C, P, S

Sterling Products, Inc. (V.4) – Centaur Co.

Sterling Products, Inc., Manufacturer

Chapter V.4 – Centaur Co., Manufacturer


Printed Full Date


CentaurCo-2-3-RB23-2(Full7-1-98Date)     CentaurCo-2-3-RB23-3(8-1-98Date)


Printed Year Only Date

CentaurCo-2-3-RB25-1(blackc)     CentaurCo-2-3-RB25-2600

Blue Ink – ’98                              Red Ink – ’98


Red Ink – ’99

Circular Handstamp


               By the early 1920s, Sterling seems to have determined to own and control virtually all of the best selling “medicines” that were gradually becoming defined as “over-the-counter” remedies: those products left unregulated by the government that the public could purchase without a doctor’s prescription. In 1923, backed by three Wall Street brokerage firms, Sterling acquired a quarter interest in the Centaur Co. through a newly formed subsidiary called Household Products, Inc., and, soon after, it purchased the remainder of the company as well. Centaur’s product was Fletcher’s Castoria, a laxative and stomach soother, not unlike Phillips Milk of Magnesia, previously chronicled. As with the Phillips Co., this company had been in business for almost fifty years. In 1922, it was estimated to be the largest proprietary medicine manufacturer in the United States, if not the world, having manufactured approximately 20,800,000 bottles of Fletcher’s Castoria that year, an 80% increase over its 1910 volume of production, and having averaged an approximately $2 million dollar profit in each of the prior five years.  The acquisition price for Centaur was estimated to be $10 million, and it was predicted that Household Products, Inc. would soon be distributing dividends of three dollars per share annually.



               Castoria was invented by Dr. Samuel Pitcher, a Massachusetts physician, as an alternative to castor oil. Castor oil, in turn, was derived from the castor bean, one of the earliest wild plants to be domesticated and cultivated by men. Although the deadly poison ricin also can be extracted from it, the castor bean has been employed for medicinal purposes as far back as the ancient Egyptians. However, over the centuries, many found that castor oil had both a horrible taste and texture. Born in 1824, Dr. Pitcher began about 1847 to experiment with alternatives to castor oil. His endeavors continued for about twenty years until he finally patented his formula for Castoria in 1868 and set up his own factory. Marketed as Pitcher’s Castoria, it sold briskly enough to quickly attract the attention of a real patent medicine salesman, Charles Henry Fletcher.





               Fletcher, born in 1838, apparently began working in the patent medicine industry at age thirteen. A contemporary account states that he began working for the New York drug manufacturer and wholesaler Demus Barnes & Co. in 1861. Alert readers will remember that Demus Barnes (1827-1888), whose name has already appeared in this column in connection with the history of John D. Park & Sons, had assembled one of the largest patent medicine distribution networks in the country prior to the Civil War through interlocking ownerships and partnerships with other individuals and companies in the patent medicine field. Because his dominance of the patent medicine field occurred at the time the federal government was first taxing patent medicine, Barnes’ exploits have been recounted by Henry Holcombe, the chronicler of the Civil War private die proprietary medicine stamps. While a story is told that Fletcher earned Barnes’ respect and trust by completing a tour of Barnes’ Southern customers and successfully collecting all their outstanding balances due Barnes at the beginning of 1861 just before the Civil War began, it must be regarded as somewhat fanciful, if Fletcher only entered employment with Barnes in 1861. There is no doubt, however, that by dint of his hard work, Fletcher became the manager of Barnes’ company when Barnes left the business in 1867 to serve for a single two year term as a New York State representative in the United States House of Representatives.


CentaurCo-3-1875c-1(predJBRose)1875c ROSE CO. COVER

               When he returned from Washington, Barnes chose to step back from the day-to-day management of his patent medicine business and act as the banker for promising new patent medicine ventures. In 1872, acting as Barnes’ agent, Fletcher purchased Castoria. Barnes then placed Castoria in a new company called J. B. Rose & Co, which he was financing. Joseph B. Rose, according to Holcombe, was a clerk with one of Barnes’ competitors, the drug wholesaler Hall & Ruckel, who showed some initiative by acquiring the formula for a product called Centaur Liniment. It was an external rub for all ailments, including rheumatism, sprains, broken bones, burns and scalds, that was issued with a white label for humans and a yellow label for animals. Neither Holcombe nor anyone else offers an explanation as to why Barnes placed Fletcher’s product with the Rose Co., rather than Rose’s product with a company named after Fletcher, but Rose brought the Centaur formula to Barnes, and that act, in Barnes’s mind, may even have trumped Fletcher’s loyalty to Barnes. In 1872, when the Rose Co. commenced operations, its managing partners were Fletcher and Rose, with Barnes acting as a silent third partner. Because he was so prominent in the patent medicine business already and had already made his fortune, Barnes knew the value of publicity and could afford to print his own private die proprietary medicine stamps to advertise his products.  He had them prepared as well for the Rose Co. Some of them are pictured above. Sadly, Rose is a complete enigma. In 1877, he stepped out of the picture, leaving no further historical record of his presence, and the company was reorganized as the Centaur Co.





               While the new company still featured the mythical centaur, which Rose had brought to it, both as its symbol and in its name, its officers became Demus B. Dewey as president and Fletcher as secretary. Dewey, as his name suggests, was a relative of Demus Barnes. Although Holcombe lists him as a grandson, he was actually Barnes’s nephew. He seems to have become involved briefly with the Centaur Co. because he also ran a patent medicine company of his own, D. B. Dewey & Co., undoubtedly financed by Barnes as well, and, for a time, Barnes had both the Centaur Co. and the Dewey Co. market and advertise another product called Wei de Meyer’s Catarrh Snuff. While Dewey & Co. own advertisements stated that F. W. Wei de Meyer, another of the Nineteenth Century’s self-styled “doctors,” had invented and assigned the rights to this product to Dewey & Co, Barnes really owned it, so he could exploit it through whichever company or companies he chose. It was an expectorant that ostensibly made users cough up all the poisons infecting their bodies. Whether by design or accident, Barnes seems to have shaped a grouping of remedies in the Centaur company to make use of the body’s principal orifices to expel illness from it, the nose, mouth and anus, combining them with one used to heal the skin, the major organ that enfolds and protects the body.  After the Civil War tax finally ended in 1883, Fletcher adopted a seal bearing his signature to replace the tax stamp that people had come to expect on the bottles.



CentaurCo-21-5(NYRecipeBk)(1883)     CentaurCo-21-5a(NYRecipeBk)(1883)

CentaurCo-21-5b(NYRecipeBk)(1883)     CentaurCo-21-5h(NYRecipeBk)(1883)     CentaurCo-21-5i(NYRecipeBk)(1883)


                After a few years, Barnes apparently let Dewey take Wei de Meyer’s Catarrah Snuff back exclusively to his own company, which, although it had its own product line, continued to advertise Centaur Liniment and Castoria as well, for a few more years until Dewey and his company, like Rose, disappear completely from the historical record, and Fletcher emerged as the dominant figure in the Centaur company. Over the ensuing years, Fletcher also dropped the Centaur Liniment and concentrated his energy entirely on Castoria.  The overarching achievements of his sixty year career were that he made Castoria, in combination with his name, a single household term and grew the Centaur Co. into what was described by several commentators in 1923 as the largest single proprietary medicine maker in the country.


CentaurCo-10-9a     CentaurCo-10-9bR


               The saga of how Dr. Pitcher’s invention reached its greatest renown as Fletcher’s Castoria is complex. Since Dr. Pitcher had actually patented the formula for Castoria, by purchasing his rights, the Centaur Co. was guaranteed a legal monopoly on its manufacture for the length of the patent – at that time seventeen years – until 1885. Its popularity soon made Barnes and Fletcher millionaires, but when Fletcher and Cora Barnes, who inherited her father’s quarter share of the company upon his death in 1888, tried to defend the name Castoria as their own exclusively, a U.S. Court of Appeals construed the patent narrowly and – following distinctions among patents, trademarks, trade names and unfair business practices outlined by the Supreme Court shortly before in a case concerning the term “singer” as applied generically to sewing machines – ruled that the patent itself conveyed no exclusive permanent right to the name of the product, and that, just as the formula for its manufacture had passed into the public domain upon the expiration of the patent, because the public had come to identify the concoction itself as castoria, the name itself had become generic and, therefore, had also passed into the public domain when the patent expired. This ruling, in an 1898 case called Centaur Co. v. Heinsfurter, like those by similar courts, discussed in earlier articles, that milk of magnesia and aspirin were also generic terms, caused the same major degree of irritation to the Centaur Co. that those other original manufacturers experienced, and, like those other cases, led to blizzards of litigation over the following years as to whose product infringed on whose and whose product had a distinctive identity of its own.





CastoriaCo-2-RB25(ChicagoIL)     CastoriaCo-2-RB25a(ChicagoIL)


CastoriaCo-6a-1899-1     CastoriaCo-6a-1901-1


               The Heinsfurter ruling came about under the following circumstances: in 1896, two mid-westerners, a businessman named Jacob Heinsfurter and a colorful character named William S. Daggett, who was otherwise employed as a Deputy United States Marshal, formed a company and opened a plant in Fargo, North Dakota to manufacture castoria under the name Castoria Co. They also published an article in a drug trade magazine, The New Idea, published by a large and well-known Detroit drug wholesaler and manufacturer, Frederick Stearns & Co. (another company to be profiled in the future) announcing to the trade their intent to manufacture castoria in accordance with Dr. Pitcher’s formula, now no longer under patent. Apparently, at least according to Fletcher, they even had the nerve to write to him asking him to sell them his bottles and labels for them to fill with their own product. Fletcher declined their bold invitation and instead sued them in Fargo claiming they were perpetrating a fraud upon the public. The local court collected exhaustive expert testimony on both sides of the question of whether the term Castoria constituted a trademark or a generic term, and also seems to have weighed and found wanting Fletcher’s claim that Cora Barnes had trademarked the word “Pitcher’s Castoria” in 1883.  After losing the preliminary round in their local court, Fletcher published a circular to the industry acknowledging that their product was labeled differently from his – one of the reasons the judge gave for finding no deception by the new company – but claiming that he would be exonerated on the fundamental question of the ownership of Castoria on appeal. Fletcher also ran an industry wide ad featuring a statement by none other than the ancient Dr. Pitcher himself that Pitcher was the originator of Pitcher’s Castoria and had only authorized Fletcher to make it.






               Much to Fletcher’s dismay, however, the following year, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling. Eventually Daggett sold his interest in the company to Heinsfurter, who moved the company to Chicago. The government-issue battleship revenue stamps bearing the Castoria Co. cancel were used during this period. Although Fletcher was never able to stop the Castoria Co., its sales never rivaled those of Fletcher’s Castoria and it managed to continue in business only for a few more years.



               Fortunately for Fletcher, by 1898 he had began to feature his signature significantly as part of the label of his Castoria, and he eventually trademarked his signature. As noted above, Fletcher had already incorporated his signature into the seal that he placed on each package to replace the Civil War tax stamps. Courts ruled that Fletcher’s signature did constitute a valid trademark, so Centaur Co.’s brand of castoria – which, therefore, became known commonly as Fletcher’s Castoria rather than Pitcher’s Castoria – was always easy to distinguish from the others, both because of Fletcher’s trademarked signature, which always appeared on the label, and because his advertising gradually gave greater prominence to his own name more and more and Pitcher’s name less and less. Fletcher so valued his own signature as a distinguishing feature of his product that he even had it incorporated into the printed cancellation of the government revenue battleship stamps that his company applied to his product when the Spanish-American War tax period began on July 1,1898. Moreover, he was then doing such a great a volume of business that he was one of the very few proprietary medicine makers who opted to expend the extra funds to create his own private die proprietary medicine stamp, as so many of the earlier patent medicine companies had done during the much longer period that the Civil War taxes were in effect between 1862 to 1883. He was able to make the transformation easily because he simply adapted the seal he was already using.  Because the period the Spanish-American War tax was in effect was so short – lasting only three years for proprietary medicines – most other proprietary medicine employers did not think the effort was worth making.



               Ultimately, with respect to U. S. courts, even though other companies again and again clashed with Fletcher over whose castoria was the original and true “medicine” that most closely resembled Dr. Pitcher’s original castoria formula, they always had a reliable yardstick to measure whether legal infringement had occurred. They continually laid the Fletcher label against the other castoria company’s label and ruled on a case-by-case basis. If the reviewing court found the other company’s label looked too much like Fletcher’s, it would rule that the offending company was unfairly competing with Fletcher by trying to steal his business with a confusing label. If it found that an average customer could easily distinguish between the two labels – even when the other label said it was Dr. Pitcher’s own castoria or claimed that it was the only one that actually embodied Dr. Pitcher’s own original patented castoria formula – it would invoke the rule of buyer’s common sense to hold that since customers would not mistake the label of the other product for Fletcher’s, the other company was not infringing on Fletcher’s trade and did not have to change its label.  Some examples of the labels used by other companies and the courts’ rulings upon them follow below.  In this painstaking way, Fletcher’s Castoria, like milk of magnesia, worked its way into the background of “over-the-counter” medicines that Sterling vacuumed up during the 1920s.




CastoriaMedCo-10-1a(KansasCityMO)     CastoriaMedCo-10-1bR












               Curiously, in Canada, when Fletcher came to fight the battle in 1920 over his exclusive right to use the name Castoria with yet another company, this time American Druggists Syndicate (yes, yet another company to be profiled, which cancelled later proprietary stamps during the World War I imposition of a tax on proprietary articles), the Canadian court considered the various legal steps the Centaur Co. had taken to protect its trade in Canada, just as the Heinsfurter court had considered the American fact pattern, and, while it acknowledged and discussed that decision, it reached the opposite conclusion, by a 2 to 1 split decision. In Canada, Fletcher never attempted to patent Dr. Pitcher’s formula, but as early as 1879, filed a general trademark on a label with the words “Pitcher’s Castoria” together with a facsimile of Demus Dewey’s signature which was then registered again in 1898 as a specific trademark of a label for “Fletcher’s Castoria” incorporating the facsimile of Fletcher’s signature. Because there was no Canadian patent, the Canadian judges found that there never had been any attempt to block anyone in Canada from using Dr. Pitcher’s formula to create a laxative, so they could ignore the entire argument emphasized by the U.S. court that no secondary right of ownership attached to the name arising from the patent. On the other hand, they found that the term “Castoria” had no existence or meaning in English before Dr. Pitcher applied it to his medicine, and because Dr. Pitcher had made it up, that it was entirely and completely “fanciful” intended for the sole purpose of identifying and distinguishing his product from anyone else’s, and thus it was a term subject to being trademarked for his, or Fletcher’s, exclusive use, as the Centaur Co. had properly done. That the public came to regard to regard this particular laxative formula as Castoria, the court felt simply fortified the point that Fletcher had established a strong and valuable trademark. Therefore, they concluded that all in Canada who chose to could reproduce Dr. Pitcher’s patented formula to make a laxative: they just could not call it “Castoria.”

Centaur-CanadianCastoriaAd-W-58a1(CastoriaAd-ActonOntario-FreePress-1-8-1914)     Centaur-CanadianCastoriaAd-W-58a2(CastoriaAd-ActonOntario-FreePress-1-8-1914)


               In the end, whether by the route of barring unfair competition by protecting the “Fletcher’s Castoria” trademarked label, but not the word “castoria” itself, in the United States or by upholding the word “Castoria” as part of a registered trademark (which essentially amounted to the same design) in Canada, each country’s courts allowed Fletcher to protect his product. The legal arguments accepted by the two courts were diametrically opposed to each other, but the conclusion amounted to the same result. The wonders of legal reasoning are endless! One fact is certain: there were many, many more brands of castoria in the United States than in Canada.

PfeifferChemCo-10-1(Pitcher'sCastoria)     RoyalMfgCoOfDuquesne-1902-1(NonCBottle)


               Many stories are told about Charles H. Fletcher. Perhaps the most notorious one, which illustrates his monumental drive and audacity, is that Fletcher volunteered to underwrite the last $25,000 of the cost of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty (after noting that the largest donation to date had been $5,000), when the efforts of the committee of prominent New York City citizens organized to raise the funds to provide the proper base for the French gift fell short, provided only that Fletcher be allowed to place Castoria’s name on the pedestal for the first year. In this way, he wrote, “art and science, the symbol of liberty to man, and of health to his children would be more closely enshrined in the hearts of our people.” Needless to say, the committee summarily rejected the offer. Oddly enough, the quote, apparently from Fletcher’s proffer to the committee, was first reported only in a 1986 New York Times article on the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, but since then has become the principal anecdote echoed about Fletcher.


               Even if he did not co-opt the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, Fletcher’s advertising was unrelenting. He published ads, together with eye-catching trade cards and almanacs in vast numbers, and painted ads on every surface that he could procure. Fletcher’s success rested on his singular concentration on Castoria. He manufactured this one product in one size, sold to a huge network of wholesalers as well as 150,000 retail outlets, virtually all drug and general stores, in lots of no less than five gross (720 bottles), and advertised it endlessly to the public without any traveling sales staff or a public mail order business. One of the most well known trade cards linked Castoria with P. T. Barnum’s famous circus elephant Jumbo, himself a great celebrity of the age. (Barnum obligingly offered his endorsement of Centaur Liniment as well, claiming that it effectively treated both his circus performers and animals.) Pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge, the great engineering triumph of its age, show Castoria ads displayed prominently to those who promenaded on its pedestrian walkway to experience its wonder. Faint traces of such painted ads still can be found all over such cities as New York. One of the shrewdest shifts in Fletcher’s advertising strategy, as recounted by his Advertising Manager after his death, was changing from his initial position of never advertising in newspapers on Sunday in order to avoid the appearance of profaning the Sabbath to investing in such Sunday advertising after he realized that the newly developed Sunday supplemental rotogravure (picture) sections were attracting children who would, in turn, urge their parents to buy Castoria. Whether Fletcher made use of a large advertising space or a small one, his notion was to keep the copy simple and, whenever possible accompany it with an illustration. Castoria was such a part of American culture that two different American bombers were named “Fletcher’s Castoria” during World War II. The driving slogan of the constant advertising was “Children Cry For Castoria.” The line became so famous and familiar that a serious American classical composer, Nicholas Slonimsky (1894-1995!), who certainly bridged the period from Fletcher’s time to the contemporary world, later set Castoria ads to music. Recordings are available on Youtube.



CentaurCo-5-3-1a    CentaurCo-5-3-1b

CentaurCo-5-1-PitchersCastoria-1aR     CentaurCo-5-1-PitchersCastoria-1b

CentaurCo-5-3-2a     CentaurCo-5-3-2c

               As a mandarin of the Gilded Age, Fletcher was a stout defender of private enterprise. When – because of the continuing false promises of cures made by most nostrums, together with the occasional deaths from undisclosed poisons in the proprietary potions – the hue and cry began for governmental regulation of the food and drug industries, he firmly planted himself in the opposition camp. Yet, by 1890, some businesses, like the American meat industry, had actually discovered that they needed a modicum of regulation to compete effectively, since Europe had made clear that it would not import American meat not certified as healthy. Thus, in 1891, Congress enacted the first federal meat inspection requirements. In the next session, the Senate took up the Paddock Bill, a general measure enabling broad food and drug oversight and regulation, named for Republican Algernon Paddock of Nebraska, who chaired its Agriculture Committee. Asked by the Times in 1892 to comment on the bill, in an article captioned “Mischief Its Only Use … The Business View,” Fletcher opined that the patent medicine industry would be quite comfortable with the passage of such a law since the government was too small and disorganized to enforce it: “It is absurd to suppose that a bureau of the Department of Agriculture could undertake to make an analysis of all the proprietary medicines that are offered on the market.”


CentaurCo-20-1878-1a     CentaurCo-20-1886-1a

CentaurCo-20-1888-1     CentaurCo-20-1901-1aR

               However, Fletcher then passed to the more serious objection that any such attempt would be unconstitutional:

 I do not see what right the Government can possibly have to interfere with a line of business that is done openly and that is well established. If the business were an underhanded one, or if in the preparation of these articles injurious substances were used, or if there were anything in the nature of fraud in respect to a large proportion of the well-known proprietary articles, there might be some excuse for special legislation against the manufacturers.

Ads Painted On Walls



1900c View from Brooklyn Bridge Pedestrian Walk To Manhattan


1910c View Along 3rd Avenue El Manhattan

               Fletcher’s view was typical of the opinions held by proprietary medicine owners, whose products were mostly harmless and whose greatest impact was generally as a mild laxative. Nor was Fletcher out of step with his times. In an age which generally accepted the motto “caveat emptor,” and the law favored leaving people to make their own judgments about believing overblown rhetorical promises of cures and imbibing potentially dangerous concoctions containing undisclosed ingredients, government oversight was regarded simply as unwarranted and improper intrusion into people’s private affairs.

Painted Wall Ads Still Visible Recently

CentaurCo-50-2-QnsSutphinBlvd     CentaurCo-50-1-Mn-MrktBtwnHnry&EBrdwy-1c(covered2003)

               Queens                            Manhattan (cover 2003)

               In a twist that is unfamiliar to today’s Congressional watchers, the Paddock Bill died not in the Senate, where it passed smoothly, but, rather, in the House, where no vote was taken. No later commentator on the Paddock Bill has offered a coherent explanation as to why the House completely ignored it. Possibly, the explanation is as simple as the split in the 52nd Congress between the Presidency and the Senate, which were Republican, and the House, which was Democratic, but it seems apparent only that, at that time, there was insufficient popular pressure to compel the House to act. Even before it interviewed Fletcher, the Times had already editorialized against it, terming the bill both a “fatuous piece of paternalism,” and “foolish and indefensible.” It stated: “[w]e do not see how the Government inspection of proprietary articles can do any appreciable good, and we do see where it can do serious harm,” giving as its reason that any nostrum that complied with the law could, and would, then be advertised as bearing a government endorsement. Regulation of the food and drug industry languished as an unrealized goal for almost another fifteen years.



               Fletcher’s one private passion was sailing, but on yachts powered by engines, rather than under sail. Such yachts were all the rage. He lived in a time when the banker J. P. Morgan was reputed to have said about those kinds of yachts that if one had to ask about their cost, one could not afford them. Over the years, Fletcher kept up with best of the yachting crowd, consistently ordering newer, larger, more powerful yachts from Charles Seabury & Co., naval architects to the rich and famous, whose shipyard was located in the Bronx section of Morris Heights on the Harlem River in New York City. In 1908, the press covered the party Fletcher threw at the company’s dock for the launch of his latest yacht, the Jemina F. III, the third he had named after his wife, which, the Times breathlessly reported, at 111 feet long was the largest motor driven yacht in the world. Apart from the lavish owner’s suite, and the quarters for the captain and for the crew, it boasted five discrete guest stateroom suites each with a private bath. A smoking room for men and a separate ladies lounge were both located on the upper level behind the bridge and the chartroom. All the rooms and service areas were connected by the latest technological advancement, the telephone. The entire interior was built of mahogany while the exterior was constructed of Burmese teak. The hull was steel.



               While Fletcher lived in Brooklyn, he made his summer home at Belmar, N. J. Over the years, virtually all of the mentions of Fletcher in the New York Times were social notes of his comings and goings from his summer home. Fletcher used his yachts to travel between his home in Brooklyn and his summer home in Belmar, N. J. In 1909, after cruising to Newport, R. I., Fletcher docked the Jemima F. III for the remainder of that summer at Red Bank, N. J., where Fletcher’s captain, after describing the ship’s embellishments, disclosed in an interview with the local newspaper that normal supplies for the ship would enrich the local economy by over $1,500 per month apart from expenditures by its crew of nine or the cost of Fletcher’s own personal orders, and that the ship would require a supply of no less than three tons of ice per week. Oddly enough, the short article just below the interview with Fletcher’s captain recounted the itinerary of the cruise another prominent New Jersey resident was taking on his 175 foot English-built yacht equipped with nine staterooms. Apparently, even by the following season, in the competitive world of motor yachts alone, Fletcher had already lost his edge.

Sample Newspaper Ads

CentaurCo-6-2     CentaurCo-Ad-1886

Typical 1880s Ads

CentaurCo-6-10(1897)     CentaurCo-Ad-1899

1897                              1899

CentaurCo-6-7(c1900)     CentaurCo-6-13(1902)

                      1900c                          1902 Trade Ad



               For fifty years, Fletcher continued to run and grow his company, blitzing the public with never ending advertising, until he finally retired in September, 1921. He died in April, 1922 at age 84. He had three daughters and each of their husbands became part of the Centaur Co. One of his sons-in-law, George Edwards, became president of the company shortly after his death. A second, Albert Bryant of Boston, who had married into the family in 1898 and come to work for Fletcher in 1899, was instrumental in arranging the sale of the company to Sterling, holding the title of vice-president of Household Products, Inc. after the sale as well as remaining in an executive position with Centaur Co. as treasurer and production manager until his retirement in 1937.




CentaurCo-3-1925c-1bR     CentaurCo-6a-1927c-1

1925c                                   1927c

CentaurCo-6-5(1941LHJ)     CentaurCo-6-14(1943)

1941                                1943

               Sterling continued to pour money into advertising Fletcher’s Castoria prominently and kept it in the public eye with massive campaigns in magazines and newspapers as well as moving the product on to the newly emerging technologies of radio and television. They employed star power over the years, featuring a picture of world champion boxer Joe Lewis and his mother, with his Lewis affirming that his mother raised him on Fletcher’s Castoria, in a magazine ad in the late 1930s, and in late 1972, apparently lining up the mothers of three of the most current celebrities, singer Pat Boone, basketball great Wilt Chamberlain, and quarterback Bob Griese to do thirty second television commercials for it.



CentaurCo-10-2b     CentaurCo-10-4




               A few loose ends remain to the Castoria story. After reappearing in 1897 to aid Fletcher (for which service Fletcher thanked and rewarded him with a dinner service of 102 pieces of solid sterling silver), Dr. Pitcher, the originator of Castoria, continued to live a relatively quiet life on Cape Cod, MA, seemingly without regret at not becoming a millionaire like Barnes or Fletcher, until he died in 1907. Fletcher’s Castoria remained a part of various iterations of the Sterling Drug Co. until 1984 when it was sold to the Mentholatum Co., a company that had itself evolved from yet another of the 1898 revenue stamp cancelling companies (whose story will also be unfolded in the course of time), and the Mentholatum Co. was purchased, in turn, in 1988 by the Rohto Pharmaceutical Co of Osaka, Japan. Mentholatum Co., now identified as a Rohto company, holds the current trademark registration for Castoria,  and still maintains its own website on which it lists a product called Fletcher’s Laxative, which it represents has been manufactured since 1871. Since Fletcher’s Castoria was an American product, Rohto itself does not seem to currently list either Fletcher’s Castoria or Fletcher’s Laxative among its products on its main Japanese website. However, on the internet, Fletcher’s Laxative can still be readily ordered and purchased from any of a number of pharmacies and pharmaceutical suppliers.




DumbartonOakesConf(1944)     DumbartonOaksFacade

Conference                                           Today

               The last word belongs to the money that flowed from the Castoria empire.  While Charles H. Fletcher – who admittedly lived long enough to contend with income tax as Demus Barnes did not – does not seem to have bestowed any part of his wealth upon a foundation named in his or his family’s honor, a significant tangent to the history of the Centaur Co. is the ultimate philanthropic disposition of Demus Barnes’s fortune. As noted above, his daughter from his first marriage, Cora Barnes, inherited his interest in the company. She was nineteen when he remarried, but seems to have dwelled, somewhat as an afterthought, with his new family. After his death in 1888, she continued to live with her step-mother and a half-sister, born to her father and step-mother. In 1894, her step-mother re-married, to attorney William Bliss, and, in 1908, her half-sister, Mildred, married her own step-brother, Robert Woods Bliss, William’s son by his prior marriage, who served as a career U.S. diplomat. Cora continued to reside with the Blisses until she fell out of a fourth floor French window of their New York home, ostensibly having tripped over a low sill, on her fifty-third birthday in September, 1911. Since she died on her birthday and had been recovering from a nervous breakdown suffered the prior year, some believe that she committed suicide, but it was noted that she was a “large” woman and the coroner ruled her death accidental. Almost all of Cora’s fortune went to Mildred Bliss, recombining with the share of Demus Barnes’s fortune left directly to her. It was further supplemented by the remainder of Demus’s estate inherited from her mother, Demus’s widow, who died in 1935. The younger Blisses, in turn, used this fortune to create and endow an estate in Washington, D. C. known as Dumbarton Oaks, with elaborate gardens created by a pioneering female landscape designer, Beatrix Ferrand, and buildings created by renowned architects, such as Philip Johnson. They gave it to Harvard in 1940 and continued to enhance until Robert’s death in 1962 and Mildred’s in 1969. Through the efforts of Robert Woods Bliss, Dumbarton Oaks was the site of a conference among the Allied Nations in 1944 which not only created the outline for the formation of the United Nations, but also set economic guidelines for the post-World War II world. It remains open to the public today both as a museum and gardens and as a conference center, library and research facility. By such intricate and indirect pathways, did some fraction of the enormous private wealth conferred upon at least one patent medicine manufacturer trickle back to public benefit.

©  Malcolm A. Goldstein 2019




C, S

Sterling Remedy Co. (III.3) – California Fig Syrup Co.

Sterling Remedy Co., Manufacturer

Chapter 3.3 – California Fig Syrup Co., Manufacturer



As with the origin of Sterling’s original product Neuralgine, there are at least two different accounts concerning the origins of the patent medicine laxative “Syrup of Figs” initially manufactured by the California Fig Syrup Co. The first origin story was recounted as testimony taken in a lawsuit begun in 1897 which contested the company’s right to the exclusive use of the name “Syrup of Figs.”

CalifFigSyrCo-5-5a     CalifFigSyrCo-5-5b

CalifFigSyrCo-5-4a     CalifFigSyrCo-5-4b


One Richard E. Queen, who claimed to be the inventor of the product, testified that in 1878, having observed that people did not like taking laxatives in the form of pills or oils, he determined to create an effective liquid laxative. He spent a year experimenting with various combinations of ingredients and found that the most effective laxative was produced from the pods or leaves of the plant senna alexandrina, a member of the senna genus of herbs, plants and trees that contains some 250 to 350, mostly tropical, species. As that name implies, senna alexandrina’s laxative properties had been known even to the ancient Egyptians. Queen believed that the senna products then on the market were either too weak or produced results by such a violent, painful, diarrhetic action that they were all useless.

CalifFigSyrCo-5-3a     CalifFigSyrCo-5-3b     CalifFigSyrCo-6-3


Queen wanted to differentiate his brand of senna from all the others. When he added other medicines to boost the effectiveness of the senna, he had to contend with the bad taste these substances produced. To offset their bitterness and to give the liquid some body, he decided to add syrup of figs for its sugar and viscosity, but it did not blend well into his concoction. As his experiments progressed, he found that neither the bad tasting medical boosters nor the fig syrup was absolutely essential to the stable liquid senna compound he was creating. While his final recipe did require some sweetening agent, for the tiny bit he needed, he found he could just as easily have used honey. Yet, when he selected a name for his new elixir, remembering the sweet taste of the fig syrup, he christened it “Syrup of Figs.” He soon sold his formula to his own California Fig Syrup Co. which thereafter assumed its production.





The second origin story appeared as a column in a pharmaceutical trade publication at the end of 1899.  One Richard E. Queen, known locally as “Dick Queen,” a native of Bardstown, KY, born on December 21, 1853, was working as a clerk in George Newman’s drug store in Louisville, KY in 1885.  He decided to “go west” to make his fortune, took his savings of roughly $2000, moved to Reno, NV and opened a drug store himself.  To boost sales, he began hawking a preparation ginned up by a local resident, one Dr. Baldwin, which Queen advertised as “Syrup of Figs.”  Queen promptly ran out of money and bounced back to Louisville. After a year’s persuasion, his former employer, Newman, let Queen mix a batch of the Syrup in his store’s basement and lent him $5000 on the promise of repayment of the loan together with a royalty of 20 cents per dozen bottles sold. Queen spent the money buying $1200 worth of advertisements in the St. Louis trolleys and the rest on newspaper advertising. When Queen sought a further loan, Newman refused, and Queen waited.


CalifFigSyrCo-21-3c     CalifFigSyrCo-21-3d



Within a few months, lo and behold, the orders began to gush in. Once orders materialized, Newman re-opened the financial spigot and by the end of the year, Newman had invested $52,000 in the Syrup venture. Newman and Queen then organized the California Fig Syrup Co. Queen moved to San Francisco and handled advertising while Newman acted as the Eastern region sales agent. In 1893, Queen spent $429,000 on advertising which produced sales of $1,500,000, or 6,000,000 bottles. Newman received his 20 cent royalty on each of 50,000 dozen bottles sold, plus his share of the business profits. Queen earned $117,000 that year. By 1899, the stock of the company had advanced from 10 cents a share to $3.50 a share. Queen owned 600,000 of the million shares issued with Newman owning another 200,000. Newman easily earned a half million dollars, and his former clerk, Queen, had become a millionaire in ten years time. Because Queen was doing so much advertising, he finally organized his own advertising agency, the Golden Gate Advertising Bureau which added advertising commissions to his sources of wealth.  The company also quickly opened offices overseas in London, England.

CalifFigSyrCo-3-1903-1(Eng) 1903 COVER FROM ENGLISH OFFICE






Usually, the origin story of a company given in court testimony would be taken as the truest and most accurate account because it is a sworn statement given under penalty of perjury. In this instance, the popular re-telling of the origins of the company, with its emphasis on the vast sums of money earned, rings a great deal truer as to the actual circumstances giving rise to the company. However, Queen’s court testimony – palpably designed to offer a rational explanation for Queen’s choice of the name “Syrup of Figs” for his laxative – was ultimately accepted as true by the Supreme Court of the United States, but applied in a manner most inimical to Queen’s interest. The question ultimately presented to the Supreme Court that led to it to review Queen’s testimony was whether Queen could affirmatively use the power of the federal courts to enjoin another patent medicine company, Clinton E. Worden & Co. (yet another user of proprietary battleship revenues), from advertising its product as “Syrup of Figs” or “Fig Syrup,” on the grounds that California Fig Syrup Co. had established its exclusive commercial rights to those names. Having heard all of the testimony, including Queen’s, the trial court had ruled that Worden was deliberately attempting to deceive the public by copying Queen’s packaging and marketing so closely as to cause confusion between the products, and granted Queen an injunction against Worden. The appellate court affirmed, and Worden appealed to the Supreme Court.



In 1903, the Supreme Court heard a different voice in Queen’s testimony. To the extent that Queen asserted that “Syrup of Figs” was a trademark, the Court said that the name was merely descriptive and, therefore, insufficient to serve as a trademark. Morever, pointing to the fact that Queen had deemed the actual inclusion of syrup of figs only incidental to the final formulation of the “Syrup of Figs” he marketed to the public, the Supreme Court ruled that Queen could claim no monopoly on the name because the name he chose was itself misleading right from the beginning. Even though, the California Fig Syrup Co. had later advertised that senna, rather than figs, were the principal laxative agent in its “Syrup of Figs,” the Court found that the name so misleading to the public in general as to be deceptive. Falling back on an old “equitable” principle, the Court ruled that where the plaintiff had himself acted in a deceptive way – came into court with “unclean hands” – it could not seek the Court’s help to block deception. Since Queen had misled the public by calling his medicine “Syrup of Figs” when it included only the minutest amounts of fig syrup and depended on another ingredient, senna, to make the product effective, the court would not stop another patent medicine company from also advertising its laxative as “Syrup of Figs.” The loss in the Supreme Court was the last and final one in a string of similar cases that Queen lost attempting to isolate “Syrup of Figs” as his exclusive brand.



CalifFigSyrCo-6a-1895c-2     CalifFigSyrCo-6a-1899-1a

CalifFigSyrCo-6a-1899-3     CalifFigSyrCo-6a-1891-1


1890s ADS

Note that this ruling, rendered three years before the Pure Food And Drug Act, did not turn on whether any of the ingredients had any actual medicinal value, but only on the question of whether the product truthfully contained syrup of figs. The ruling raised a question of “equity” law – whether the Supreme Court should refrain from using its injunctive power to protect what it considered to be a dishonest claim – rather than any standard of medical purity or efficacy. The Supreme Court answered the question that it would not extend any commercial advantage to a liar by using its enormous injunctive power to block his competition.




Despite Queen’s doleful litigation record, just like Knowlton Danderine, Syrup of Figs attracted the attention of Weiss and Diebold because of its rapid growth and burst of sales success. Whether or not Queen exclusively controlled its name, Syrup of Figs generated enormous revenue. In 1912, Queen sold the California Fig Syrup Co. to the Sterling Remedy Co for a sum reported at the time to be “in excess of $2,000,000.” The same article indicated that California Fig Syrup Co. had spent more than $6,000,000 on advertising and had netted over $40,000,000 worth of sales across its then twenty-six year existence.



Queen remained a “man about town” in San Francisco. In 1895, he had built a Classic Revival mansion which he occupied with his wife, mother and sister. He never had children and died at age 76 while touring in Egypt in 1924. Because it is the only remaining residence in San Francisco designed by architect A. Page Brown, the Richard E. Queen House is now listed on that city’s register of historic landmarks.

CalifFigSyrCo-10a-3b     CalifFigSyrCo-10a-3h




California Fig Syrup Co. remained a separate entity within one of the divisions of Sterling Products Co. until approximately 1943 when it was absorbed into the larger company. Generic fig syrup is now readily available for use in recipes as a sweetener and is sometimes even recommended as containing either an enzyme or just plain fiber that acts as a “digestive aid.” Old myths die hard and sometimes echo through time.



©  Malcolm A. Goldstein 2018


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


F. J. Cheney & Company

Advert from Cosmopolitan Magazine

Frank J. Cheney’s usual ad for his Hall’s Catarrh Cure was a sworn affidavit, dated 1886, promising to pay $100 to any person whose catarrh wasn’t cured by his product. Cheney’s Toledo, Ohio manufacturing establishment, Frank J. Cheney & Co., operating as the Cheney Medicine Company by the time of the Spanish-American War, is identified with a variety of C.M. Co. hand stamped cancels. His medicine was a perennial best seller. Over time, Cheney’s affidavit, or a similar promise, appeared in a wide variety of publications in fields ranging from the Public School Journal, through American Kitchen Magazine, the Bee Keeper’s Journal, the North American Horticulturist, the Confederate Veteran, the trade magazines of all the railroad unions, to St. Andrew’s Cross (devoted to “the spread of Christ’s kingdom among young men,”) and The Menorah, the newsletter of the Jewish Chautauqua Society. Its popularity is attested by the regularity with which philatelists see the battleship cancels, and the frequency with which bottle collectors are offered the vast number of surviving empties. Bottle collectors have often told Cheney’s story: philatelists have not.

Like all proprietary medicine makers, Cheney regarded his formula as secret, or “proprietary.” Yet as early as 1890, in a book entitled Secret Nostrums And Systems of Medicine, a physician named Charles W. Oleson of Chicago printed an analysis of the concoction done by Frederick Stearns & Co of Detroit, another drug manufacturer:

Gentian root in coarse powder ………………………………………. 1 1/4 oz.
Bitter orange peel in coarse powder……………………………….. 5 dr.
Cardamom seeds in coarse powder………………………………… 100 gr.
Potassium Iodide…………………………………………………………. 1 oz.
Dilute Alcohol…………………………………………………………….. sufficient.

together with the directions for mixing them:

Macerate the crude drugs in 12 ounces of dilute alcohol for 48 hours; then transfer to a percolator and allow to percolate slowly; when the liquid has ceased to percolate, pass enough menstruum through the percolator to make the finished product measure 16 ounces. In this dissolve the potassium iodide.

Dr. A. Dale Covey of Detroit repeated the same formula, also quoting Stearns as the source of the analysis, in his 1903 book, Secrets of Specialists, published by the Physicians Supply Co. of Detroit. While both Frederick Stearns & Co and Physicians Supply Co paid the Spanish-American War tax on their products using distinctive battleship cancels – and themselves are subject to scrutiny in a future columns – it is enough to say now, that the authors of these books believed they were contributing to the general welfare by publishing their versions of Cheney’s ingredients. Although there is a suggestion that the publication of the formula is meant to “enlighten” in the preface to Oleson’s compilation, the wording does not make it entirely clear whether exposure of the formula was meant to discourage its use by showing the lack of established medicinal qualities of the ingredients, or simply just to make it easier for local pharmacists to compound their own competing house brands. Dr Covey’s preface states his intent to reveal and root out quackery, but, at the same time notes its intention to commend meritorious treatments. However, he too does not indicate which of the various formulae disclosed he places into which category.

The American Medical Association showed no such equivocation when it denounced Cheney’s ads in a long article published in 1918 demonstrating that Cheney never paid the advertised sum, and documenting his rejection of claims of those who had averred continued illness after consumption of up to thirty bottles with such pronouncements as the claimant had not given the Cure enough chance to work, or actually suffered from some disease other than catarrh, or needed to take larger doses of the Cure. Of course, Cheney could always technically (or legally) disqualify all claimants: he never precisely defined the term “catarrh.” Today it is regarded as a fancy and outdated name for an overgenerous flow of mucous, a symptom that any number of different ailments might cause. One can visit any drugstore to locate a shelf full of products claiming to deal with it. Most, at least, talk only of relieving the symptoms of “mucous congestion” and do not promise any kind of a miraculous cure. They too are perennial best sellers. (In light of the recent disasters in Japan, while picking up these preparations at the drugstore, one can also secure potassium iodide pills to forestall radiation sickness, a currently unnecessary (depending upon one’s level of trepidation) legitimate use for one of Cheney’s ingredients.

Upon his death in 1919, a drug trade journal recalled that Cheney was an “attractive man, personally, and made and held friends, of whom there are hundreds who will ever hold him in affectionate remembrance.” As a wealthy businessman, Cheney published a book of short stories, was a patron of the Toledo Art Museum, and maintained a box at the Toledo opera house. He used his success to act as an incorporator of the Lake Erie & Youngstown Railroad and the financier and President of the Maumee Cycle Co, apparently a less successful enterprise. Not everything was a bed of roses: a drug trade publication reported that he was expelled from his Masonic lodge in 1897, and a contemporaneous lawsuit indicates that his social club attempted unsuccessfully to expel him for conduct unbecoming a gentleman apparently involving an indiscretion with the wife of another member. A thumbnail sketch of the Cheney Medicine Co could end at this point, with the portrait of Cheney created no less contradictory than those of the other rugged individuals whose sharp practices in business led them to amass great fortunes which were then plowed back into monuments to civic virtue. However, Cheney’s real significance lies far beyond the ghostly shadow he now casts in Toledo’s annals.

It was on the national level that Cheney left an indelible mark, because his name is forever linked to the infamous “Red Clause.” That clause was simple and powerful, but requires some historical background. To sell their products, the proprietary medicine companies needed to advertise them widely and insistently. In turn, to provide the necessary advertising space, these companies found it convenient to underwrite the establishment of local newspapers in rural communities – sometimes supplying the printing presses – and keep them afloat with their advertising. Typically each separate proprietary company negotiated a one page contract with each newspaper stipulating that the newspaper would print advertising in the form the companies supplied in each issue of the paper. As the local newsmen mailed their papers into the companies to demonstrate publication of the ad, each company remitted a steady and reliable stream of cash to each of its contracted newspapers.

In 1881, realizing that there was strength in numbers, these companies decided to form the Proprietary Medicine Association of America. Cheney became a lynchpin in the organization from its beginning. With scientists beginning to seriously investigate the composition of patent medicines and question whether or not they were beneficial, political pressure was building to force the manufacturers to disclose their sometimes dubious secret ingredients. Cheney realized the contracts between the patent medicine companies and the newspapers could be wielded as a weapon to fight this growing political pressure. In private meetings of the Association, he proposed adding a clause to each contract stating if any legislation passed in the jurisdiction where the newspaper was published restricting or prohibiting the manufacture of patent medicines, the remainder of the contract was immediately voided. The clause quickly became the industry standard and was featured in every subsequent contract the companies issued, printed in red ink, as a reminder. Thus it became known as the “Red Clause.” Thereafter, whenever the federal or any state legislature began to discuss passing legislation in a manner that the patent medicine industry felt infringed upon its rights, each company simply sent a letter to each of the newspapers with which it had a contract reminding that newspaper of the Red Clause and warning that if it did not editorialize against the offending legislation, it risked the loss of revenue which would follow the passage of the legislation. Since each local newspapers had contracts with multiple patent medicine companies to fill its many columns with advertising, one can imagine the barrage of mail each editor received every time a legislature took up the subject of patent medicines, and can further imagine the burst of negative editorials that followed in the next issue against such legislation. By using Cheney’s “Red Clause,” the Association made itself an enormously powerful lobbying organization on both the national and state levels of government. When secret minutes of the Proprietary Association meetings were later revealed, they showed that Cheney used to brag about the efficacy of the Red Clause in defeating state disclosure laws.

Representing Collier’s Weekly, a national magazine whose editorial board had determined to refuse patent medicine advertising, Samuel Hopkins Adams cultivated a few principled, local newspaper editors who leaked to him copies of their contracts with the patent medicine companies. In 1905, using these documents, he finally exposed the existence of the “Red Clause” to public scrutiny. The revelation was more stunning because at that time Cheney was serving as the president and principal spokesman for the Association. Cheney was held up to public ridicule briefly, and, while the uproar that followed the revelation of the “Red Clause” led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, in 1919, when Cheney died, his 1886 affidavit was still running as the advertisement for Hall’s Catarrh Cure in local newspapers.

Enough history! Now hurry out to get your supply of potassium iodide pills!

© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2011

A. L. Calder

Albert Lawton Calder staked his claim to fame on the tooth cleaning compound Dentine. In an age devoted to praising American ingenuity elaborately, graciously and generously, the exhibit of the company bearing his name at the Jamestown Exhibition of 1907 was thus lauded:

An artistic corner was reserved for the exhibit … . The superlative qualities of this dentifrice were advertised in a quaint and unique way.
Calder’s Saponaceous Dentifrice, prepared by Albert L. Calder, was the first tooth powder made in this country, and was the first to attain national and foreign sale; it was, therefore, peculiarly appropriate that it should be exhibited at the Jamestown Exposition. Dentine has always been manufactured with the same care used in putting up prescriptions , and it has justly enjoyed such a reputation – since first manufactured in 1850 – that many tooth powders since placed on the market have aimed at equaling in its purity and quality, but none have [sic] succeeded so far.
This substance was always described as “saponaceous,” which means, essentially, soapy. Precisely why it was “saponaceous” is unclear, but perhaps the term was meant to emphasize that it was neither gritty nor abrasive. Apparently, Calder’s product was prepared legitimately in a non-toxic manner and never seems to have run afoul of the Pure Food and Drug Law crusaders. Judging by the frequency with which the cancel appears today, it must have been extremely successful in its time.

A. L. Calder 5/8 cent proprietary stamps

A. L. Calder, born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1825, opened a retail pharmacy there in partnership with Joseph Balch in 1842. Between 1848 and 1850, he worked in Boston for Seth W. Fowle, later of RS 91 fame. In 1850, he returned to Providence and, in 1851, opened a retail pharmacy with his brother George, who two years later shifted his attention to his own broader wholesale drug, chemical, paint and dye business. Albert continued the retail pharmacy until 1886, and, in fact, a Calder cancel has been identified on the earlier governmental proprietary issues. Albert was an original member of the Rhode Island Board of Pharmacy, as well as its President from1870 to 1885, and also acted as President of the newly formed local Providence pharmaceutical association when it organized in 1874. Yet Calder gave ever increasing attention to marketing his own brand, and finally closed his retail business entirely to devote his time to the manufacture of Dentine.

In 1890, he acted his firm’s representative to the National Wholesale Druggists Association meeting, and, at some point, subscribed his company to the NWDA’s plan to control retail re-sale prices which was finally declared illegal as a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Law in 1907. As a staunch Republican, he also participated in local government and other civic endeavors. In 1879, he became a director of the Providence Athenaeum, the city’s library. At his death in 1899, he was lauded as a leader and benefactor of his Unitarian Church for more than forty years, and praised for his continuing dedication to church and civic causes. George, apparently less civically minded, closed his wholesale business and retired in 1900. He died at age 86 in 1916.

A L Calder appears to have been succeeded in the manufacturing business by his son, A. L. Carter 2d, and the business continued to flourish. In 1908, the year the company incorporated, the national printing trades magazine reported that the Calder company’s entire advertising budget was being channeled into streetcar advertising to the detriment of magazine and newspaper advertising. By 1912, the Company had moved to a new location and was operating as both the Albert L Calder Co and the Calder Dentine Co. In 1921, the Calder Dentine Co re-incorporated, lasting as a pharmacy supply house until 1937 before finally ceasing business in 1938.

The Calders must have traveled among the elite of Providence. In 1902, a miniature portrait of Mrs A L Calder was lent by its painter to a display of “Fair Women” sponsored by the Copley Society at Copley Hall in Boston Mrs Calder and her daughter-in-law were both listed in the 1905 Providence Society Blue Book as members of the Providence Art Club. Mrs Calder was listed as a visitor to the fashionable and posh Battle Creek Sanitarium in 1908, and Mrs Calder 2d served as a General Vice President of the National Daughters of the American Revolution in the early 1920s.

© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2012