Sterling Remedy Co., Manufacturer
Chapter 3.3 – California Fig Syrup Co., Manufacturer
BATTLESHIP PROPRIETARY ISSUE
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.”
TRADE CARDS EXAMPLES
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.
EXAMPLES OF TRADE CARD & BOOK MARK
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.
BOOKLET FOR EXHIBIT AT CHICAGO WORLD’S FAIR IN 1893
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.
SAMPLE CHILDREN’S BOOKLET PAGES
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.
1903 COVER FROM ENGLISH OFFICE
ENGLISH PROPRIETARY MEDICINE TAX STAMPS – 1ST HALF 20th CENTURY
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.
1908 COMPANY COVER
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.
AD FROM 1890 MEYER BROS. CATALOGUE
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.
1905c ORIGINAL COMPANY’S BOTTLE
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.
1919 AD AFTER STERLING TAKEOVER
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.
BOX(TOP) & BOTTLE FROM 1920S AFTER STERLING TAKEOVER
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.
BOX & BOTTLE FROM 1935C AFTER FURTHER STERLING REORGANIZATION
© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2018