W. W. Gavitt Medical Co., Manufacturer
W. W. GAVITT MEDICAL CO. CANCELS
Hard as this writer tries to anchor this particular alphabetical perusal of battleship revenue cancels to those most commonly seen and available to potential collectors, he is forever beguiled and distracted by stories of companies that illuminate particular and distinct features of the patent medicine business. The W. W. Gavitt Medical Co. stands apart from other patent medicine manufacturers because it marketed its product, Gavitt’s System Regulator, directly to the public through regional retail sales representatives. One did not buy Gavitt’s System Regulator from a drugstore or even a modern department store; one bought it from one’s neighbor. Each Gavitt salesperson communicated directly with Gavitt headquarters in Topeka, Kansas on a periodic basis requesting shipments of the Regulator and remitting payment for orders sold. What philatelists commonly see now of Gavitt material are the envelopes transmitting all this correspondence. Apparently bundled and warehoused for decades by the company as its transaction records, these envelopes and their accompanying forms were dispersed publicly when the company was dissolved. Several Gavitt covers appear for sale on eBay weekly. While revenue cancel collectors cautiously eye such drab, uniform envelopes as collateral material to the cancels themselves, these covers used to quicken the pulse of that sector of cover collectors who meticulously collected post office cancels by states or regions, one obscure discontinued rural post office at a time. Since stamp collecting has fallen from grace as a past time for our youth, how many such collectors remain now is hard to gauge, but at one time this form of cover collecting was so popular that dealers often arrange their cover stock by location to appeal to such marauding collectors.
GAVITT REPORTS FROM RURAL POST OFFICES
TORAH, MN POLKADOTTE, OH
BOLEY, I. T. ZEANDALE, KS
GAVITT COVERS RETAILED IN BUNCHES
The Gavitt company was an American enterprise. Its founder, William Wellington Gavitt, was born in 1840 near Ashley, in Delaware County, Ohio, which lies north of Columbus in the center of the state. His father, Ezekiel, was a well-known Methodist minister in that region of Ohio for many years during the mid 1800s, and there appear to be other Gavitt names interspersed among the prominent ministers of Ohio. As listed later in the records of the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, his grandfather, William, born in Westerly, Rhode Island, was a privateer on the brig “Favorite” and a sailor on the sloop “Randolph” and the schooner “De Grass” during the Revolutionary War.
In 1862, W. W. Gavitt graduated Wesleyan University. By 1867, he had imbibed the philosophy of Manifest Destiny and anticipated Horace Greeley’s 1871 advice to “go west.” He settled in Topeka, KS and began to build the town around himself. He dived into the local real estate and banking industries, married a woman from Indiana in 1873, and in the 1880 Census listed himself as a banker. Over time, he became a founding investor in the regional coal company, a creamery, the electric utility company and the local opera house. In 1882, he and a partner erected a prominent office building block in downtown Topeka.
GAVITT COVER SHOWING GAVITT OFFICE BLOCK
Gavitt apparently entered the patent medicine business as the mid-western agent and supplier for the Dr. Perkins Medical Co. of Washington, D.C. which manufactured a remedy called Our Native Herbs, an elixir of 21 different herbs. When Dr. Perkins sold his business to Alonzo O. Bliss, around 1892, Gavitt sent a letter to the sales representatives for the Perkins Co. offering them his own System Regulator instead. Whether these agents jumped to Gavitt in droves or stayed with Bliss (which remained in business and also used battleship revenues, as a future article will explore), Gavitt found himself with enough contacts to begin assembling his own sales network. For his sales agents, Gavitt particularly concentrated on soliciting Civil War veterans and ministers, and there was a huge stir in 1901 when it was revealed that one of his agent was Boston Corbett, the man who had shot Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
JOHN WILKES BOOTH BOSTON CORBETT
Corbett is something of a historical curiosity. He was born Thomas Corbett in 1832. He grew up to become a hatter by trade, and his encounters with mercury while making felt hats may have accounted for his later eccentricities. In the 1850s, after his wife died in childbirth, he moved to Boston, became a reborn Evangelical Christian, wore his hair long to emulate Jesus and castrated himself to avoid the temptation of prostitutes. He also changed his name to Boston. During the Civil War, he enlisted several times, rose to the rank of sergeant in a New York Cavalry unit, and briefly was held as a prisoner of war at the Confederate hell-hole in Andersonville, GA. His role in Booth’s death immediately landed him in a controversy over whether his shooting of Booth was necessary or exceeded his orders. His official statement was that he fired on Booth when he saw Booth about to fire one of his weapons, although others present contradicted his account. Secretary of War Stanton squelched the dispute by endorsing Corbett’s account and exonerating him. After his moment of fame, Corbett returned to work as a hatter, caused a stir at a G.A.R. re-union in 1875 by threatening some men with a gun, moved to Kansas and lived in a hole in a hill, and finally was confined in an insane asylum in 1887 after again brandishing a gun, this time in the Kansas House of Representatives, where he was employed as assistant door keeper. In 1888, he escaped from the facility and briefly visited a fellow survivor of Andersonville whom he told he was going to Mexico. He was not seen again until a newspaper story spread during the summer of 1901 that he had been working as a Gavitt sales representative for several years. Gavitt reveled in the splash of publicity the story attracted and immediately vouched that Corbett was “an excellent salesman who always made money for himself and the firm.”
CORBETT LATER IN LIFE
Eventually this Corbett attempted to again collect his Civil War disability pension which had been accruing since his 1888 disappearance. In the course of investing this claim, it was revealed that the claimant was not Boston Corbett, but a younger, taller man named John Corbit. Convicted of attempted pension fraud, he wound up serving time in the federal penitentiary at Atlanta before dropping out of sight. Some people suspect that Gavitt fed the false Corbit information about the real man to make the story better, but the 120 page record of the correspondence between Corbit and Gavitt and the proceeding against Corbit, available on the Kansas Historical Society website, does not suggest active collusion between Gavitt and Corbit.
GAVITT PRODUCTS: SYSTEM REGULATOR
AND HERB TABLETS
Gavitt understood the value of publicity. To make sure he always had enough advertising material on hand and to control his costs, he ran his own printing business as well. Gavitt was hardly the only manufacturer who owned a printing business. It always made sense for patent medicine owners to own their own printing plants to produce their own advertising materials because of the sheer volume of material they needed. What set Gavitt apart, however, was that he apparently also took in other printing jobs and ran his printing company as profitable side business.
GAVITT AGENT SOLICITATION FORM AND ORDER BLANK
Gavitt became the wealthiest citizen of Topeka, and when he died at age 81 in 1922, he was president of W. W. Gavitt & Co., bankers and brokers, the Gavitt Loan and Investment Co., the W. W. Gavitt Medical Co., and the W. W. Gavitt Printing and Publishing Co.
W. W. Gavitt’s first son, Harry Ezekiel, was born on January 1, 1875, and attended Topeka Business College and Washburn University Law School in Topeka. He started working in the family business before he had finished his education, since Washburn Law School did not open until 1903, and he appears as the author of some of the medicine company’s pamphlets as early as the 1890s. He took charge of the operation of the medicine and printing business for his father and is credited with the great jump in the growth of sales for Gavitt’s System Regulator, perhaps spurred by his invention in 1902 of a machine that could stuff and seal 15,000 envelopes per hour. Getting out the advertising message was every bit as important as the remedy itself.
GAVITT AGENT’S COVER
What was Gavitt’s System Regulator? One agent, Edward Trow, printed this description on his own advertising envelopes: “Positively will cure all diseases of the Blood, Stomach, Kidneys and Liver. It is a Mild Laxative. A Good Tonic. A Great Blood Purifier. A Powerful Kidney and Liver Regulator. No Steaming. No Boiling. No Mineral. No Alcohol. No Poison. TWENTY-TWO MEDICAL HERBS, ROOTS AND BARKS in one combination. The most wonderful compound known to Medical Science. It is Natures own Remedy. Hurts Nobody. Cures Everybody. Builds up the Broken Down system after all other remedies fail. It has cured Thousands. IT WILL CURE YOU BY ERADICATING disease from the System.(Not sold in Drug Stores).” What more need one say?
H. E. GAVITT’S STOCK EXCHANGE GAME
H. E. Gavitt proved himself clever in a completely different field in 1903 when he invented a game called Stock Market Exchange, which offered a model of such exchanges through a card game. Players compete to corner the market in a commodity by exchanging cards representing various commodities until one player obtains a full suit of a commodity. Originally conceived as another form of advertising for the Regulator, Gavitt had his printing company prepare some games and then started them in circulation by having his medicine agents give samples away with the medicine. The demand was so great for the game that Gavitt stepped up production by his own printing company and began charging separately for them. Parker Brothers, a game making company, reviewed the idea and began selling a very similar game called “Pit” beginning in 1904. Eventually, Pit eclipsed Gavitt’s Stock Market Exchange game, and it disappeared until it was revived in 2003 by enthusiasts looking for new and challenging competitive games.
In its heyday under H. E. Gavitt, the Medicine Co. produced and marketed two hundred different medicines, toiletries, soaps and flavorings including Herbal Tablets, Pile Driver for Piles, Lighting Pain Extractor, Cough Balsam and Herbal Ointment. H. E.’s own interests were as diversified as the products his company made. He was a magician who always entertained his friends with new tricks. Among his other and earliest inventions was a Folding Exhibition Chicken Coop, one of the first such collapsible coop models. In the 1930s, he pursued the notion that wild fish could be tamed. He built an artificial lake on a farm west of Topeka that he had stocked with fish fed by hand until they were so tame that they would jump a foot out of the water to reach the proffered food. Some accounts claimed his method could be applied to other wild fish and, when demonstrated, much amazed traditional fishermen. Gavitt was prominent in the Sons of the American Revolution, active in the local country club, where he was chairman of the handicap committee, and headed the section of the local War Resources Board regulating chemicals, oils and paint during World War I. After a long and colorful career, he died in 1954, and apparently has been largely forgotten until quite recently.
GAVITT BROTHERS HEADSTONE
The Gavitt companies continued after H. E.’s death under his brother Corrington until 1967, when at age 83, Corrington closed them. While some other accounts suggest that he sold the product lines, unlike those made by Dunn or Fleer which survive today as confections, new Gavitt products do not appear to be on sale on the internet. Gavitt’s System Regulator now seems to belong to another age.
© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2014