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Sterling Products, Inc. (IV.1) – Farbenfabriken Bayer of Elberfeld

Sterling Products, Inc., Manufacturer

Chapter 4.1 – Farbenfabriken Bayer of Elberfeld, Manufacturer







           When Sterling Products, Inc. purchased the assets of the American assets of the German company, Farbenfabriken Bayer of Elberfeld, it was the equivalent of a minnow swallowing a whale, for Bayer was already a complex, multi-layered, multi-national chemical and dye business while Sterling Products, Inc. was a brash peddler of nostrums, albeit a rich and resourceful one.



          As set out in the discussion of the VapoCresoline Co., the modern petrochemical industry grew out of the commercialization of coal as fuel.  Controlled burning of coal produced coal gas, which became the earliest commercial gas supplied for street and house illumination, but also produced a residue of coal-tar, at first considered dirty, useless glop.  When chemists all around the world began to analyze coal tar, it was found to be composed of hundreds of different substances some of which could be utilized by other industries.  In particular, the substance aniline, first isolated from coal tar in 1826 by Otto Unverdorben in Germany, could be turned into synthetic fabric dyes.  This discovery was significant news for the dyeing industry, which has existed from the beginning of recorded history, but had changed remarkably little over thousands of years because dye sources were extremely limited by known natural substances and sources.  For example, Tyrian purple, the lushest purple dye reserved for the garments of Roman emperors and senators, could be produced only by crushing huge amounts of the shells of certain sea-snail species found mainly near the Eastern Coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and so remained extremely costly through the ages.


          In 1863, Friedrich Bayer and Johann Friedrich Westcott organized Frederich Bayer & Co to exploit the possibilities of these new artificial, aniline dyes. They were in a good position to enter this burgeoning field because Bayer was a dealer in natural dyes who had a network of sales agents and Westcott operated a factory for the extraction of natural dyes.  They located their plant in their hometown, Barmen, a small village approximately twenty miles east of Düsseldorf in the northwest corner of Germany. Bayer soon brought Carl Rumpff into the business as his agent in New York City.  Rumpff had emigrated from Germany to the United States and worked there in the coal-tar business before accepting employment as Bayer’s U.S. agent.  Rumpff soon became Bayer’s most trusted assistant.  In 1876, he moved back to Germany and married Bayer’s eldest daughter, Clara.  Westcott died in 1876, and Rumpff took over the entire business when Bayer died in 1880.  By then, because of problems associated with disposal of toxic waste generated from the dyeing business, the company had moved a short distance to the town of Elberfeld.  The next year, Rumpff took the company public under the name Farbenfabriken vormals Frederich Bayer & Co, which means the Dye Factory formerly known as Friedrich Bayer & Company (“Bayer”).


          By this time, however, Bayer was struggling because it was too dependent on the sales of a single dye, alizarin, an orange-red dye. In the process of searching for new dyes to boost Bayer’s faltering product line, Rumpff hired a young graduate student in chemistry named Carl Duisberg.  Under German patent law, it was then permissible to market a patented product that someone else was manufacturing, provided the second production method was completely independent of the first and, therefore, did not infringe the underlying patent.1   Joining the firm in 1884, Duisberg quickly struck gold by finding an alternate method for Bayer to produce a competitor’s dye known as Congo Red.  Duisberg’s discovery put Bayer’s finances on a firm footing.  He subsequently perfected two other dyes, and Rumpff installed him as the head of Bayer’s research and patent department.


          As well as working with dyes, Duisberg was sensitive to the growing possibilities for other kinds of chemicals derived from coal-tar.  In the field of medicine, he observed Cahn and Hepp’s discovery of acetanilid in 1886 and watched them propel it into a market success by allowing it to be prescribed by doctors and sold only under the specific brand name “Antifebrin” rather than permitting it to be identified simply by its generic chemical name, acetanilid.  He also realized that acetanilid was chemically similar to para-nitrophenol, a waste product of Bayer’s dye manufacturing process stored in a vast quantity of barrels piled all around the company’s factory yard. Recognizing that he might be able to create from the para-nitrophenol a compound to compete with Antifebrin, he put his research department to work.  His chemists found a compound called acetophenetidin, which Duisberg then had Bayer market under the brand name Phenacetin.  It was first sold in 1888. Although it cost more than Antifebrin, and still had the same potential lethal side effects of acetanilid, doctors quickly judged it to be the safer of the two drugs.  An influenza epidemic that struck the Northern hemisphere in 1889 popularized the Phenacetin outside of Germany and spectacularly boosted Bayer’s sales.



          By 1890, when Rumpff died and Duisberg became the head of Bayer, Duisberg had married Rumpff’s niece and merged his administrative prestige with family ownership. The next year, Bayer, having outgrown its plant at Elberfeld, moved its main headquarters about fifteen miles to the southeast to a campus in a town called Leverkusen, just north of Cologne on the east bank of the Rhine river.  That plant is still there and operating today.  Duisberg had the old plant at Elberfeld reconditioned purely as the company’s research facility for new drugs.  It was split into two departments: the first to develop new products and the second to test their efficacy prior to bringing them to market.  One of the first projects Duisberg assigned to his new laboratory was to find an even better and safer pain relief compound, since Phenacetin still carried the potential for lethal harm if misused.



         Before Cahn and Hepp derived acetanilid, there were only two natural compounds that acted as analgesics, that is, they successfully relieved pain.  Each had its drawbacks. The first was salicylic acid derived from the bark of the white willow tree.  Its basic chemical, a bitter-tasting substance called salicin, had been isolated as the bark’s active ingredient in 1828, and first synthesized as an acid in 1838.  Its side effects were nausea and ringing in the ears.  The second was quinine, which was compounded made from the bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree.  It too caused unpleasant side effects, and, moreover, was extremely difficult to obtain in quantities sufficient to use for experiments, since scientists could not yet synthesize the active compound and the tree resisted all cultivation attempts outside of Peru.


           One synthetic pain-killer existed already. In 1883, a German chemist named Ludwig Knorr had created a compound which was marketed under the name Antipyrine.  He patented it and assigned its manufacture to another chemical company, now known as Hoechst (which will also be profiled in this column bye and bye). However, Antipyrine suffered under some drawbacks as well.  First as a patented medicine, its manufacture and sale was limited solely to the patent holder, Hoechst, which exercised its legal monopoly to make it expensive.  Second, as a medicine whose chemical formula was protected by a legal patent – and therefore not truly a “patent medicine” at all – it was advertised and marketed – as all such “ethical” drugs were – only to doctors, not directly to the public.  The doctors created a demand for an “ethical” drug by prescribing it to their patients, who then purchased it from them or from pharmacies. In the case of Antipyrine, its name, however – which doctors took to mean limited its use to fever reduction – did not really describe its chemical formula sufficiently enough for doctors to be entirely comfortable prescribing it, and, moreover, doctors considered pain merely a symptom of the underlying disease that warranted treatment, rather than a condition in itself to be alleviated.  While the public might have disagreed with that professional assessment – and Antipyrine was quite popular briefly where it became available in certain countries without a prescription – because doctors did not adopt it broadly, its appeal was soon eclipsed by subsequent events.  Even with its possibly lethal consequences, acetanilid – never protected by a patent because it had been synthesized before its medicinal properties were recognized – was always cheaper than Antipyrine. Phenacetin, as expensive as Antipyrine, but judged safer than acetanilid, soon cut into its sales. Meanwhile, Duisberg was already working on a better product.



          Duisberg’s new laboratory at Elberfeld responded to his challenge to develop an analgesic without potential fatal side effects by producing Aspirin.  The legend that surrounds its discovery begins with a young chemist named Felix Hoffman, who had drawn the assignment to develop Bayer’s next pain reliever.  From among the choices of existing analgesics, Hoffman chose to work with salicylic acid.  The reason Hoffman chose that compound was that his father was crippled by chronic rheumatism, and took sodium salicylate, the available form of salicylic acid, to relieve the pain.  Because that treatment caused him severe stomach pains, he begged his son to find him a more effective treatment.  On October 10, 1897, Hoffman noted in his laboratory workbook a method for converting salicylic acid into acetylsalicylic acid.   He reportedly gave his father the resulting compound and discovered that his father experienced a complete remission.  The new compound was immediately denominated Aspirin, and the rest is history.


          In actuality, Hoffman was not the first to produce acetylsalicylic acid, but did find a better method for synthesizing it.  However, when the compound was sent to Duisberg’s other laboratory department for testing, it was summarily rejected because, in the doses originally utilized it caused heart palpitations.  In addition, the testing laboratory was busy trumpeting another new discovery, a cough medicine called Heroin, which was much more effective than codeine and promised to be completely non-addictive. Acetylsalicylic acid remained neglected for approximately a year until Hoffman’s boss in the drug developing department, Arthur Eichengrün, circumvented the testing department by placing samples with some of his practicing colleagues.  Their favorable reports prompted the testing laboratory to conduct its own tests which were glowing. The head of the testing laboratory, Heinrich Dreser, then published the first paper on Aspirin, omitting to mention either Hoffman or Eichengrün.  Once placed on the market, Aspirin’s success was immediate.  Ironically, because of his contract with Bayer as head of the testing laboratory, Dreser received royalties on the sales of Aspirin that were so immense that he was able to retire early from Bayer.  Hoffman and Eichengrün received no special compensation for their contribution to the development of Aspirin and only belated credit for its development.


          The largest potential market for Aspirin was the United States.  Bayer already had a sales history in the United States.  As noted above, Frederich Bayer had immediately set up a sales agency in the United States and Carl Rumpff had initially been employed in New York City before moving back to Germany.  By the late 1890s, the United States had already emerged as the biggest market for Bayer’s dyes, accounting for greater sales even than Germany.  Bayer had employed Schieffelin & Co. (previously mentioned in the article on John D. Park & Sons) as its distributor in the United States, but Rumpff’s successor in Bayer’s New York office never felt that it featured Bayer’s products, such as Phenacetin, prominently enough, so in 1898 Duisberg discharged Schieffelin & Co. and made Bayer U.S. its own sales and distribution center.  Dr. Hugo Schweitzer, a chemist who had emigrated to America in 1889 and become an American citizen was a consultant to Bayer U.S. and was both a prominent spokesman on behalf of the company and a primary channel of communication between Bayer U.S. and the head office in Leverkusen, Germany.  Meanwhile,  Duisberg who had protected Bayer by patenting Phenacetin in the United States, immediately patented Aspirin in the United States as well.  However, because Hoffman had actually not been the first to produce acetylsalicylic acid, Bayer was only able to win patents for Aspirin in the United States and in England.



             Still, even with patent protection for the formula for Aspirin and, initially, trademark protection for its name, Bayer felt it was at a marketing disadvantage in the United States.  High U.S. tariffs, as well as the certain prospect of the patent’s eventual expiration, persuaded Duisberg that he ought to have a production plant in the United States to maximize Aspirin’s sales prospects. Bayer finally determined that its best course of action would be to expand its presence in the United States. In 1881, Bayer had purchased a one-quarter interest in the Hudson River Aniline & Color Works located in Rensselaer, N.Y. across the Hudson River from Albany. Duisberg visited this property in 1903 and decided to create a plant on the Hudson along the same design parameters as he had developed on the Rhine at Leverkusen. He had the machinery from another dye plant transferred to this location and erected new buildings to accommodate the production of Aspirin, which included two large crucibles made of pure silver needed to hold the acetic acid required to acetylate salicylic acid.



           Aspirin’s success in the United States, combined with its relatively high price guaranteed by its patent-protected monopoly, immediately led competitors to emulate it. One Edward Kuehmsted, a somewhat shady drug dealer in Chicago, some of whose exploits are recounted in a book entitled Twenty Years in the Wickedest City in the World by Detective Clifford Rodman Woolridge, began to import large quantities of acetylsalicylic acid from Canada, where Bayer did not hold a patent.  Bayer responded in 1905 with a patent infringement suit.  No sooner had it filed its suit, than a similar suit in England that Bayer had filed against a German competitor was decided against Bayer invalidating its English patent, precisely because Hoffman had not been the first to create acetylsalicylic acid, and the English court – drawing the opposite conclusion from German law – could not grasp the fine distinctions Bayer tried to articulate between Hoffman’s process, which it claimed yielded a purer form of acetylsalicylic acid, and the earlier process utilized by that other German company.  Bayer’s American attorney then delayed the proceeding for roughly the next four years. When the American court rendered its opinion, much to everyone’s surprise, it ignored the English precedent and upheld the legitimacy of Bayer’s patent, finding sufficient novelty in Hoffman’s process to warrant a separate patent.  When the plaintiff Kuehmsted complained that Bayer was unable to patent Hoffman’s process anywhere else in the world, the judge merely remarked that the United States was different from any other country.  In 1910, an appellate decision confirming the lower court’s reasoning sealed Bayer’s patent victory.



          World War I began in Europe in 1914.  At first the United States attempted to remain neutral and avoid favoring either England, the principal power among the Allies or Germany, the principal anchor of the Central Powers.  However, as a German company operating in the United States, Bayer found itself in a number of harrowing scrapes before the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allies and seized its American assets.



          One of the stories is now told as the Great Phenol Plot of 1915.  An essential ingredient for the manufacture of Aspirin was a substance called phenol, another organic chemical originally derived from coal-tar.  Phenol, however, was also a building block for many, many other substances, including a potent explosive trinitrophenol. Before the war, England provided most of the phenol Bayer needed, although not to Bayer directly, but rather to its suppliers.  They, in turn, used the phenol to produce salicylic acid, which Bayer then purchased and turned into Aspirin.

ZRSchweitzerHugo     AlbertHeinrichIn1915R


         As soon as the war began, England stopped all foreign export of phenol.  Bayer’s suppliers were starved and Bayer also faced closure because it could not obtain salicylic acid to convert into Aspirin in its pure silver cauldrons.  Many other companies in the United States were also facing a shortage of phenol, and one man who immediately took action was Thomas Edison, who required phenol to produce his best quality phonograph records.  He set up two new plants to synthesize phenol.  No sooner were the plants in operation than Edison was approached by none other than Hugo Schweitzer, still operating as a consulting chemist for Bayer, to purchase all of Edison’s excess production of phenol for use by Schweitzer’s company, the Chemical Exchange Association.  Unbeknownst to Edison, Schweitzer had been employed by the German Embassy to act as an agent on behalf of the German government and it supplied the money Schweitzer used to pay Edison.  As well as trying to tip public opinion toward Germany, the German Embassy in the United States was charged with preventing – in any way possible, as best it could – the United States from exporting chemicals to the Allies which they could use to harm Germany.  Schweitzer took the phenol he had purchased from Edison and entered into a contract to have it turned into salicylic acid by the American branch of Chemische Fabrick von Heyden (the very same German firm whom Bayer had sued in England that had led to the invalidation of its Aspirin patent in England).  Heyden’s American branch had been supplying Bayer’s American plant with salicylic acid under a contract between the two companies made before the war and it was natural for it to resume its contract with Bayer when it again had salicylic acid to sell. Schweitzer exported the balance of the salicylic acid himself. As well as turning a profit on all of the phases of the transaction, Schweitzer managed to divert all of Edison’s excess production of phenol from being turned into the explosive trinitrophenol by the Allies. Estimates were that four and a half million pounds of explosives could have been produced from the phenol that Schweitzer managed to divert.

zzRBayer-10A-6a(Protargol)     zzRBayer-10A-5a(Somatose)


          The scheme did not last too long.  Schweitzer’s paymaster, a German Embassy official, Heinrich Albert, fell asleep on the Sixth Avenue elevated railway in New York City.  Awaking suddenly to find he was missing his stop, he jumped up and departed so hurriedly that he left his briefcase in the subway car.  It was immediately seized by a sharp-eyed Secret Service agent who had been assigned to watch his movements.  While the briefcase did not contain enough material for the United States to indict any specific German Embassy official for acts of sabotage, when its contents became public after a highly placed member of the U.S. government leaked the papers to an anti-German newspaper, there was an enormous public hue and cry and the entire press charged the Germans with theft of American chemicals.  However, in 1915 the United States was not prepared to end its neutrality, although the subsequent public outrage was strong enough to persuade the Germans to cease funding Schweitzer’s contract with Edison. Schweitzer simply then made other arrangements and continued to purchase Edison’s excess phenol for another several months until growing sentiment in favor of the Allies finally pressured Edison to start selling his excess phenol to the United States government.  By that time there was enough of a supply of phenol to assure that Bayer would stay in operation, but its reputation as an honorable chemical company was severely impaired by its involvement in the Great Phenol Plot.


          As the prospect of America’s entry into World War I on the side of the Allies loomed larger and larger, Bayer engaged in one more complex intrigue to protect itself.  The German owners and managers of Bayer’s American operations realized that seizure of enemy property would follow a declaration of war by the United States.  At the beginning of the war, the European combatants mutually had seized enemy property for their own use for the duration of the war intending to return such property in tact following hostilities.  As the intensity of the war increased, that prospect became unlikely. While Bayer’s management could not avoid seizure of the physical assets, it realized it was were even more vulnerable because in 1913 Bayer’s German headquarters had also transferred to a newly formed American subsidiary ownership of the intangible assets, not only of the expiring patents, but, most importantly, the American trademark rights. These managers, therefore, schemed to cushion themselves against the possible impact of seizure by channeling Bayer’s profits to their own benefit as well as setting up a genuine American corporation which they would control to act as its dummy to bid for these assets in the unfortunate event of a sale.



          Cynically recognizing that the American army would need uniforms if it went to war, Bayer purchased another dyeing company in Providence, RI, Williams & Crowell (“W & C RI”), to provide dye for such uniforms.  However, instead of Bayer’s appearing as owner of W & C RI, an American attorney advised Bayer’s officials to set up another American company, Williams & Crowell Color Co. of New York (“W & C New York”), to actually take title.  Management and ownership of W & C New York was nominally placed in the names of Americans (such as the advising attorney), but the real owners were Bayer’s owners and managers.  They, in turn, provided the money from Bayer’s profits for W & C New York to purchase W & C RI.  Moreover, since, in their capacity as Bayer’s managers, they bought all of W & C RI’s output at inflated prices for resale to the American army, they re-cycled the money to themselves, and had those inflated profits stored and available in an American company for any other eventuality which might arise.  Bayer’s management also ensured that a friendly American, properly bribed, was installed as manager of Bayer the U.S. Alien Property Custodian actually seized control of its operation in January, 1918.  Through friendly administration of Bayer’s assets while under American control and storage of Bayer’s profits in a certified American corporation, Bayer’s management felt it could navigate through any eventuality that arose, even the ultimate unfortunate event of a sale by the Custodian.



          Eventualities, however, did not evolve in the manner Bayer’s management anticipated. An anonymous crackpot letter, claiming that W & C RI was poisoning the military uniform fabric it was dyeing, led A. Mitchell Palmer, the U.S. Attorney-General, acting in his capacity as the Alien Property Custodian, to examine its operations. When the Custodian investigated, he quickly discovered the shell nature of its ownership. The American attorney to whom Bayer’s management had entrusted leadership of W & C RI quickly bailed on Bayer, and announced he would instead purchase the company himself from the Custodian when it was put up for sale.  When the Custodian revealed all of the plotting by Bayer’s managers, their machinations led to further public condemnation and ultimately to their arrest on charges of trading with the enemy.  By the time the Custodian was ready to auction Bayer’s assets, its prior management had effectively disappeared.  The way was clear for Sterling Products, Inc. to make its audacious bid to buy Bayer’s remarkably valuable assets for its own future development.


¹     A similar ruling emerged in the United States in the 2009 Abbott v. Sandoz case discussed in the column concerning Abbott Alkaloidal Co.

©   Malcolm A. Goldstein 2018


Frank H. Fleer Co.


Because Frank H. Fleer’s company was the other remaining major independent chewing gum manufacturing firm drawn into the American Chicle Co. during the industry’s second consolidation in 1909, as set forth in the recent article about the T. B. Dunn Co., its story follows naturally after T.B. Dunn’s. From time to time, subsequent articles will relate the stories of the several other subsidiary firms melded into the industry trust that was the American Chicle Co.  Moreover, although the Fleer cancels do not appear as frequently as those of the T. B. Dunn Co., its two forms of hand stamped cancels account for many of those observed on RB30s.

FleerFHCo-2-RB30-1-1899-04-21     FleerFHCo-2-RB30-1-1899-06-06



Frank H. Fleer is another of those unique American individuals remembered from his era – which seemed to regarded wealth as a mark of God’s favor – for developing a product which immediately became emblematic of American life. Fleer is credited with inventing Chiclets, and their success was immediate and long-lasting. Much more so than Dunn’s Sen-Sen, they still can be purchased at virtually all newspaper stands, drug stores, and retail food outlets. In fact, Fleer was a pioneer in the gum industry in two different ways in two different decades, being the first to market Chiclets in the late 1890s and later experimenting with bubble gum in the early 1900s, albeit his company did not perfect the product until 1928. Yet, ironically, his company is probably best remembered today for its later involvement with what began as an incidental give-away accompanying the gum, baseball cards.



As with most hundred year old tales, various versions of Fleer’s story recount the details of his life slightly differently. In addition, none of the websites presently discussing Fleer and his gum actually displays a picture of him, although some sites misidentify portraits of others as his. Various sources place Fleer’s birth between 1853 and 1860. U.S. census records show his birth date as 1858, presumably derived from information he provided. One internet source, however, displays a picture of a gravestone of a Frank H. Fleer showing his birth date as July 9, 1857. Since all sources agree that he was born in Westphalia, then a part of Prussia in Germany, the mystery is resolved by a German record of births and baptisms indicating that Franz Heinrich Fleer, indeed born on July 9, 1857 to Jobst and Wilhelmine Fleer, was baptized at St. Peter’s Evangelical Church in Herford, Westphalia on August 2, 1857. Fleer immigrated to the U.S. in 1875, settling in Philadelphia, and his younger brother Henry joined him there in 1881. Eventually, the stories say that Frank entered his father-in-law’s flavoring extract business that had been founded in 1849, but, here also, the record is somewhat blurred. A Pennsylvania marriage record indicates that he married Pauline Alice Shoestein in 1885, but virtually all versions of Fleer’s story indicate that his father-in-law’s name was Otto Holstein. Since, beginning in the mid-1860s, Otto Holstein is listed in various Philadelphia city directories as a merchant, it appears the 1885 record is simply garbled. Whatever the case, Fleer soon renamed the business the Frank H. Fleer Co. and began manufacturing chewing gum by adding Holstein’s flavoring extracts to chicle, the dried sap of the South and Central American sapodilla tree, already established as the principal ingredient of chewing gum.

Actually, although seemingly not presently preserved as part of the record of chewing gum history, Fleer’s face was known in his era. His portrait was featured on his gum wrappers, a phenomenon that sparked discussion at the time. Ad industry professionals commented that his face was “self-satisfied,” “opulent” and too “handsome” to support a public campaign to promote sales of his new product, Pepsin Guru-Kola Gum,” launched on July 1, 1896. In response, Fleer’s advertising manager, Mayer M. Swaab, Jr., replied, in a letter to that same professional advertising journal, that he had fought a difficult battle with Fleer to convince Fleer to allow him to use Fleer’s face on the gum wrapper, and the bottom line as to whether that was a correct decision was best judged by the $225,000 sales generated by the product in its first year.




Fleer tried to stay at the forefront of the chewing gum business, not only by being among the first to add cola flavoring to his gum, but also by being among the earliest to utilize vending machines as a new way to sell his gum. A story is told that an intrepid vending machine salesman approached Fleer. The salesman claimed that people would find the gimmickry of the new machines so fascinating that they would feed money into them even if the machines returned nothing for the penny deposited. Fleer agreed to sponsor a test and set one up in the Flatiron Building in New York City labeled with the instruction for people to “drop a penny in the slot and listen to the wind blow.” So many people complied that the police seized the machine. Fleer placed his vending machine order immediately.

Fleer’s brother Henry provided the blockbuster development which took the Fleer Co. to the next level. Trying to design a gum to match candy-coated almonds then much in vogue, Henry hit upon the idea of wrapping a hard candy coating around a chicle center. He described the resulting hard gum-candy squares as “little chiclets.” Frank seized upon that name for this new product and touched off a new chewing gum craze. Fleer brought his prosperous and thriving Chiclet business into the American Chicle Co. consolidation in 1909, and, apparently, emerged from the arrangement with the title of Chairman of the Board of the re-organized company.

FleerFHCo-3-1907-1a     FleerFHCo-3-1907-1b


It is interesting to note that the Dunn and Fleer companies approached the payment of the Spanish-American War tax differently. The special tax rate imposed on chewing gum was 4¢ per dollar of retail value, as opposed to 2½¢ per dollar of retail value for proprietary medicines. The Treasury Department intended to place the burden of the tax payment on the gum manufacturers and apparently accepted the presence of the 4¢ stamp on the retailer’s gum display box as proof of the manufacturers’ payment. Fleer complied with this regulatory scheme, hence, its use of 4¢ stamps. Dunn and some other gum manufacturers apparently voluntarily chose to stamp most of their individual gum packages with the 1/8¢ battleship revenue stamp, RB20, which was actually designed to indicate payment of tax on medicinal items retailing for 5¢ or less at the 2 ½% per dollar rate of the proprietary medicine tax. The government apparently accepted either kind of accounting, and the total remitted to the government by such companies must have accorded with the 4% gum tax rate, since there is no record of litigation brought by the government alleging short tax payment by any of the gum manufacturers.

FleerFHCo-6a-1906-2     FleerFHCo-6a-1907-2


1906, 1907 & 1909 FLEER ADS

The history of the Frank H. Fleer Co. that utilized battleship revenues ends at this point, and theoretically, so should this article. However, there are still too many good stories to tell about Fleer’s subsequent adventures and history.

The Second Frank H. Fleer Co.

Fleer apparently was too restless a soul to remain in a purely executive capacity in the American Chicle Co., and by 1913 had organized a second Frank H. Fleer Co. Since the contract under which he had merged the original Flank H. Fleer Co. company into the American Chicle Co. forbade him from competing against it in the chicle gum manufacturing business, this second Frank H. Fleer Co. began as a confectionary company manufacturing candy called Fleer’s Bobs and Fruit Hearts. Fleer himself died suddenly of apoplexy at his country estate in Thomasville, North Carolina in 1921, but not before he had passed effective control of the company to his son-in-law Gilbert Mustin.



Two aspects of the second Frank H. Fleer Co.’s business impressed themselves into American culture as firmly as had Chiclets. First, the company began experimenting with trade cards to accompany their candies, issuing a set of 120 cards, featuring notable entertainers and athletes, including Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Babe Ruth. Eventually, the trade cards, particularly the sports cards, would come to play a more important part in its business than gum. A recently discovered uncut page of these Fleer cards created a mild stir because it contained the Babe Ruth card. However, the movie stars and presidents appearing on the other cards occasioned no similar flurry.








The other innovation made by the second Frank H. Fleer Co. was that it successfully produced the first bubble gum. Chicle based products would not form bubbles, so Frank H. Fleer had experimented with other substances and, as early as 1906, developed a gum called “Blibber-Blubber.” One could blow bubbles with it, but its texture resembled brittle Sticky Putty, making it hard to chew. Moreover, once the blown bubble burst, it was almost impossible to re-collect to blow into another bubble. Faced with these drawbacks, Fleer shelved the product, and there it remained until Gilbert Mustin pressed the research forward.



The correct formula for bubble gum emerged in a most unlikely way from a most unlikely source, according to the tale repeated often enough after the discovery to be accepted now as gospel. Experimental batches of gum were mixed on the third floor of the Fleer factory, but the company’s telephone was on the ground floor. When Mustin, who was overseeing the trials, went off to take phone calls, he left the simmering mixtures in the care of Walter Diemer, a twenty-three year old employed by the Fleer company as an accountant who possessed no background in chemistry. Because Mustin hurried away so often, it fell to Diemer, literally, to keep the pot boiling. After months of trial and error, Diemer hit upon the proper blend of natural ingredients, including a pinch of latex, that both could be blown into a bubble and then easily and quickly re-collected to blow into another bubble. Once he had found the correct formula, he quickly made another batch. While preparing the second mixture, he realized that he had forgotten to add coloring. Scrambling to find some dye, he found he had only pink at hand, so into the cauldron it went. Named “Dubble Bubble,” this pink trial bubble gum debuted as a thousand pieces wrapped like taffy and sold for a penny in a candy shop in Philadelphia on December 26, 1928. They disappeared within a day. Since that first batch of bubble gum was pink, pink became its traditional color forevermore. Dubble Bubble was an instant success, but Diemer never patented the formula, since he did not want to disclose the exact formulation of its ingredients. Others quickly entered the bubble gum market, although Dubble Bubble dominated bubble gum sales at least through the end of World War II. On the strength of his discovery, Diemer ultimately rose to become Senior Vice President of the Fleer company, although he always retained among his responsibilities the job of teaching all Fleer salesmen how to blow bubbles so they could demonstrate the product.





When Gilbert Mustin’s oldest son, Gilbert Jr., became president of the company, Fleer’s emphasis began to shift from gum to trading cards.  That trading cards became more important than gum is demonstrated by the fact that the remaining illustrations for this article are all sports trading cards.  No one collects the gum; only the cards remain significant and have websites carefully attributing value to minor variations in quality, just like stamps.  Through its executive Harry Ellsworth (who because of his lifetime of work in candy advertising now is remembered as the “Candy Man”), Fleer was able to negotiate a contract in 1959 with Ted Williams that allowed it to issue a special set of 80 baseball cards devoted entirely to commemorating the life and career of Williams. Although this set demonstrated to Fleer the extent of the untapped potential of the baseball trading card market, another bubble gum company, Topps held individual contracts with virtually all major and minor league baseball players to use their likenesses on baseball cards sold with gum.  Fleer made it a practice to approach players when they began their careers on their minor league teams and signed them to a standard form which covered a period of five consecutive years.  The contract offered a token payment for signing with additional payments to follow when they reached the majors.   The existence of these contracts made competition in the area of baseball trading cards extremely difficult for Fleer.



Football, however, was another matter. The American Football Conference (AFC) was just organizing to compete with the National Football League (NFL). Although Topps had an exclusive arrangement with the NFL, just as it had with Major League Baseball, Fleer was able to negotiate a group arrangement with the fledgling AFC that permitted it to issue AFC player cards, giving it a toe-hold in the football card market.



Fleer still wanted to enter the baseball card market. It began to sign minor league baseball players to its own trading card contracts in order to put pressure on Topps, but never could land contracts with more than 27 of the more than 400 major league players. For two more years, it issued baseball cards memorializing past baseball legends, but after issuing a first series of 66 cards of current major leaguers in 1963 (packaged with a cookie instead of gum to try to circumvent the terms of the Topps contract), it stopped, whether simply from the exhaustion of competing with Topps or under threat of lawsuit is not quite clear. Some websites allege that Fleer was enjoined, but there is no court report of that injunction proceedings.

Fleer-1960Card     Fleer-1961Card




Fleer had already filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1962 alleging that Topps was committing an unfair trade practice in violation of the FTC’s statutory authority by unfairly monopolizing the baseball trading card market. After amassing a factual record, the FTC’s hearing examiner found that sales of baseball trading cards marketed with gum was sufficiently enough defined as a separate sales market to make a determination as to whether it was being monopolized in violation of the FTC’s governing statutes, and that Topps was indeed monopolizing it. However, upon review, the FTC itself reversed that decision and ruled in favor of Topps in 1965, holding that since trading cards could be marketed in combination with anything other than gum, the restrictions that Topps imposed through its individual contracts with players were limited enough in scope as to not constitute a monopoly on baseball card sales within the boundaries of the FTC’s statutory authority. Fleer then sold its player contracts to Topps and ceased trying to enter the baseball card market for several years.

At the end of the 1960s, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), the newly formed union representing baseball players in their contract negotiations with the team owners, acquired group player marketing rights. It also tried to pressure Topps to improve payments under the individual contracts. Topps demurred and, in retaliation, MLBPA asked players not to renew their individual contracts with Topps. In an attempt to pressure Topps further, MLBPA offered Fleer an opportunity to buy the rights through it to produce baseball cards with gum beginning in 1973 after all the current individual contracts with Topps ended, provided that MLBPA delivered 80% of the players for Fleer to sign. Fleer, finding MLBPA’s terms too speculative and thinking that it would continue to be sustained by bubble gum sales, declined the proffer.

However, as other products arose to compete with bubble gum, Fleer found it needed baseball cards sales to keep pace in the growing market. In 1973, it sued Topps and MLBPA in its home federal courts of Philadelphia again arguing that Topps’s individual player contracts were creating a monopoly.  This time it asserted that Topps and MLBPA were violating the federal Sherman Act which prohibits improper monopolies. While not referring to the FTC proceedings, which had been conducted within the ambit of the FTC’s statutory framework which paralleled the Sherman Act, the federal courts reached exactly the same results. The trial court, which heard the witnesses and collected the exhibits, found a discrete sales market for baseball trading cards sold with gum, and held that Topps and MLBPA violated both Sections 1 and Section 2 of the Sherman Act prohibiting monopolies. Upon review, the Third Circuit Court, just like the FTC, found that the relevant sales market was not simply limited just baseball cards marketed with gum and, therefore, that contracts held by Topps were reasonable in scope and duration. It reversed the trial court and dismissed Fleer’s claims.

Using the protection of the original Philadelphia federal district court decision, in 1981, Fleer re-entered the baseball card business, marketing the cards in packages containing a sticker of a major league baseball team’s logo instead of gum. After the Third Circuit’s reversal of the district court, Topps sued Fleer in 1983 in its own home federal court in Brooklyn, alleging that the stickers were a mere sham and violated the restriction in its contracts. This time, before the matter came to trial, Topps and Fleer decided to negotiate their differences. The settlement permitted Fleer to continue marketing baseball card as long as it did not sell them with gum. With the settlement of litigation, there were no longer legal threats or restrictions upon Fleer’s freedom to package and sell baseball cards themselves, which it did successfully in abundance thereafter, with each year’s productions growing more elaborate as the market seemed to grow endlessly.



By 1988, the Mustins were growing old. They accepted a buyout offer from a group led by executives from other gum firms, who, in turn took the Fleer Co. public in 1990. In 1992 Fleer was acquired by Marvel Entertainment Group of comic book fame. By 1995, when Fleer finally abandoned its old factory in Philadelphia, it had acquired interests overseas and also the Skybox International trade card manufacturing company.

Fleer-AbandonedFactory2RV     Fleer-AbandonedFactory1RV


In 1998, Fleer sold the Dubble Bubble brand to a Canadian company, Concord Confections, which, in turn, was purchased by Tootsie Roll Industries in 2004. In 1999, the Fleer-Marvel operations were purchased by a partnership which included the founders of Rite Aid Drug Co. In 2005, that partnership entered into an Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors, a state law liquidation process similar to bankruptcy. As a part of the Assignment the Fleer name and brands were auctioned and purchased by the Upper Deck Co., yet another sports memorabilia manufacturer. It is a mark of the Fleer’s falling fortunes that the price Upper Deck paid in the Assignment process was just over $6 million, when the year before Fleer had rejected its offer to buy the company for $25 million. Upper Deck remains in business, but is not presently utilizing the Fleer name and brands. The mad scramble to create baseball collectibles continues, although in that musical-chair-like market Fleer’s seat appears to be gone.

© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2014



Fairchild Bros. & Foster

Fairchild Brothers and Foster was another of a group of specialty drug manufacturing and supply companies that flourished in New York City around the turn of the Twentieth Century. It took its name in 1881, when the Fairchild Brothers, Benjamin and Samuel, brought Malcomb Foster into their partnership. The Fairchild brothers were born in Stratford, CT, Benjamin in 1850 and Samuel in 1852. They both studied at the famed Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, and trained as pharmacists at the older New York City pharmacy firm, Caswell, Hazard & Co. Samuel, the younger brother, also served a stint as a pharmacist with McKesson & Robbins. (These two long-lived and well-known companies also applied cancels to battleship revenues and will appear again in due course in this extended study).

Benjamin Fairchild, Samuel Fairchild, and Macomb Foster

In 1878, the two brothers launched their own partnership as Fairchild Bros. Foster, born in 1860 and another alumnus of McKesson & Robbins, although quite young, apparently made a significant contribution of capital to the firm when he joined it. The firm concentrated early in products to aid digestion, specializing in the production of the digestive enzyme, pepsin, and the entire peptonizing process. In the pre-analytic chemistry era of medicine, such pepsin fortified products were then considered by established medical authority to be particularly helpful to infants in developing proper digestive systems, to ill people in maintaining proper digestion against the ravages of disease and to old people in keeping their digestive systems strong into their dotage. Similar claims – probably based upon the same kind of “correct-hunch” (i.e. sounds right) but ultimately dubious science – are advanced today for iron-fortified or omega 3-fortified products. In support of its peptinized products, F B & F published several editions of its pamphlet “Handbook of Digestive Ferments.”

The company was often praised within the trade as a well organized and supervised, and it too escaped the scrutiny of the genuine quack medicine chasing reformers. For that reason, rather than concentrating on the specifics of its business, it might be more instructive to examine the sumptuous style of life a fairly small but specialized business like F B & F produced for its principals. In 1908, the Pharmaceutical Era, an industry publication, portrayed and described the offices of F B & F in the following manner:

Because of their wealth, the Fairchilds traveled in fashionable circles and mixed with others who had attained the rarified sphere of high society. In a 1914 compendium of lives of prominent Americans, Samuel Fairchild’s achievements and connections were listed as follows:

Samuel passed away at the age of 75 in 1927, and his older brother, Benjamin at the venerable age of 88 in 1939. Forbes, the youngest member of partnership died a year before Benjamin at age 78. The company itself, as often the case, did not survive the last of its founders for very long. It continued as an independent company only until 1946, when it was acquired by Sterling Drug Company, itself the survivor from among an amalgam of companies also launched in this period. By that time, the most well-known of F B & F’s products was Phisoderm, an acne fighting product still available today, although ownership of the product has changed a number of times since 1946, and the make-up of the product itself was altered in the 1970s after the Federal Drug Administration banned products which contained more than 1% hexachloraphene, then its principal active chemical agent.

© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2012

H. G. G. Fink


Henry George Greatrake Fink is name with which to conjure, and H. G. G. conjured his Fink’s Magic Oil into a fortune. His sketch in profile for a 1910 ad resembles either Abraham Lincoln’s image on the then newly redesigned penny or the stern majesty of an Old Testament Lord of the kind a Methodist preacher’s sermon might invoke. In fact, before he dis¬covered the patent medicine business, Fink was a Methodist minister. However, a portrait of him taken in the early 1900s shows a tall, gaunt figure, with a high forehead, deep-set eyes, a great white beard and an unruly head of hair, who seems most closely to resemble the renegade John Brown.

H. G. G. Fink was born on May 26, 1826 in Ross County, Ohio, south of Columbus. His father, Henry Fink, appears to have been a paper maker, and Henry’s family cut a swatch through the following three generations. The singular “Greatrake” of H. G. G.’s name derives from Henry’s apparent marriage to one Elizabeth (Eliza) Greatrake, whose family itself sired of a number of notable Baptist ministers, but the connection remains speculative. Fink became a Methodist minister on September 7, 1853 at Lancaster, Ohio, also near Columbus. In 1856, he married Almeda Wagy of Licking County, Ohio, whom he called Medie. A business directory from 1857 locates him as a pastor of Deavertown, Ohio, a town 54 miles southeast of Columbus. Methodist minsters of that era were circuit riders, and Fink’s circuit included numerous hamlets in southeastern Ohio: Nelsonville, Etna, Irville, Elizabethtown, Hebron, Roseville, Beavertown, Pickerington, Maxville and Baltimore. In 1861, Fink is listed as living in Elizabethtown. Sometime during the 1860s, while still participating in the annual gatherings of Ohio Methodist ministers, he began to manufacture Fink’s Magic Oil at Springdale, PA, a hundred miles further east, just outside of Pittsburgh, and in 1868 he moved his family to Springdale.

Once in Springdale, Fink apparently left the active ministry, although he did continue to pledge financial support for Methodist causes. The patent medicine business prospered enough for Fink to build a substantial two story farmhouse with well tended grounds, as a local contemporary print shows. He and his wife raised their six children (five to maturity) and made sure that their daughters as well as their sons were college educated. As a capitalist business owner, he naturally gravitated to staunch Republicanism, and, as the local Pittsburgh paper reported in 1889, signed a statement defending a local Republican candidate against an alleged slander. While not much is documented about Fink himself, a long poem, written and read by his local clergyman, Rev. W. H. Phipps, on the occasion of Fink’s wedding anniversary sheds some light on the Fink family in these years. Phipps published it in a book of poems printed in Pittsburgh in 1891. Although ostensibly celebratory, it sounds almost like a lugubrious dirge to the modern ear. It begins:

We come to celebrate, with family of Fink,

Anniversary – time quick, like skater in the rink,
That glides around the room, and meets us soon again,
Freighted with messages of pleasure and pain.
This couple, glancing back o’er many years they’ve pass’d,
Remember bright skies with few clouds overcast.

The poem continues in a similar vein through multiple stanzas devoted to youth, parenthood and grand-parenthood before posing, and answering, these concluding questions:

O have these friends broken from the gospel traces?
‘Tis true we now find them in magic places.
Was ministerial life so full of sadness?
Can they no longer praise Gospel oil of gladness?
Yes; never mind the calumny of pious cranks;
Not lucre, but ill health led them from the ranks,
To-night we’ll use each mirthful joyous leverage,
And pledge their weal and health in Chinese beverage,
As king and queen anoint with pleasure’s magic oil,
Rejoicing in their happiness from well earned toil,
Hoping we all may witness many glad returns,
While brightest friendship’s fire upon our alter burns.

It is notable, along with “magic” and “oil” appearing so prominently in this tribute, that the poem challenges the “calumny of pious cranks,” and casts in the most favorable light Fink’s change of career from the ministry to patent medicine as motivated by “ill health” and not the lure of “lucre” that the penurious lifestyle of the circuit preacher might have engendered.

Magic Oil’s growth and popularity appears to have been both immediate and astronomical. In the 1872 minutes of the Santa Clara Valley Agricultural Society – all the way across the country in California – report that a local merchant featured a display of Fink’s Magic Oil prominently in its noteworthy exhibit at the local agricultural fair. From the 1870s to the 1900s, Fink touted his Magic Oil as a cure for rheumatism, headache, toothache, sprains, burns, earache, sore throat, pains and aches, cramps, cholera morbus, colic, lameness or pain in back, limbs or joints, coughs and colds, poisons, frozen parts, deafness, corns or warts, chilblains, bunions and frozen feet, tired, aching sore feet, mumps catarrh in the head, asthma, eczema, water tetter, acne, etc., boils, pimples, ring-worm, cuts, open sores, bronchitis and griping pains. Fink’s pitch consistently hit a nerve. Indicative of his entrepreneurial skills, in 1902, while in his seventies, he was still energetic enough to prepare a short treatise on how to “work groceries and general stores,” and, in 1905, not only incorporated as a Pennsylvania corporation capitalized at a value of $100,000, but also enrolled in the National Wholesale Drug Association’s price maintenance plan (which, as noted in an earlier installment of this series, was attacked by the federal government the following year and set aside by consent decree in 1907).

Whatever its intrinsic merits, the secret of Magic Oil’s success probably lay in its principal component, which – as set forth in the September 28, 1908 circular made by the Dairy Commissioner of Connecticut mandating proper disclosure of ingredients – was 87% alcohol, among the highest amounts enumerated in the Dairy Commissioner’s very long list of “medicines intended for internal use.” H. G. G. Fink died October 15, 1910, at the venerable age of 84, but the manufacture of the Magic Oil continued, even as the labeling laws gradually became more stringent. By the 1930s, the Food and Drug Administration seized and destroyed a shipment of Fink’s Magic Oil, now manufactured by the H. G. G. Fink Laboratories of Cincinnati, Ohio, as misbranded on the grounds that the Magic Oil was not an “oil”and consisted essentially of water, alcohol (now a mere 48.1 percent) with minuscule amounts of cassia and sassafras.
The true inheritor of H. G. G. Fink’s talent for salesmanship was his grandson, George E. Merrick (1886-1942), who, making his mark in real estate, a very different field of endeavor, ultimately conjured “castles in Spain.” H. G. G.’s daughter Althea, a college educated artist in her own right, married Solomon G Merrick, a clergyman with a degree from Yale divinity school. When one of their twin four-year old daughters died of diphtheria in Duxbury, MA in 1899, where Merrick was then serving as a minister, H. G. G. suggested that the Merricks might find the climate more agreeable in south Florida, a new frontier then opening for development. Acting upon H. G. G.’s insight, the Merricks moved, sight unseen, to a swampy area of Miami known as Coconut Grove. George Merrick, then barely a teenager, interrupted his schooling to help his father turn the family farm into a successful plantation growing guava, vegetables and grapefruits by 1907, and assumed full control of his family’s fortunes when his father died unexpectedly in June, 1911. Immediately investing in more Florida land, Merrick spent the rest of his life developing, grooming, and promoting this swamp into the planned community of Coral Gables, Fl. Drawing upon the talents of his uncle, (George D) Denman Fink (1882-1956), a recognized artist, illustrator and teacher, Merrick sought to shape Coral Gables, envisioning fourteen neighborhoods of different style homes, among them Spanish haciendas, to appeal to different tastes. While only six of the fourteen neighborhoods were ever built in Coral Gables, Merrick’s foresight marked him as a notable early city planner. In 1925, by donating land for a campus as well as funding a substantial endowment, he helped bring the University of Miami to Coral Gables, thus insuring its viability as a permanent settlement. Merrick’s endeavors, some quite harrowing in their own right, have been fully chronicled in an illustrated biography by Arva Moore Parks. His cousin, Denman’s son Robert (1905-89), also became an artist and teacher, like his father, whose work is in the permanent collection of the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, NY, and the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY.

Personal note underlying this article: in the 1970s, this author possessed a battleship revenue stamp canceled “H. G. G. F. – Springdale PA.” It was acquired at minimal cost at some philatelic show from the proverbial bowl of mixed colorful stamps which dealers used to leave out on their tables, like M & Ms, to attract attention. The H. G. G. F. was an odd enough letter combination to imprint itself in memory and cause endless speculation as to the meaning of the initials. In an era before the Internet and eBay, while prowling for different kinds of collectibles at antique shows – then a completely separate and different venue from stamp shows – this author discovered that trade cards, bill heads, and medicine containers, sold by so-called “ephemera” dealers, matched the Scott RS and RB issues. A bill head from “H G G Fink’s Magic Oil Co.” of Springdale, PA, quite serendipitously and fortuitously unearthed at one such antiques show, resolved the battleship revenue riddle with a single lightening bolt. When the paired stamp and bill head passed back into the greater philatelic universe in the 1980s, this author cherished the hope that they remained together and somehow led, directly or indirectly, to the Fink listing in the Mustacich compilation. The accompanying stamp images are courtesy of Robert Mustacich.

© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2011