoes, N.Y. in the 1860 U.S. Census. E. A. Osterhout was born near Albany, N.Y. in 1841 (or 1843). In 1850, Emily was age 9, and was listed as the fifth of six children: one older brother, three older sisters and one younger brother. In 1855, Emily is listed as age 12, and is the fifth of six children: now four older sisters and one younger brother. In 1860, Emila is listed as 19, and is the middle child of an older sister and younger brother living with her parents. Emiley A. Osterhout’s only independent listing is the record of her marriage on July 26, 1891 in Milwaukee, WI to one Thomas Wight, son of Eli Wight and Mary Kellan.
E. A. OSTERHOUT 1889 AD
In addition to the mysteries about the identity of E. A. Osterhout, the exact nature of the business relationship Ms. Osterhout had with the remedies she advertised, which originated at Medical Lake, WA, is somewhat unclear in historical retrospect. Ms. Osterhout described herself in her advertising sometimes as the “sole manufacturer” and sometimes as the “sole agent” of “Medical Lake Soap,” and often mentioned that the Medical Lake salts incorporated within the soap cured indigestion, headaches, rheumatism, kidney troubles and catarrh. Because of the local or territorial nature of most Nineteenth Century businesses, ownership rights to the Medical Lake salts and contract arrangements for their use appear to have always remained divided among many different companies. Yet, the modern histories of the Washington locale itself never once mention Ms. Osterhout in the story of Medical Lake.
The wonders of Medical Lake, WA, a lake in eastern Washington State close to Spokane, WA, appear to have sprung upon the collective consciousness of the country in approximately 1880. At that time, as reports of murders by Indians of local white families near Spokane, WA – by then classified as “unconfirmed” – were beginning to subside in national newspapers, new stories touting the medicinal properties of a strange lake in its vicinity began to circulate. Among the earliest such articles was a paragraph labeled “A Mighty Queer Lake” that showed up at the bottom of a column in a St. Louis paper, ostensibly reprinted from a Springfield, MO paper1. It describes the Lake as one where “the water is clear and of a dark color … [and the] “slightest breeze … lashes the water into foam which makes a superior soap” and boasts about it that “besides curing skin diseases of men, [it] lays out nervous troubles, rheumatism, paralysis and similar ailments.” After morphing into a column, the same article came to be reprinted time and again over the next fifteen years in papers all over the nation. The embellished article adds a sentence near the top “There is hardly a disease it will not master,” and bulks out with anecdotal paragraphs concerning an adventurous shepherd who had taken his sheep for a bath in the lake and then noticed that not only were the sheep cured of the dreaded sheep disease “scab,” but that he had recovered feeling in the “useless” arm with which he had bathed his sheep. No matter when reprinted, the article always indicated that these medicinal properties had come to be recognized “some two years ago.” Since advertising was undifferentiated from news in those days (as, it seems, it is again these days), these articles always materialized in the news columns, were unsigned, and were usually attributed as being reprinted from an article originating with another paper at some distance removed.
By 1882, several different people in different cities were advertising as agents for Medical Lake salts, soaps and remedies, and one article even suggested that Medical Lake had emerged as the Saratoga Springs of the West, already attracting 5000 visitors a year. By 1884, various states were chartering Medical Lake remedy companies of one sort or another, and rival Medical Lake agents were publishing ads denouncing each other’s falsity.
CHICAGO MEDICAL LAKE MFG. CO. 1885 AD
In November, 1884 a single cryptic sentence appeared in the Portland, OR Morning Oregonian: “A Chicago company will control the curative waters of Medical lake, Spokane County, for the coming fifty years.” There was no attribution for this pronouncement, nor was there any identification of the “Chicago company” itself, nor was any subsequent explanation of its meaning offered. However, this statement followed by only a month the incorporation in Illinois of the Chicago Medical Lake Manufacturing Co., a company which then engaged in a burst of advertising of Medical Lake salts, soap and remedies. One of the incorporators of this company, a man named McComas, was soon also advertising land for sale in the vicinity of Medical Lake. A puff book of Chicago’s leading industries from 1885 states about the company that “Mr. E.S. McComas, the secretary of the company, is held in the highest estimation in Chicago for his business ability and his sterling integrity, while he leaves nothing undone to bring before the public the unexcelled qualities of the Medical Lake salts.” Thus, at least at the beginning of 1885, not only was there some authentic Washington State money potentially involved in the incorporation of this company, there was also a tie-in between the remedies to be manufactured and land ownership in the vicinity of Medical Lake, WA from which the bona fide medicinal salts could be obtained. At this point, the intentions of all involved in this particular Chicago company might actually have been genuine and honest.
CHICAGO MEDICAL LAKE MFG. CO. 1885 AD
Over the next three years, at least five more companies were chartered in Illinois alone to exploit Medical Lake remedies. Perhaps out of deference to the name of the first company, the next company was called the Tipso Manufacturing Co, although the stated purpose was the same as the first. The remaining companies all had “Medical Lake” in their given names: the Medical Lake Toilet Soap Co., the Medical Lake Salt Co., the Medical Lake Remedial Co., the Medical Lake Institute, and the Medical Lake Salt & Soot Co. Another member of the McComas family was part of the Tipso incorporation as well, so someone with some link to the Washington State area still had some involvement in that transaction. A character named Frank Johnson was the second of the customary three named incorporators of the Tipso company, and was an incorporator in all but the last-named of the other Medical Lake companies. He subsequently purchased McComas’s share of the Tipso Co. and used it as the basis for his Medical Lake remedy empire. Despite the flurry of charters of Medical Lake remedy companies, Frank Johnson served as the operating chief of the single office that all but the last-named company apparently maintained together.
FRANK JOHNSON’S MEDICAL LAKE SOAP MFG. CO. 1886 ADS
E. A Osterhout enters this story through Johnson, for he employed E. A. Osterhout as his clerk. While she later downplayed her involvement, she may have had a larger role in Johnson’s dealings, since she also is listed as an incorporator, along with Frank Johnson, of the Medical Lake Remedial Co. in August, 1886. Yet, most significantly for her, she was also an incorporator, in January, 1888, of that last company listed above, the Medical Lake Salt & Soot Co. of Chicago, which did not include Johnson as an incorporator. The distinction in incorporators later became relevant because it eventually transpired that Frank Johnson was not an honest man. In March, 1888, he was dragged before a Chicago magistrate by one of his unhappy investors, for Johnson, who had come to Chicago from St. Louis in 1884, raised his venture capital for his Medical Lake companies in a singular manner. Covering his trial for the Chicago Tribune, a reporter wrote: “He has proved himself quite a Lothario among several Chicago ladies.”
His modus operandi seems to have been to first select a boardinghouse where there were at least two or three marriageable ladies possessed of a desirable little sum in the way of dowry. On the strength of a fair appearance and a suave address he soon managed to bring his toilet soap under the notice of his intended victims. A judicious bestowal of one or two cakes of soap, which by the way was highly scented, led the conversation to the point of soapy adulation where an avowal that without the lifelong companionship of the gentle recipient of his soap-cake [,] himself and his company would vanish into thin, frothy bubbles. After giving himself away in this open-handed fashion his next move was to influence his fiancée to invest her little capital in the stock of the company. (Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1888, p. 5)
One of the many ladies jilted by Johnson sued for the return of her money, and Johnson’s house of cards collapsed. He wound up jailed for about three weeks until he returned enough of the plaintiff’s money to free himself, but then permanently disappeared from the Medical Lake remedy history.
OSTERHOUT BUSINESS LISTINGS
CHICAGO BUSINESS DIRECTORY 1887
NATIONAL MEDICAL DIRECTORY 1896
Yet, even as Johnson was being brought to trial, the same newspaper account cited above cautioned: “Since the execution was levied on him, Johnson has been doing business under the name the Medical Lake Company, which should not be confounded with a Medical Lake goods establishment .. managed by E. A. Osterhout.” Since E. A. Osterhout, who by this time was “managing” her own remedy business apparently under that last corporate charter issued, was also at the same time employed as Johnson’s clerk, she actually testified at one of the court sessions of Frank Johnson’s trial. It is her only first person appearance in the historical record, and it illuminates nothing about her. She was described by one newspaper as a “young attractive business lady” and by a second as “a business-like young lady.” Other than faintly damning Johnson, the gist of her testimony was:
she was engaged as general clerk by Johnson in his palmy days, when a new style of company was a matter of every day occurrence. … that Johnson tried every artifice to persuade her to invest in one or other of his Medical Lake ventures, but that she refused to subscribe a cent… Her suspicions were aroused at the absence of business … there being hardly enough money coming in to pay for the ink consumed in writing the names of Frank’s many titles and companies … [She eventually] resolved to go into the soap business on her own account, still believing the product had some intrinsic value.” (Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1888, p. 12)
The reports of her trial testimony leave more unexplained than they reveal. While emphasizing her youth and smart appearance, they fail to disclose how Ms. Osterhout first met Mr. Johnson or how she came to be his clerk, and stress her cleverness at avoiding his clutches while apparently overlooking the possible implications of her involvement as an incorporator of one of Johnson’s ventures. Most strikingly, they leave remarkably unclear how she disentangled her Medical Lake “goods” operation from Johnson’s so quickly and so definitively that no shadow of blame ever fell on her. Further, while such information might strictly have gone beyond the boundaries of courtroom reporting of Johnson’s trial, there is no explanation of when or how she had acquired the money that she evidently invested in the Medical Lake remedies, whether with Johnson or by herself, or how she had emerged fully grown with office skills in Chicago, so far from the Albany, New York area where she had been born.
E. A. OSTERHOUT 1906 TRADE JOURNAL AD
Nevertheless, after Johnson’s hurried exit in March, 1888, Osterhout continued her business, advertising her remedies occasionally in trade journals and periodically soliciting for territorial agents in the “Male Help Wanted” column of local newspapers. Her firm impressed its distinctive “E. A. O.” cancel on both the 1898 and 1914 revenue issues. A last indirect indication of her continuing presence can be gleaned from a federal census record that shows a Thomas and Emiley Wight (now listed as born in 1853) still living in Ward 3 of Chicago in the spring of 1910. While state death records show that a Thomas Wight living in Ward 3 of Chicago (whose occupation was listed as a “mail order clerk”) died in Chicago on November 12, 1910, E. A. (Emily, Emila, Emiley) Osterhout/Wight thereafter vanishes from all extant official records, and no clear date can be established on which either her business or her life ended.
REPRESENTATIVE 1914 PROPRIETARY REVENUE E.A.O. CANCEL VARIETIES
HORIZ. INITIALS, MONTH AND YEAR DATE
HORIZ. INITIALS, MONTH, DAY AND 2 DIGIT YEAR DATE
VERT. INITIALS, MONTH, DAY AND 2 DIGIT YEAR DATE
HORIZ. INITIALS, ALL NUMERICAL DATE
Curiously, the histories of Medical Lake, Washington credit only one person as operating a factory to manufacture Medical Lake salts and soaps. He was a local resident named Stanley Hallett who lived from 1851 to 1926. Hallett’s career makes him a local notable. He emigrated from England as a titled English noble, but dropped the appellation “Lord Hallett,” in the United States. After working as a merchant in California, he settled in Medical Lake, WA in 1877, where he soon became the biggest land owner and town booster as well as the town’s first mayor. He later served as a Spokane County commissioner, and a Washington State senator. In 1900, he built himself a grand manor house, Hallett House, complete with towers and crenellations that still stands as an attraction today.
PICTURE AND PAINTING BY ZAMA HELDER OF HALLETT HOUSE
He was also instrumental in arranging that the Eastern Washington Asylum for the Insane be built on the shores of Medical Lake, WA. As an enormous and imposing building, it boosted the reputation of the area as a medical resort, and helped the region to flourish in this capacity until the end of World War I, when the growing availability of automobiles and the depletion of the Medical Lake minerals made other destinations more popular.
Hallett’s company was the Medical Lake Salts Manufacturing Co. It maintained offices in Spokane, WA and New York City, and exhibited at the Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1905 in Portland, OR. Because it appears to have directly advertised to the public much more than did Osterhout, its ads did not discuss who had the rights to, or proprietorship of Medical Lake’s medicinal waters, but rather, assured that the Medical Lake salts were “nature’s remedy” not a patent medicine.
HALLETT’S MEDICAL LAKE SALTS MFG. CO. 1900c AD
HALLETT’S MEDICAL LAKE SALTS MFG. CO. 1903 AD
HALLETT’S MEDICAL LAKE TABLETS
While E. A. Osterhout is still listed in the major druggist trade directory issued for 1917 as operating Medical Lake Soap & Salt in Chicago, a 1916 article in the National Druggist magazine indicates that Medical Lake Soap was then being manufactured by Dwight T. Sprague & Co. (which also produced Medical Lake (“Skookum Chuck”) Salts as well as Marvello Beauty Crème and Beau Monde Face Powder). Perhaps this article shows that Hallett had sold out to Sprague, but, more likely, simply demonstrates that Sprague was yet another Medical Lake competitor. Yet, considering that both Osterhout and Hallett were attempting to cash in on the medicinal properties of Medical Lake, it is perplexing that they, as major Medical Lake product producers, never clashed in the manner that Andreas Saxlehner did with his competitors. Such a record would illuminate how the Medical Lake waters were actually exploited and by whom. At this remove of time, one can only speculate that the terms “medical, lake, soap and salt” even then were regarded as so generic that none of the principals of any of Medical Lake remedy companies ever felt the urge to try to legally bar others advertising the same kind of products from mining the same rhetorical terrain. Therefore, sadly, E. A Osterhout remains a historical enigma.
¹ The article appears one column over from a prescient article entitled “Cigarette Smoking – A Vice That Is Sapping Out Young Manhood” which postulates that because of smoking cigarettes “[t]he next generation will be born of puny-chested, slim-legged, small-necked chaps” who are nothing but “idiots or monkeys.”
© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2017