Ripans Chemical Co., Manufacturer
4 RECOGNIZED TYPES OF RIPANS CANCELS
COLLECTION OF RIPANS CHEMICAL CO. CANCELS
The ubiquitous red Ripans Chemical Co., “R. C. Co.,” cancel, usually seen on the 1/8 cent value, Scott RB 20, appears in revenue stamp lots about as frequently as the Thomas Dunn cancel discussed in an earlier article. At least one copy turns up in every revenue stamp collection, but often there are multiple copies. Since they are as unavoidable as mosquitos, this article explains the cancel’s origin.
Ripans Chemical Co. was the creation of one man, George Presbury Rowell. Like most of the Nineteenth Century personalities profiled in this series of columns, Rowell was a self-made man who ascended from humble origins to shape his own fortune. Unlike the dedicated scientists, who genuinely intended their benevolent remedies to relieve the word’s pain, or the monomaniacal zealots who wrongheadedly believed their exotic elixirs might actually relieve the world’s suffering, Rowell’s chosen profession had nothing to do with the science of medicine. More akin to – but hardly the same as – the calculating cheaters who slopped their phony alcohol laced concoctions together in their hotel bathtubs in the afternoons before siphoning them into bottles to hawk at their medicine tent show revival meetings at night, Rowell was, in fact, the advertising man who cashed in on the patent medicine boom. He stands as the diametric opposite of the previously profiled Charles Austin Bates, whom studious readers will recall went bust with his nostrum, Laxacola.
1896 ROWELL AD AGENCY COVER
As a pioneer ad man, Rowell knew how to craft words, and the juiciest of his experiences are best recounted in his own voice. He did publish his memoir – Forty Years An Advertising Agent – in 1905, but it was not a conventional biography in any sense. Rather, it was a collection of fifty-two extremely loosely organized vignettes about the newspaper and advertising businesses as he observed them develop during his life and the personalities of his contemporaries (living and mostly dead – men like the now largely forgotten newspaperman and political satirist David Ross Locke, who wrote under the pseudonym Petroleum V. (for Vesuvius) Nasby and entertained the likes of Senator Charles Sumner and Abraham Lincoln). Part reminiscence, part how-to book, part advice, he printed these articles originally in his own magazine, Printer’s Ink, the first advertising trade journal, which also he originated.
10/19/92 PRINTER’S INK COVER
While concentrating on sly, acidic, penetrating observations of his acquaintances, he treated his own family as nonexistent, only teasingly and fleetingly interspersing biographical hints about his own life. For example, as a keen observer of newspapers and their markets, he identified his birthplace only by stating that his father was a Whig and he was born somewhere within the area reached both by the Caledonian, a Whig newspaper printed in St. Johnsbury, VT, which his father read, and the North Star, a Democrat newspaper printed in the nearby, smaller Dansville, VT, which his nearest neighbor followed. In another place he described the entire area as “a primitive forest region.” Once, on a passport application, Rowell called his birthplace “Vermont,” and an obituary fixed his birthplace as Concord, VT. Other documents, like a census document filed by another for the building he was living in, identified it as “New Hampshire,” as do many current web sites. In his reminisces, the only other clue he gave about his impoverished birth circumstances was that his and the neighbor’s families shared a “single log cabin.” Similarly, although prominently identifying his father’s political predilection, he actually mentioned his father’s name only in an explanatory footnote over two hundred pages later in the course of relating an anecdote about his distant relationship to a man from Hawaii who was described to him as his twin and who identified himself as bearing the same last name when the two met at the Philadelphia World’s Fair of 1876. He never discussed his schooling, or gave any detail of his family life, mentioning only in passing that his wife (apparently the first of two women, both unnamed and un-described in his book, and identified only from other sources) accompanied him when he moved from Boston to New York City.
1856 ROWELL PORTRAIT
While Rowell devoted several chapters of his book to his hunting and sporting hobbies, and used these discussions as a springboard to describe the vivid personalities he met and social connections he made in the course of pursuing these hobbies, he never talked about his family. Perhaps the fact that he had no son, a circumstance that he mentioned in his last article while discussing the steps he took to conclude his business career before he retired, deterred him from addressing this subject more fully. The closest he came to delving into his personal life was a chapter devoted to Willow Brook, his estate in Tarrytown, NY, on property adjoining Washington Irving’s Sunnyside that had been owned by Irving’s brother, but even that discussion was more a listing of the kinds of trees found on the estate than the personalities that inhabited the manor house.
1869 ROWELL ADVERTISING AGENCY AD
A time line of Rowell’s life can be constructed from the stories he related. Born on July 4, 1838 (elicited from various scattered asides by Rowell and independently confirmed from genealogical data), his description of his childhood is framed largely in terms of recollections of patent medicine ads:
In 1858, he moved permanently to Boston, after an earlier attempt in 1856 was thwarted by the economic depression of 1857. There he found a job in the advertising department of the Post newspaper, where he began as a bill collector, but soon realized that his talent lay in soliciting ads and persuaded his superiors to use him in that capacity as well. During his tenure at the Post, he undertook his first independent advertising project when he arranged to prepare for the Boston theaters a playbill similar to the one that he saw being distributed in the New York theaters. Even though he turned a profit on the single transaction, he decided this venture would not support him. However, the experience showed him that he had to open his own business.
1865 ROWELL PORTRAIT
After seven years with the Post, he purchased a small magazine which printed updates of railroad timetable once a week, and, with another young colleague, opened his own office in Boston in 1864. His initial idea was to make his money by expanding the number of subscribers to his magazine, but he soon evolved a larger plan. He began to gather the names of newspapers and pair them with advertisers who wanted to buy advertising space in them. As the medium of exchange between advertisers and newspapers, he unwittingly launched himself into the advertising agency business. He was not the very first to open such an agency, nor was he the only one to do so, but he was among the most innovative and successful.
1870c EXTERIOR IMAGES AND PICTURE OF ROWELL’S AD AGENCY
The manner in which Rowell collected his fee was to charge the advertiser a pre-arranged price per line, have the newspaper print the ad as submitted and bill him at the quoted rate. When Rowell paid the newspaper, he took a negotiated “rebate” from the billed amount. For example, if the ad charge was 20¢ a line and the ad was five lines long, Rowell would charge the advertiser $1. The newspaper would run the ad and bill Rowell $1, which he, in turn, billed to the advertiser. The advertiser would pay Rowell’s invoice. If Rowell’s negotiated rebate with the newspaper was 10%, he then remitted 90¢ to the newspaper and pocketed the other 10¢ as his commission. Rowell claimed that as an organized agency handling only newspaper advertising space, he could apply economics of scale to benefit both large and small advertisers to negotiate better rates than the advertisers themselves could obtain directly from either large or small newspapers. Rowell even advertised that he acted as proprietor for a group of select small papers across the country in which he could guarantee even lower rates by supplanting their individual need for their own advertising departments.
1894 ROWELL AGENCY POSTCARD DEMANDING COPY OF PAPER DEMONSTRATING AD PLACEMENT
Recognizing that New York was an even busier commercial city than Boston, Rowell soon opened a branch office there, and within a another year or two, after buying his partner out, he moved there himself. In New York City, he grandiosely set up his office in the New York Times Building, then on Park Row across from City Hall. By 1868, he claimed he was earning over $54,000 a year, which he noted wryly earned him a separate dining table for “his family” in their boarding house. “His family” was never further described nor mentioned again.
1870c INTERIOR IMAGE OF ROWELL’S OFFICE
Shortly thereafter, he made his first big innovation in advertising. He undertook to organize and issue the first printed listing of every newspaper in the country, Rowell’s American Newspaper Directory. While drawn upon an English model, Rowell went beyond just setting forth the names of papers. He also compiled and printed other information useful to advertisers: publication frequency; political inclination; number of pages; size of pages; subscription cost; names of editor and publisher; and, from Rowell’s standpoint most innovatively, circulation information.
1890c RETURN ENVELOPE FOR ROWELL’S AMERICAN NEWSPAPER DIRECTORY
Rowell admitted that his directory supplied his advertising competitor’s with useful information, but he determined the risk was worth it. He also acknowledged he could not sustain compilation and publication of the volume merely on its $5 annual subscription fee. His way of offsetting that cost was listing on his books an advertising charge against each of the papers listed in the directory. With larger papers, Rowell stated such charges were “as good as money in the cash drawer” for him, but with smaller papers the charge was often bartered in return for free advertising space granted to Rowell by those papers. As will be discussed further below, Rowell denied that the availability of such free advertising space ever benefitted him in any material way, and also denied that his listings of the circulation figures of the various newspapers were in any way influenced by the amount of advertising space they bought in his directory. He even lamented, at some length, the amount of enmity engendered by allegations that he used his estimates of papers’ circulation as a means of blackmailing them, and emphatically denied all such charges.
Around 1870, Rowell authored one of the early guides to conducting an advertising business, which is apparently still read in schools that teach advertising. As an advertising agent, Rowell operated by his own strict set of practices, which he expounded in an 1875 brochure that he reproduced over twelve pages of small print in his recollections. He caused that reproduction to be set in special smaller type so that knowledgeable readers could skip it, if they so chose, but felt obliged to include it in his memoirs because advertising was a relatively new industry. He showed that early newspapers relied upon subscriptions for their revenue and regarded advertising revenue purely as an incidental source of income. Because of the great number of newspapers springing up all around the country, within Rowell’s lifetime, advertising agents began to represent newspaper publishers, negotiating the price of advertising for the publishers, and, as he pioneered, accepting their negotiated commission as their fees. Through Rowell’s influence, advertising rates gradually came to be measured in terms of cost per line and agents’ commission percentage came to be fixed by custom. To potential advertisers, Rowell stressed, the ad agents could offer a list of newspapers and their per line advertising rates, but could then negotiate on behalf of the advertisers additional discounts from these rates to boost the effectiveness of the advertising by reducing its per line cost while broadening its spread. Competition kept ad agency commissions in line.
In Rowell’s time, the art of the advertising agency came to be the fit it could negotiate between its advertisers’ budgets and the effective scope of advertising these budgets would buy in order to produce a return to the advertisers sufficient to induce them to advertise again. Rowell elaborated upon the differences between general advertising agents who arranged advertising for a great number of papers, and special advertising agents who arranged advertising for only a few newspapers, mainly in large cities. Curiously, at this time, the content of the ads did not seem to be the primary focus of advertising agents. Only later, largely after Rowell’s time, did the agencies assume the role of developing and executing the ad campaigns themselves, which seems to indicate that modern advertising agencies appear to have evolved from the general advertising agents, as Rowell was, rather than the specific agents, as the quality of the advertisements which filled the advertising space became increasingly important.
Rowell also described the origins of the Associated Press as a pooling of news reporting services among American newspapers for the gathering of foreign news for distribution in America, but regarded it, in his time, as a closed fraternity controlled by big city newspaper publishers, either in New York or Chicago, and opined that if the great Nineteenth Century financial manipulators, like Jay Gould, had gained control of the newspapers, as he thought they had unsuccessfully attempted to do, American society might have developed much differently. He contrasted the Associated Press with its competitor, the English newspaper association Reuters, and attributed American sympathy for Japan in the then very recent Russo-Japanese War, to the influence of Reuters because it supplied American newspapers with much of their coverage of that War. Perhaps because of his unremitting focus upon the monetary aspects of the newspaper business, Rowell seems to have held a remarkably jaded view of the mechanics of newspaper reporting itself.
1876 DRAWING OF ROWELL’S PAVILION AT CENTENNIAL EXPOSITION
In 1876, Rowell accepted an invitation from the chairman of the Centennial Exposition (who also happened to own a particularly influential newspaper in Hartford, CT) to organize a newspaper exhibit at the fair in Philadelphia. Rowell was then listing no less than 8,129 newspapers in his Directory and he undertook to have a copy of each paper available for inspection the exhibit’s large tent. The newspapers were arranged on the tent’s shelves in the order listed in the Directory and visitors to the Exposition were invited to come in to the tent to read their local news while away from home. Rowell claimed the exhibit cost him $20,000 and that he never directly received any advertising contracts in return for his effort, but drew his satisfaction as he traveled around the country from overhearing people recount to their friends how they had caught up on the local news at the Centennial Exposition at his exhibit. Rowell also claimed that he gave his complete set of newspapers collected for the exhibit to the Library of Congress after selling two other sets to the Vatican and to a collector in Tasmania.
In 1880, Rowell decided to indulge his desire to become a gentleman farmer. For approximately the next seven years, he claimed that he relinquished daily oversight of his advertising agency to his colleagues while he purchased and managed a farm back in his native Vermont. Although he employed the latest agricultural techniques and the finest livestock, he found the endeavor a constant financial drain. He also dabbled and lost as a local Republican politician, and tried his hand, he averred most comically and unsuccessfully, at being the publisher of a local weekly newspaper. He returned to New York in time for the great blizzard of 1888, which – by virtue of securing a promise from the cabbie who drove him to work to return to pick him up and deliver him back to his lodging – he claimed not to notice the magnitude of until reading the next day that the noted Republican politician Roscoe Conkling died after contracting pneumonia while trying to walk to work the same day.
In 1888, Rowell began to publish his own advertising industry trade journal, which he called Printer’s Ink. Although this publication was the first to be devoted specifically to the trade of advertising, and Rowell allowed that he had envisioned such a publication for several years and even thought of naming it for himself, he treated its actual innovation as a largely casual event, averring that he authorized its founding at the precise moment he did because he happened to own an interest in a printing firm and needed to create a job for a promising young acquaintance. He off-handedly provided the young man with a dusty bunch of his privately scrawled thoughts about advertising that he had amassed over several years and turned him loose. He then bragged off-handily that the paper “was more quoted for a time than any other paper published, and to this day I find myself able to identify wise paragraphs about advertising floating through the columns of the press, that, if they could speak, would proclaim themselves children of my – shall I say brain?” He further modestly claimed that once launched, Printer’s Ink thereafter had more than two hundred imitators.
Turning to Rowell’s connection with Ripans Tabules, Rowell claimed that he was neither the first nor the most successful advertising agent to own a proprietary medicine. He identified several notable and popular medicines that were owed by his contemporaries:
Still, Rowell’s story of the creation of Ripans Tabules remains the most complete and dispassionate account of how a completely non-medical person calculated the pros and cons of entering the patent medicine business and shaped his actions to maximize his monetary benefit.
Rowell then recounted his early attempts to find a suitable product. He promote a competitor of Redding’s Russia Salve, a product from the Civil War era (its proprietary stamp is RS 198), but since that balm had already passed its peak of popularity, the advertising campaign did not generate much interest. He tried advertising a skin cream originally owned by Samuel C. Upham. (As an aside, Upham was a Philadelphia dealer in patent medicine, perfume and notions whose principal present claim to fame is the fifteen million dollars worth of fraudulent Confederate money and stamps, including twenty-eight different note designs and fifteen stamp designs, he generated and circulated during the Civil War – claimed by a Confederate senator to have done more damage to the Confederate cause than Gen. McClellan and his army – which are now collected as “Upham facsimiles.”) However, Upham’s cream too had already played out its popularity. He experimented with promoting a product duplicating the popular remedy Fellows’ Hypophosphites, but dropped it when a lawyer warned him that the name he had picked for his elixir was owned by someone else. He tried to purchase a half interest in Dr. I. W. Lyon’s extremely popular Tooth Powder (still available on the Internet today) only to have Dr. Lyon call off the sale at the very last moment. He even went so far as to advertise in the New York Herald and his own Printer’s Ink seeking an appropriate proprietary article.
Many innovators submitted samples of their concoction for Rowell’s approval, and he finally found the characteristics he deemed just right:
Rowell used his acquaintances who were doctors as medical advisors to assist him in creating the product he desired. The only doctor to whom he ever gave credit by name for his input was Dr. John McGaw Woodbury, even then more acclaimed as the reforming Commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation than as a physician, although he relied much more upon Woodbury’s assistant, referred to (and pictured in Rowell’s book) only as “Fred” for aid in the actual development of his medication. Rowell thought he had found what he was looking for when Fred suggested he use as his medicine a fairly humdrum, generic kind of mild laxative formula, composed principally of rhubarb and soda, that had been prescribed by doctors for a hundred years. Rowell immediately had a batch of the formula mixed up, but it looked awful and stained anything it touched.
Rowell rejected the product, but kept the bottles around to show his physician friends. Finally, the pieces all fit together one day when Fred suggested that the required ingredients could be now be compressed into a tablet. Rowell immediately ordered a hundred tablets delivered to his then New York residence (which Rowell slyly mentioned was the former mansion of Frank Tilford (of Park & Tilford, previously chronicled in these columns)). The pills entirely suited his purpose, and having determined the identity of his product, he plunged immediately into naming it. The solution he arrived at rivaled the ingenuity of George Eastman’s Kodak:
Rowell was also careful to select his own individual name for the pill itself that he was selling, which differentiated it from every other tablet on the market. He explained the distinction in an exchange which he recorded with Dr. R. V. Pierce of the World’s Dispensary Medical Association of Buffalo, New York (a subject for future study, described by the New York Times in 1894 as looking more like a “poet and dreamer” than like “one of America’s shrewdest businessmen and among its most remarkable advertisers” that he really was):
Having worked so hard to find the right product to offer and to create a unique identity for it, Rowell could truly bring his expertise to bear in the area of marketing Ripans Tabules to the public. Although he claimed never to profit directly from the space he reserved in the various newspapers in return for listing them in his Directory, when he was ready to market his Ripans Tabules, he had readily available to him, and was able to devote to such advertising, some $125,000 of such free space in various newspapers and journals all over the country. In other words, his opening advertising campaign on behalf of Ripans Tabules, which cost him nothing out-of-pocket, in today’s dollars would be worth over $3.2 million. Such an advertising launch hardly seems to match Rowell’s claim of never using his position to further his own interest, but he was characteristically modest about the achievements such advertising ultimately achieved:
Even though Rowell claimed his Ripans Tabules were the first patent medicine to be marketed in tablet form, the correct pricing of the product seemed always to cause Rowell some difficulty (as it did many others as well). Rowell applied his own twist to the problem by mining the very bottom of the market. Over the criticism of no less a figure in the wholesale drug trade than Charles Crittenton (previously profiled in these columns) who was extremely reluctant to handle that small a size, Rowell decided to market his Tabules at five cents a package. The tax on such a package is reflected in the 1/8 cent value of the RB20.
While Rowell could never get doctors of the caliber of John McGaw Woodbury to endorse his product, he did receive an endorsement from John H. Woodbury, whom readers of this column have already met in connection with his tussle with Andrew Jergens over the purchase of Woodbury Facial Soap, a product itself still selling well into the 1950s.
Ultimately Rowell felt he had established Ripans Tabules well enough to cease advertising entirely by 1905. He pronounced the residual return entirely satisfactory:
Albeit his humility about his patent medicine achievements, Rowell closed his book by quoting all of the glowing encomiums, testimonials and tributes rendered to him at an industry dinner given to him upon his final retirement from the advertising business in 1905.
Rowell boasted that he represented “American newspapers – not only the newspapers in the city of New York and of all other American cities, Religious, Agricultural and other class newspapers – but also the small country journals.” But he confined himself to newspapers only and accepted no advertisements for “books, signboards, posters or job printing.” He represented newspapers only in the United States and Canada with the sole exception of acting as agent “for the Levant Herald, published at Constantinople.” Unfortunately, Rowell omitted the origins of that representation which might have made a colorful and unusual anecdote. Actually, because he limited his advertising business to representation of newspapers exclusively, Rowell probably picked the right time to retire. Even by the turn of the Twentieth Century, national magazines had supplanted local newspapers as the trend setters for public taste in America. One example of that newly found influence was that it was the series of articles about patent medicine in the national magazine Collier’s that finally spurred the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
1896 AD IN SAN FRANCISCO, CA SWEDISH NEWSPAPER
The testimonial dinner in 1905 was Rowell’s last hurrah. He died on August 22, 1908 at Poland Springs, ME, itself a health resort and the source of Poland Springs Water (which may – if this column lasts long enough to finish the over one thousand identifiable battleship proprietary stamp cancelling entities – some day get its own profile in another series of columns devoted to the wider scope of the quasi-health industry encompassing sanitariums, health spas and mineral springs). His legacy had a mixed afterlife. Rowell detailed the arrangements he made for the disposition of his advertising businesses in his book and had no direct involvement in the advertising industry after 1905. His American Newspaper Directory was absorbed in 1909 by the American Newspaper Annual & Directory published by the advertising agency N. W. Ayer & Sons, a former competitor of Rowell’s, but his trade journal, Printer’s Ink, in other hands, continued to be published until 1967.
Ripans Tabules seem to have hung around as long as Printer’s Ink. Because he knew the business so well, Rowell revealed the entire story of the advertising aspects of Ripans Chemical Co. However, although he was the inspiration for Ripans Tabules, and went so far as to admit in his book that by the late 1890s he was more interested in the Ripans Chemical Co. than his advertising agency, he wrote nothing of the actual inner operations of that company itself or its ownership. He did not indicate that he had divested his interest in the company when he retired from the advertising business, and after his death, the company returned to advertising its product and continued to manufacture Ripans Tabules. Because of their inoffensive, perhaps even mildly helpful, nature, Ripans Tabules flew beneath the radar of the patent medicine reformers’ wrath and never became the subject matter of the flaming diatribes so frequently hurled at patent medicine makers by the popular national weekly magazines or the American Medical Association.
1930C CHOCOLATE RIPANS TABULES
By the 1920s, the Tabules were being formulated in a chocolate version and, in fact, they were still being advertised in a publication called The Colored Americans Magazine as recently as 1969. One web commentator suggests that Ripans ultimately became the property of the Wyeth drug company interests, which, as the conglomerate American Home Products Co., was one of the major survivors among the shrinking group of larger and larger consolidated drug companies formed during the Twentieth Century, until it was purchased by Pfizer in 2009. Ripans Tabules are not presently available.
© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2017