Sterling Products, Inc., Manufacturer
Chapter 6.1.b.(1): American Home Products –
John Wyeth & Brother – Manufacturer
A SAMPLING OF JOHN WYETH & BROTHER BATTLESHIP REVENUE CANCELS
YEAR ALONE DATE
MONTH & YEAR DATE
Of all the companies digested by American Home Products (“AHP”) over the years, John Wyeth & Brother, Inc. (“JW&B”) – formally absorbed by AHP in 1931 – had the most lasting impact. However, before proceeding further with any discussion of JW&B, a disclaimer is required. Research demonstrates that JW&B and the Wyeth Chemical Co. discussed in the last chapter as one of the original AHP companies, although both founded by individuals named John Wyeth, were completely different entities created by seemingly unrelated John Wyeths. Most of the articles written about AHP do not make this distinction clear or leave unexplained any blurry references to Wyeth before AHP’s acquisition of JW&B, and even the noted philatelist and writer on pharmaceutical packaging and labels, George Griffenhagen, conflates JW&B and Wyeth Chemical Co. in his History of Drug Containers and Their Labels. While it seems more than purely accidental that both of these particular John Wyeths were involved in drug businesses, the difficulty – as with the confusion about the identity of Charles H. Phillips – may lie entirely in the commonality of the name. To stir the pot more, a third John Wyeth living at the same time as the other two, John Allan Wyeth, was significant historical personality as well. This John Wyeth was a first cousin of the founder of JW&B, and not only a Confederate veteran and biographer of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest (presently back in the news for his role after the Civil War as the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan), but also a noted surgeon and founder of an important hospital in New York City.
MONTH, DAY AND YEAR DATE
MONTH, DAY & YEAR INCORPORATED
The reason it is fair to say that JW&B made such an impression on AHP is that AHP preserved JW&B’s name and prolonged its reputation for excellence as a manufacturer of ethical drugs for doctors throughout its corporate history. In 2002, more than seventy years after JW&B’s acquisition, when AHP slimmed its corporate profile by disposing of its many and varied non-medicinal businesses, shed its anonymity and sought to re-create itself as a progressive pharmaceutical company, it transformed itself into Wyeth, LLP. However, its period as a forward-looking drug company was short-lived, for Wyeth was swallowed in 2009 by yet another gargantuan survivor from the patent medicine era, Pfizer, Inc., formerly Charles Pfizer & Co. (another company that will get its own column in the future). Of course, to finish the list of takeovers – and close the circle in a way – in 2018 Pfizer merged into the colossus GlaxoSmithKline, another gigantic company built up from JW&B’s Philadelphia neighbor and competitor, Smith, Kline & French Co. (which will also get its own column).
PORTRAIT OF JOHN WYETH
1859 BLAIR & WYETH COVER
1861 BUSINESS NOTICES ANNOUNCING JOHN WYETH & BROTHER
JW&B began life as a retail drug store in Philadelphia, PA. The JW part of JW&B was John Wyeth (1834-1907) and the B part was his brother, Francis H. “Frank” Wyeth (1836-1913). They were born in Harrisburg, PA and their father and grandfather were newspapermen and book sellers. The younger Wyeths were both graduates of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy (“PCP”), and John was considered a particularly bright student. After graduating in 1854, he apprenticed in the drug trade by clerking for Henry C. Blair, a older pharmacist and a third PCP graduate who had established his store in Philadelphia in 1838. Blair and John Wyeth became partners in the firm of Blair & Wyeth in 1858, with Frank acting as chief clerk for them. Although all the histories of both JW&B and AHP report that JW&B started operation in 1860, the formal announcement of its being in business at its own location appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper on July 1, 1861, the same day the former partnership between Henry Blair and John Wyeth was dissolved by another notice in the same newspaper.
SAMPLE WYETH CANCELS ON EARLIER GOVERNMENT REVENUES
The standard histories of JW&B all stress that the retail business of the Wyeths did well and very soon grew a manufacturing component as doctors came to trust the preparations they compounded in their facility, particularly American elixirs, which were combinations of drugs mixed with sugar, alcohol and flavoring to cover the bad taste of the medicine (European elixirs of the time did not normally include sugar). It cannot be questioned that the quality of JW&B’s merchandise was unusually good, but there was at least one other factor that played a part in JW&B’s success: John Wyeth’s relationship with Thomas A. Scott (1823-1881), a pre-eminent railroad investor of the Nineteenth Century and one of Pennsylvania’s “robber barons.”
YOUTHFUL & MATURE THOMAS A. SCOTT PLUS SIMON CAMERON
Already the youthful First Vice-President of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1860 – at that time possibly the largest corporations in the world – Thomas Scott soon became Assistant Secretary of War under his personal friend, fellow Pennsylvanian Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first Secretary of War. When Lincoln was forced to remove Cameron and send him into exile as Minister to Russia because of charges of corruption lodged against him, Scott was tarred by the same brush. An article in the New York Times in 1862 stated that the evidence produced by a Congressional Committee against both Cameron and Scott was “not complimentary” and further that “if after examining the testimony, the reader has any hesitation in believing the two conspired to make the public service subsidiary to their private advantage, his incredulity will be incredible.” Yet Scott managed to hang on at the War Department and proved to be extremely able in organizing both its telegraph system and its use of railroads. Despite congressional scrutiny, it would appear that from his War Department position, Scott was able to steer supply contracts to his colleagues, and, by 1864, JW&B was selling medicine and beef extract to the Union Army. In fact, instead of tending to his own flourishing drug business, John Wyeth, as Scott’s agent, appears to have spent much of 1864 in California and Arizona leading a party of some twenty Pennsylvanians investigating mining and possible oil drilling sites for Scott to invest in while Scott remained at the War Department in Washington shifting troops over the railways to aid the Union war effort. Moreover, all these years later there is still a hint of scandal lingering about Wyeth’s expedition.
BENJAMIN SILLIMAN, JR.
The upshot of Wyeth’s journey was that Scott and others shifted funds from potentially profitable mining ventures in northwestern Arizona to a very early disastrous investment in the oil fields of Southern California. The shift was made on the explicit recommendation of Scott’s geology expert, Yale University Professor of Chemistry Benjamin Silliman, Jr., (1816-1885), the man whose ideas about fractional distillation of petroleum made oil drilling into a profitable industry, whom Scott had specifically hired and sent with Wyeth to assess the lands themselves. It subsequently transpired, however, that Silliman’s report was based on soil samples fraudulently enriched with oil transmitted from California through Wyeth to Silliman. When others later attacked Silliman’s findings as overly optimistic after oil drilling operations proved unsuccessful, Silliman was blamed for the mistake and his reputation greatly diminished.¹ In recounting the story of the 1864 expedition, one author² at least briefly considered whether Wyeth himself might have doctored the samples to boost sales of shares in the companies organized to exploit Silliman’s oil finds. After noting that Wyeth was on record as desiring separate scientific reports for each tract of land the investors were acquiring – an attitude hardly compatible with the kind of fraud that ensnared Silliman – the author concluded that shadier characters in California who had more to gain than Wyeth probably doctored the samples they sent East. Perhaps this venture, and the uproar it caused, cured Wyeth of the speculation bug, for, while there is a record of at least one later West Virginia oil and coal company that both Scott and Wyeth held shares in, Wyeth was never mentioned again as acting as Scott’s agent.³ Scott was a very private man and left so few records of his dealings that the complete nature and extent of the connection between Scott and Wyeth is difficult to now illuminate. Yet, in the New York Times obituary of John Wyeth written more than forty years after these events there was a cryptic one sentence reference to the relationship: “In early manhood, Mr. Wyeth was associated with Thomas Scott in transportation activities.”
1883 “ELEGANT” INVOICE & 1893c COVER
Shortly after the end of the Civil War, the Wyeths took in Edward T. Dobbins, another PCP graduate, as a third partner, and sold to one Frank Morgan their retail business, which remained in the same location, as they continued to expand their laboratory capacities. Dobbins proved an excellent salesman as well, and he did much to establish JW&B’s reputation in the trade as among the finest and most reliable pharmaceutical manufacturers. In 1872, a JW&B employee named Henry Bower, yet another graduate of PCP, invented a mechanical rotary tablet press that produced pills in bulk that were uniform in shape, size and dosage. This invention, when combined with Wyeth’s palatable and presentable elixirs, ushered in the age of “elegant pharmacy,” a term always associated with JW&B, which placed particular emphasis on the appearance, style and packaging of the medicine itself, and in 1874, JW&B trademarked the term “compressed tablet” to signify the neat new format in which they could present what had previously been known as old-fashioned medicinal “powders.” As JW&B grew, John Wyeth followed his family’s interest in newspapers and bought control of the Philadelphia Record. Unlike most of the other patent medicine mandarins, he was a Democrat, probably because of his association with Thomas A. Scott.
JW&B EXHIBIT AT 1876 PHILADELPHIA CENTENNIAL EXHIBITION
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TABLET MAKING MACHINE & NEW JW&B FACTORY BUILDING
In 1889 JW&B survived a devastating fire that began in Morgan’s retail store and not only wiped out that store but also the remainder of the entire block which had become JW&B’s manufacturing complex. John Wyeth estimated the loss at over a half a million dollars excluding the value of his advanced tablet making machinery. Within months, however, JW&B re-opened with a greatly expanded laboratory in a new location. In 1894, the business was well enough grounded financially to resist the icy blast it took in the industry trade journals from Philadelphia retail druggists, including Henry Blair, Jr. son of John Wyeth’s former partner, for selling their goods directly to the public in John Wanamaker’s retail department store (another canceller of battleship revenue stamps along with Blair, both of whom will some day get their due in this column) in direct competition with those Philadelphia druggists. In 1899, the partnership incorporated, a change reflected in the cancel they placed on their battleship revenue stamps. At the turn of the new century, the first generation of JW&B’s leadership began to die off, first Dobbins in 1906 and then John Wyeth in 1907.
SAMPLE WYETH ADS & PRODUCTS
1879 AD IN ANOTHER WHOLESALER’S CATALOGUE
1879 ENGLISH TRADE AD & BOTTLE
1891 BEEF JUICE TRADE AD & BOTTLE
1897 CANADIAN TRADE AD FOR MALT EXTRACT & BOTTLE
1902 PREPARED FOOD TRADE AD & BOTTLE
1902 PEPSIN TRADE AD & PRODUCT SAMPLE
The rest of JW&B’s history as an independent entity is typical of a two-generational family business. John Wyeth was succeeded as president of the company by his son Stuart (1862-1929), a lawyer, who had joined the company in 1893 after graduating from Harvard in 1884 and University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1887. Frank Wyeth’s son, Maxwell (1866-1936), a pharmacist, followed his father into the family business after graduating from Philadelphia College of Pharmacy in 1888, and became vice-president in 1908 when his father retired. However, unlike the brothers John and Frank, the cousins, Stuart and Maxwell – coming from such different backgrounds and life experience – did not get along well, and Maxwell left JW&B when his father died in 1913, although he remained on the board of the company. Stuart, a life-long bachelor, led a conventional rich scion’s life, complete with trips to Paris and a large yacht, but lacked his father’s gifts for novelty and innovation that had made JW&B stand out during the first generation’s era. When he died on New Year’s Eve 1929, he left his 55% stock ownership, representing the controlling interest of JW&B, not to his cousin Maxwell, but rather to his alma mater, Harvard University. While another Wyeth cousin actually attempted to set aside Stuart’s will and gain custody of some of the estate left to Harvard, its Trustees lost no time in selling JW&B to AHP in 1931 for $2.9 million. Stuart Wyeth is remembered primarily as a generous benefactor of Harvard, while the Wyeth name has always been identified with quality pharmaceutical goods.
A MORE DETAILED LOOK AT JW&B CANCELS
JW&B CANCELS ON EARLIER GOVERNMENT REVENUES
FIRST ISSUE REVENUE (1862-1871)
FIRST PROPRIETARY REVENUE ISSUE – CANCEL ON 2 PAPER VARIETIES(1871-1874)
SECOND PROPRIETARY ISSUE – 2 CANCEL VARIETIES, 2 PERFORATION VARIETIES & 2 PAPERS VARIETIES (1875-1881)
Because of the enormous volume of its cancels that still circulate in the marketplace today, it is fair to say that JW&B has had an impact in philatelic circles separate and apart from its importance as a pharmaceutical company. While JW&B never cashed in on the publicity value of printing its own private die proprietary stamp, it cancelled the Civil War tax period government revenue issues distinctively and vigorously on all the values and types of paper and perforation that those issues provided.
MISCELLANEOUS JW&B HANDSTAMPED CANCELS
JW&B’s Spanish-American War printed cancels – although minutely dissected by Chappell and Joyce into eight separate and distinct types determined by tiny differences in type face and spacing patterns – are more easily rounded into the categories divided by the text of the cancel itself, which combined the company’s initial with: year alone; month and year; month day and year; month, day and year with the added acknowledgment of the company’s incorporation (which took place in the fall of 1899). Each change in the cancellation pattern reflects the government’s tightening of the regulation to pinpoint more accurately the date on which the tax became payable. Handstamped cancels, while doted upon by specialists, are dismissed by the philatelic cancel compendium assemblers and dealers as being too random and too chancy numerically to settle into an order that they might regularize or perhaps even monetize.
SPECIAL PRINTED 6/29/1898 CANCEL – (2 DAYS BEFORE EFFECTIVE DATE OF TAX)
The anomaly among JW&B’s printed cancels is its full early cancel of June 29, 1898, which by some strange quirk pre-dates the imposition of the tax itself by two days. Among Spanish-American War revenue stamps, it is the earliest recorded cancel and, because it is printed, must have been done in hindsight, since the stamps themselves were not readily available on July 1, 1898, the date the tax took effect. JW&B was a large and significant enough player in the industry to have a representative present in Washington on July 1, 1898 to serve on the committee of wholesale druggists organized by the industry to assist N. B. Scott, Commissioner of Internal Revenue, in his administration of the Revenue Act of 1898 by helping him to determine which substances packaged in what form should be taxed. Perhaps the full cancel was done by JW&B as an expression of patriotic fervor at or near the beginning of the war to demonstrate how the government ought to have mandated the cancels be done correctly from the beginning. In any event, the government did ultimately amend its regulation to require that the full date appear as part of the cancel.
LARGE VOLUME CANCEL TRENDS
ADDITIONAL SAME DATE PAIRS IN BLACK AND RED INK
JULY 1899 A BUSY MONTH FOR WYETH’S PRINTER
REGULAR & INVERTED CANCELS
The abundance of JW&B cancels features the same kind of varieties that the Wells Richardson & Co. cancels show. Unlike that group of cancels, the JW&B cancels apparently come in only two ink colors, black and red, but, similar to that group, these inks were sometimes applied to the same style of cancel on the same date. Once full date cancels were required, judging from the date intervals, the company required fresh supplies of stamps at least two or three times every month to keep pace with its production. JW&B’s printer was generally consistent in its printing, but occasionally an inverted cancel error does show up. Neither of the two inverted cancels illustrated above is listed in the authoratative Chappell/Joyce cancel compendium, which either proves that modern resources bring more examples to light, or marks them both as modern creations designed to mislead the folks who create such compendiums.
POSSIBLE JW&B CANCELS ON 1914 PROPRIETARY ISSUE
POSSIBLE JW&B CANCELS ON 1919 PROPRIETARY ISSUE
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POSSIBLE JW&B HANDSTAMPED CANCELS ON 1919 ISSUE
JW&B continued to have a flourishing business during the World War I period when the tax on patent medicines was again imposed. However, there is room for great controversy over how JW&B stamped its products at this time because no philatelist has ever identified a standardized cancel for JW&B on either the 1914 or 1919 issues of government proprietary revenue issue stamps. There is no definitive guide to cancels on the 1919 issue of government proprietary revenue issues and the current guide to proprietary cancels on the 1914 government issue suggests that the cancel here offered as belonging to JW&B belonged to a “James Wyeth” doing business at the Wyeth Chemical Co.’s address in New Jersey. This listing is simply incorrect, but even accepting that the cancel actually was made by JW&B, it is only a handstamped cancel. A company as prominent as JW&B ought to have had a printed cancel during the period of the 1914 cancel as well. At least the proposed cancel fits well with the 1919 issue, although it does not harmonize with a later category of stamps bearing the familiar JW&B cancel.
JW&B CANCELS ON PROVISIONAL 1919 PROVISIONAL NARCOTICS REVENUES
JW&B CANCELS ON SAMPLE NARCOTIC STAMPS (NOT ALL SIZED TO SCALE)
JW&B BOX SHOWING NARCOTIC STAMPS WRAPPED OVER THE TOPS OF DOSAGE TUBES
JW&B CANCEL ON LAST NARCOTIC STAMP DESIGN
The other category of stamps that JW&B cancelled – now back to using its familiar pattern of the company’s initials – was narcotic stamps. The passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914 segregated narcotics – opiates and products of the coca plant species – for separate regulation from other kinds of drugs and medicines, both proprietary and ethical. The Revenue Act of 1918 sharpened the language of that 1914 Act and, effective February 25, 1919, brought about a separate category of revenue stamps to indicate payment of the narcotics tax. For the first few months, regular revenue stamps otherwise used to tax documents were overprinted for use as narcotics stamps, and there are numerous examples of the JW&B cancel applied to such stamps. By the end of the year, separate designs were issued for narcotic stamps and JW&B abundantly cancelled those stamps as well. The government continued to require the separate payment of the narcotics tax by the cancellation of distinctive narcotics stamps until 1971. In 1963, JW&B, by then known as Wyeth Laboratories, apparently was influential enough to persuade the government to issue the last narcotic revenue stamp, which was designed specifically to accommodate a new size of dosage tubing it was then using to market its narcotics.
1895 “ELEGANT” & 1896 TRADE ADS
As with the article on Wells Richardson & Co., this history of JW&B cannot close without some recognition of the sheer volume of material that it generated over the years to advertise its products.
EARLY TRADE CARD
1935c INK BLOTTERS FOR JW&B INDIA AND U.S.
1950c PRODUCT POSTCARDS TO DOCTORS
1955c LIVLIER “DEAR DOCTOR” AD POSTCARDS
BRIGHT PACKAGING AIMED AT THE PUBLIC
1940s PUBLIC ADS
PRINTS OFFERED FOR FRAMING
As it began to advertise to the public as well as to the trade, JW&B (as other companies likewise did ) engaged in more exuberant forms of advertising. Perhaps the most striking set of ads it produced was a series called “Pioneers of American Medicine” in the early 1940s. The company commissioned American artist Dean Cornwell (1892-1960), an illustrator and muralist, to paint scenes of medical advances made by American doctors. These paintings were then used in all sorts of advertising for JW&B products as well as offered as a set of prints suitable for framing and mounting by doctors.
THREE CORNWELL PICTURES AND THEIR USE AS ADS
1 Decades later, when oil drilling and refining techniques had improved, Silliman’s favorable opinions were finally vindicated and the Southern California oil fields boomed.
2 White, Gerald T. “‘The Case of the Salted Sample: A California Oil Industry Skeleton.’” Pacific Historical Review, University of California Press, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3636679
3 Scott, however, remained a significant player in American finance and politics for another fifteen years. He was involved in high-stakes railroad investing all over the country and in the early 1870s even served a year as President of the Union Pacific Railroad, then the first and only transcontinental railroad. Later in the 1870s, he ascended to the Presidency of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Through his design to create a Southern transcontinental railroad, he may well have played a behind-the-scenes role as a Democratic negotiator in the Compromise of 1877, which made the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes President of the United States rather than the Democrat Samuel Tilden who had won the popular vote. That same year, speaking as President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, he earned his reputation as a “robber baron” by suggesting that railroad workers striking to protest unilateral reductions in wages and working conditions imposed by all major rail employers acting in concert, in what became known as the Great Strike of 1877, be given a “diet of rifles” rather than bread and by persuading President Hayes to use federal troops to break the strike.
© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2020